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Mt. Audubon (D.9)

Mt Audubon dwarfing the Indian Peaks from the trailhead.

Mt Audubon dwarfing the Indian Peaks from the trailhead.

Description:   Mt. Audubon is easily recognizable if you are in the Indian Peaks area of the Front Range.  It is the massive hump peaking at 13,223', with it's signature 'gouge', to the northwest of Brainard Lake Recreation Area (BLRA).  However, it belies its gentle giant image with a challenging, yet beautiful hike to its summit.  A group of hikers I met on the trail claimed they thought Audubon had the best views of the Front Range you can find anywhere.  I haven't hiked enough peaks in the area yet to say, but it was breathtaking.  From the forested Montane area where the hike starts with stately Douglas Firs, through a quick pass of the Sub-Alpine krumholz to the views from the Alpine vistas, it is all amazing.  I made this trip just at the end of the wildflower season and the flora was still incredible.  And the marmots must have felt the same way as I was close to stepping on several as they had their fill of the flowering plants along the trail.

Difficulty:  Most Difficult D.9, 10.7 Miles, 2930' Elevation, 7 Hours - I read somewhere that John James Audubon never climbed his namesake Mt. Audubon, much less even visited Colorado during his life.  I thought that a bit sad until I hiked it myself.  Now I'm thinking John Audubon was just smart.  This is one rough hike.  At least for me.  Certainly, based on the hiking I've done in Boulder County, this has been the toughest, so I feel it earns its maximum D.9 challenge ranking.  While the first mile of the hike is a comfortable ascent on hardpack and sometimes rocky trail, after the split with Beaver Creek Trail the slope steepens and the trail gets much, much rockier.  The coup de grace is the last 600' of elevation to the summit is a full on steep scramble.  The descent is fraught with sliding rocks, so you will definitely want to consider poles to reduce the chance of falling or twisting an ankle.  Finally, there are the marmots.  They are everywhere.  And while they look cute and furry they'll rip your lungs out, Jim.  Just kidding.  This hike as measured was 10.7 miles because most parking is in the main lot area which is a 1 mile jaunt just to the trailhead.  Unless you arrive very early trailhead parking fills very quickly.  Parking in the main area will add 2 miles of asphalt walking to your roundtrip.

Driving Directions: Brainard Lake Recreation Area.  The BLRA is west of Ward, CO.  There are two popular ways to reach Ward, one via Canyon Rd west to Nederland and then north on the Peak To Peak Hwy to Ward.  The other is to travel north from Boulder on CO 36 toward Lyons, turning left onto Left Hand Canyon Rd following the signs toward Ward.  Left Hand Canyon Rd ends at the Peak To Peak Hwy where you will turn right. Both options will take you about an hour.  Once on the Peak To Peak in Ward you will see a sign for BLRA indicating a left turn onto Brainard Lake Rd 112.  This road will switchback up to the Visitors Entrance.  There is a $11 per car fee.  BLRA can become very crowded causing parking issues in the summer, especially on weekends, so early hiking is advised during the high visitor months of June-August.  Google Map directions here...

Mt Audubon - Beaver Creek Trailhead starts in the Mitchell Lake parking loop northwest of Brainard Lake.

Parking: Parking in BLRA is now mostly limited to the overflow parking at the beginning of the Brainard Lake loop road.  There is still limited parking at the trailhead but don't count on finding a space unless you come very early.  The road can be used in summer months to drop off riders or supplies at a picnic table around Brainard Lake or the trailhead, as it's a favorite picnicking spot for visitors.  If you park in overflow the first and last mile of the Mt. Audubon hike will be on asphalt. 

Trailhead:  To get to Mt. Audubon/Beaver Creek trailhead from overflow parking head toward the restrooms located at the west end of the parking area near the Brainard Lake spillway.  Cross the spillway on the old loop road and make your way around the north side of the lake.  Just before you come to a stone bridge crossing Mitchell Creek, you will see a new trail (opened in 2017) that will take you toward Mitchell Lake Trailhead.  The trail will split in a short while, continue to follow the directions toward Mitchell Lake.  Once in the Mitchell Lake parking area the Beaver Creek Trailhead is to the right about 200' from the ranger's hut and the restrooms.  

Click image for Google Map detail

Click image for Google Map detail

Trail Guide: Except for the final scramble to the summit, this trail is easy to follow, so there's little risk of getting lost.  As well, it's a popular 13er so there are many people on the trail during weekend days in the summer.  Since parking in the BLRA is so variable, I'll be marking distance from the Mitchell Lake parking area.  From the trailhead follow the Beaver Creek/Mt. Audubon Trail 1.8 miles through pine forest and krumholz to where Beaver Creek splits with Mt. Audubon.  The wooden plaque is worn just about smooth but it's pretty easy to tell you need to turn left here and head up the rocky slope into the bare Alpine.  Although very rocky the trail is well-worn and easy to follow.  Keep an eye out for marmots along the trail.  At 3.8 miles you will be at the base of the last slog up to the summit.  Before heading up take a break and walk about 200' toward the peaks ahead of you for some really fantastic photo opportunities.  The cover photo for this webpage was taken there.  Return to the wood marker and when ready head up the talus field to the summit. One hint, while it looks like the best route up is a straight ahead, in actuality if you look about 50' to the right up the slope you will see some rock 'cairns' (mounds of stones) marking a better path that is not easily seen from the bottom.  Once at the summit you will see several stone shelters to take refuge from the normally howling wind on the divide.  Rest here, snack up, and head back down.  Some people return to the base of the summit where the wind is less to rest and eat on the alpine grasses.  On the return, be very careful of the loose rocks.  I slipped at least a dozen times even using poles.  

Map Resources: US Forest Service (Ward)

Après Hike:  As I reentered the pine forest on my return I was happy to know I was close to completing a great hike, but realized I still had a mile of trail and a mile of asphalt to my car.  My new daypack, loaded with gear, poles and my digital SLR was feeling very heavy.  Which reminded me of one of my favorite Left Hand craft beers, 400 Pound Monkey IPA.  Left Hand is named for Chief Niwot, also known as Left Hand, who with his people, left the Boulder Valley peacefully when the white man came to the area.  But, as he left he put a curse on Boulder saying, "People, seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty."  As you are standing atop Mt. Audubon you can easily spot Niwot Ridge just beyond Brainard Lake and Left Hand Reservoir.  Left Hand Brewing is located near downtown Longmont, a short drive northeast of Boulder.

Picnicking: Many beautiful options with tables and grills around Brainard Lake and Lake Mitchell parking area.

Restrooms:  Plenty at parking lot and trailhead.

Dog Friendly: Yes.

Cell Service: None.