During summer, the Indian Peaks’ Brainard Lake area is hard hit by droves of city-dwellers and tourists—but, in winter, this same spot is a ghost town. Download the free GPS app and head to the top of 13,223-foot Mount Audubon for some serious alone time.
1. Ditch the Car: Brainard Lake Gate Closure
One reason so few people venture to Mount Audubon this time of year is that from mid-October to May, the road closure adds 2-3 miles each way. Conditions vary—sometimes wind scours the pavement or the snow is so frozen and crunchy that you can ride a mountain bike, at other times the powder requires skis or snowshoes. No matter what you choose for this first leg, bring snowshoes (see Trail Gear, below). You’ll want them once the slopes steepen.
2. Foray into the Forest : Summer Trailhead
At the Mitchell Lake Trailhead, ditch your bike and/or skis and begin snowshoeing through the beautiful pine forest and up the mild grade of the Mount Audubon Trail. About .25 miles later, the route turns sharply to the left. After a mile of moderate, steady climbing, the trail shoots right on a steep switchback where you’ll reach a break in the forest that affords panoramic views of Mitchell Lake, Little Pawnee Peak (12,466 feet) and Mt Toll (12,979 feet). At this point, tall spruce give way to stunted, Seuss-like specimens that provide insight into the intense winds that sweep through the area.
3. Tundra Trekking: Trail Junction
Shortly after leaving the forest behind, you’ll encounter the Beaver Creek Trail Junction. Bear left to stay on the Mount Audubon trail which climbs through open tundra for the next 2 miles. The route is direct, marked with cairns (which may not be visible in snow) and provides excellent views of Longs Peak (14,259 feet) and Mt. Meeker (13,911 feet) to the north. Be ready for varying conditions as you navigate your way toward the summit.
4. Nearly There: Broad Plateau
From the saddle, the trail traverses the north side of the mountain for another .75-1 mile until you reach this expansive plateau. Pay attention. A cairn usually marks the left turn that heads for the summit, but many miss this junction because the area is strewn with trails. After locating the turnoff, walk a few hundred feet past it and pause for a moment to stare up at Paiute Peak’s jagged summit (13,012 feet) and its intimidating snow-covered couloirs. Once you’ve had your fill, head back to the trail and begin picking your way up the final rocky ridge toward the summit.
5. Toppin’ Out: The Summit
After .5 miles of climbing over mixed scree, talus and a big pile of boulders, you’ll reach the top of Mount Audubon. Hunker down inside one of the many stone windbreaks built on the long, flat, rocky summit and enjoy the spectacular views. On a clear day you’ll be rewarded with visions of the vast Indian Peaks, the Never Summers, Rocky Mountain National Park and even Pikes Peak to the south. After you’ve rested sufficiently (or you’ve reached your limit for frigid temperatures and gale force winds) head back the way you came. Give into gravity and enjoy tromping through the tundra. Upon returning to the Mitchell Lake Trailhead, swap your snowshoes out for the bike or skis you stashed, cruise back to the car, crank the heat and revel in your accomplishment.
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