Brainard Lake getting extremely crowded despite pandemic restrictions

While a line of cars waited for hours at the entrance gate to Brainard Lake Recreation Area on Saturday, July 25, for permission to enter, hikers and cyclists entered at will and didn’t have to pay. Parking lots inside the area are restricted to 80% of capacity due to coronavirus restrictions, and the gate only opens during specific windows of time. (John Meyer, The Denver Post)

A leaden overcast sky portended a Saturday morning that would soon turn rainy, yet dozens of cars formed a line at the Brainard Lake entrance station with occupants hoping they would eventually get into one of the most picturesque destinations in the Front Range. Alas, the odds were against them.

The Brainard Lake Recreation Area typically is a very popular place in the summer, but increased demand coupled with COVID-19 restrictions has made it even more difficult to manage this year. Due to the pandemic, parking lots inside the gate are restricted to 80% of maximum capacity. That means when 238 of the 298 parking spots in lots beyond the gate are filled, personnel at the gate stop letting cars in until spaces open up.

Even so, Brainard Lake is experiencing daily visitation rates two to four times higher than normal, according to Reid Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.

Because of the pandemic, entry for motor vehicles is restricted to specific time windows so staff can perform increased frequency of restroom cleaning, and those windows are inflexible. From the time when the gate is staffed starting at 6 a.m., entry is allowed until the 80% figure is reached. The next window doesn’t open until 10:30 a.m., with others following at noon and 1:30 p.m.

Yet while people in line at the entry gate waited for hours last Saturday for the 10:30 window, dozens of people streamed by, walking right past the entry gate because walk-ins and cyclists are not bound by the same rules. Those folks either parked at a lot about 150 yards outside the gate, which overflowed with vehicles, or along the access road from the Peak to Peak Highway. They would hike the 2 miles on the road between the entrance gate and Brainard Lake, which offers a stunning panorama framed by the rugged Indian Peaks.

RELATED: How Rocky Mountain National Park’s reservation system is working

Sam Taggart and a car full of friends were fifth in line at the gate, knowing there was no guarantee they would get in when the 10:30 time slot opened, but they were willing to wait more than an hour and a half. Their hope was to park at the Mitchell Lake trailhead for the 2.6-mile hike to Blue Lake at the foot of a beautiful and dramatic 13,000-foot peak, Mount Toll. That trailhead also provides access to climbing neighboring Mount Audubon, a prominent thirteener visible from much of the greater Denver area.

“We were weighing the option of hiking up the access road, adding an extra two (miles) there, two back, or sitting here for an hour and a half with good company, driving up to the trailhead and enjoying just the hike we wanted to do,” Taggart said. “We want to hike the trail, we don’t want to hike the road today. It’s a matter of weighing those options. But for me, I’m with friends, and good company will make the time go by quicker than if I were alone.”

And it is a wonderful hike.

Mount Toll in the Indian Peaks wilderness, elev. 12,979 feet, looms over Blue Lake at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. On a clear day it is one of the most beautiful — and popular — day hikes in the Front Range (John Meyer, Denver Post)

“Blue Lake is a quintessential Colorado hike,” Taggart said. “It winds through a pine forest in the beginning; you’re getting a nice scent of the pine through the trees. There’s one lake you go by, you cross a (creek) and then up to a high alpine beautiful vista. For me, it encompasses everything you’d want out of a nice day hike in reach of Denver.”

Taggart and his crew got in when the 10:30 entry window opened, snagging the last available spot for the Mitchell Lake lot, and about a dozen other vehicles were allowed entry. Many more made U-turns and headed back down the access road, either to find parking spots along the road or to give up on Brainard Lake for the day. Less than a half-hour after the 10:30 window opened, it began raining.

Armstrong said the past two weekends have been especially busy and conceded that “some things aren’t working.”

One is the parking situation at the lot just outside the gate. Known as the Brainard Gateway lot (also called the Winter Lot), there are no COVID-related capacity restrictions. In previous years, 20-40 cars typically would be parked there, Armstrong said, but these days all of the 149 parking spaces are filled and other vehicles are strewn about the edges.

“This is definitely unfortunate,” Armstrong said. “The difference between the 20-40 cars we saw in previous years to the 150-160 we’re seeing this year, that spike in use was not anticipated. It reflects drastically more than the 60-car reduction we’ve done in the upper lots on the other side of the entry station to meet that 80% capacity. It shows how high our use has been this year.”

Dozens of cars are parked along the road to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area on Saturday, July 25, a typical occurrence at the popular destination. (John Meyer, The Denver Post)

Armstrong noted that parking there means a hike of 2 miles up the road from the entry gate just to reach Brainard Lake, and it’s another mile to popular trailheads.

Another problem is the road from the Peak to Peak Highway where dozens of cars have been parking on either side, effectively narrowing the roadway because there isn’t much of a shoulder. Meanwhile people are hiking up the road in large numbers.

“The high volume of parking on county roads is definitely a public safety concern due to the increased potential for vehicle accidents, for vehicle-pedestrian accidents, and ingress/egress issues for emergency vehicles,” Armstrong said, noting that the Forest Service is seeing the same parking challenges at other Front Range locations such as Maxwell Falls in Evergreen, St. Mary’s Glacier near Idaho Springs and the Hessie Trailhead near Nederland.

RELATED: Maxwell Falls joins the list of Colorado trails being loved to death

Forest Service officials are studying what’s happening at Brainard Lake this summer to consider similar entry management tools when COVID-19 restrictions are no longer necessary. A reservation system similar to what was instituted this summer at Rocky Mountain National Park is possible.

“We don’t know whether that level of use is going to continue after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides,” Armstrong said. “It could be, now that people have discovered the opportunities, it stays close to these levels. So we are definitely looking at the use patterns we’re seeing this year to help inform whether a reservation system at Brainard Lake might make sense for the future.”

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While motorists waited in line for hours to enter the Brainard Lake Recreation Area on Saturday, July 25, the Brainard Gateway parking lot just outside the entry gate was filled to overflowing. The mountain in the background is Mount Audubon, elev. 13,200 feet. (John Meyer, The Denver Post)