The CMC Cabin at Brainard Lake makes for a perfect winter snowshoe, a challenging ski in, or an easy Summer hike from the Gateway Trailhead. It’s a 3-mile route in to the cabin to take in views of the beauty of Brainard Lake and surrounding snow-capped Rocky Mountains. This trail profile looks at two different 6-mile round-trip routes: a winter route via the Snowshoe Trail, and a summer route via the Waldrop Trail.

Trail Snapshot: Brainard Lake CMC Cabin Hike

Parking & Trailhead Information for Brainard Lake CMC Cabin

Both of these Winter and Summer adventures start at the Gateway Trailhead, also known as the Brainard Lake Winter Lot. I’ve found that guidebooks and maps get confused with the name. But from hiking here a few times, this is the most current info. The trailhead is massive, with tons of parking and year-round restroom facilities. However, parking in the Winter months can fill by around 9am on the weekends because this trail system around Brainard Lake is probably the most popular snowshoe and non-groomed cross-country skiing destination near Denver. There are no fees to park at the Gateway Trailhead. There are fees during the Summer months for going through the gate station to the lots nearer to Brainard Lake.

brainard lake gateway trailhead in winter

From Denver, take Interstate 25 North to 36 West toward Boulder. You’ll drive through Boulder on 36/28th Street as it goes North, then taking a left onto Lee Hill Road. This leads west where it makes a hard bend left and climbs into the foothills. Eventually, after about 6 miles it will dead end at a junction with Lefthand Canyon Drive. Take a left onto Lefthand Canyon and get ready for a winding drive for about 10 miles. Drive carefully here and be on alert for cyclists and motorcycles. Because it’s in shadow most of the day, the road can get pretty icy and packed with snow in sections during the Winter. You’ll pass through the little town of Ward, Colorado, that looks a lot like an 1800’s Colorado mining settlement. There is a roadside art gallery and a coffee and ice cream place. Lefthand Canyon Drive stops where it meets up with CO-72. Take a right onto CO-72, then make an almost immediate left onto Brainard Lake Road. Proceed for about 2.5 miles and you’ll find the Gateway Trailhead on your right.

snowshoers on trail at beginning of snowshoe trail brainard lake colorado

The Hike: Gateway Trailhead to CMC Cabiin

Winter Snowshoe Trail to CMC Cabin

In the Winter, snowshoers will follow the Snowshoe Trail for 3 miles to the CMC Cabin. This is a Winter-only trail and dogs are prohibited. Many of the other trails in this area are Ski-only. The trails can be a bit of a maze, so I recommend printing off a trail map or having an app with you (no service, so download the map) so that you can stay oriented.

Finding the trail may be the most difficult part. Hike or snowshoe back out to the main road and head toward the gatehouse. When facing the gatehouse, the trail begins just before it on the left/south side of the road (see photo above). But why not just hike the road in, especially if it’s covered with snow? The road is definitely an option and more direct route. Dogs are also allowed on the road, but the road is broad and open to wind, which can be chillng. The difference between the road and trail can be dramatic when it comes to keeping warm in the shield of the trees.

fresh snow on trail at brainard lake with evergreen trees in background of hiking trail

The trail will run past Red Rock Lake as it stays on the south side of Brainard Lake Road. This segement is about 1 mile before it turns North and merges with the road. You’ll go left on the road proceeding for a short distnaceon it until you see signs on your right/north for the Snowshoe Trail. Keep your eyes peeled for signange at the next junction that will point your left/west to continue on the northern segment of the Snowshoe Trail.

The trail will eventually emerge back out onto the road crossing the bridge over Mitchell Creek. Here is where you’ll be able to take in views of Brainard Lake and the snow-covered mountains of Indian Peaks. Look for signage tht will point you to the last segment of the Snowshoe Trail which will be on your right/north. This final trail segment will take you to the CMC Cabin. In the Winter months, the cabin is availabe as a warming hut to thaw out your cold toes and spend time getting refreshed before snowshing the 3 miles back to your car.

colorado mountain club cabin at brainard lake near ward colorado

Summer Waldrop Trail to CMC Cabin

This next route can be taken in the Summer as a hike. In the Winter months, it’s a ski-only trail, and quite demanding. If you plan on cross-country skiing this, it’s not for beginners and you probably should have a backcountry cross-country ski so that you have a wider base to allow you to navigate all the ups and downs. In the Spring, their will likely still be a lot of snow on the trail, but in the Summer, this Waldrop route to the CMC cabin is a nice easy to moderate hike.

beginning of waldrop trail at brainard lake snow on ground and cross country skier in background

To pick up the Waldrop Trail, hike or ski out to Brainard Lake Road, follow the to the Gatehouse entrance area. You willfind signage for the Waldrop Trail on the right side of the road after passing the gatehouse and before Red Rock Lakes. The trail first heads almost directly North before bending back to the west through dense forest.

After about 2 miles, you’ll encounter an open area with a junction with several other trails. This will point you to continue on the Waldrop Trail and notes that it’s 1/2 mile to the South St. Vrain Trail.

brainard lake waldrop trail signage with snow on ground and evergreen trees in background

Hike or Ski this 1/2 mile segment on the Waldrop until it intersects with the South St. Vrain Trail, then go left/west onto the South St. Vrain Trail. This final segment will bend south toward the lake and the cabin. Follow the signs to the cabin. If you are skiing in, then warm up at the CMC Cabin. If it’s Summer, you have a lot of return options, so check out the Brainard Lake Summer Trail Map to decide your route. If hiking back the way you came in, this makes for a total distance of about 6 miles.

view of indian peaks mountains from waldrop trail at brainard lake colorado

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Tips & Resources for Hiking at Brainard Lake

  • CMC Cabin: The CMC cabin can be reserved for overnights. See details on the CMC Boulder page for the Brainard Cabin.
  • Time: Winter travel can take longer than the usual 2 miles per hour hiking speed, so plan on it taking longer than usual..
  • Winter Conditions: Weather can change in an instant at this altitude in the mountains and this can be especially deceptive during the Fall and Spring months when its warmer. Be sure to pack and dress for extreme winter conditions. Check the weather and keep an eye on the sky.
  • Winter Trail Ettiquette: On multi-use trails where you see ski tracks, avoid snowshoing or hiking over top of the ski tracks. Instead, hike to the side to preserve these tracks for skiers. It makes a big difference for them. Allow skiers traveling downhill the right of way.
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get the list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • Photo: We would like to express our gratitude to Laura Scudder for sharing her photo of the Brainard Lake CMC Cabin.
  • After the Hike: Woodfired Pizza at Crosscut Pizza and Taphouse in Nederland


Map & Driving Directions

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