10,940 ft. (11,970 ft. at the Glacier)
455 ft. to Lake Isabelle (1,765 ft. to Isabelle Glacier)
4 miles for Lake Isabelle (8 miles for the Isabelle Glacier)
Out and back
Lake Isabelle is a short distance of 2.1 miles from Long Lake Trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It is situated at an elevation above the trees, surrounded by three majestic mountains: Navajo (13,409′), Apache (13,441′) and Shoshoni (12,967′).
This is a unique and beautiful hike. Unlike Niwot Mountain, there isn’t an easy way to hike to Isabelle without parking at the Long Lake Trailhead, which will cost you $12.00. The price, however, is entirely worth the experience. If you arrive before the entrance booth is staffed, there is a self-serve tube where you can drop the $12.00. A lot of people think they’re super slick by blowing by the station, but this is not a hidden area; rangers will patrol parking lots. If you’re there for more than a couple hours without paying, chances are you’re going to get a ticket. Click here for a map of the entrance areas and various trailheads.
Starting from Long Lake Trailhead (or Brainard Lake if Long Lake is full), you’ll take the Pawnee Pass Trail west. The trail can sport snowy spots until July, and in early June, you may catch backcountry skiers tackling some popular routes here. There’s only one major trail junction around Long Lake, and it is clearly signed. Take a right, staying on the Pawnee Pass Trail, and rise up to Lake Isabelle. Most of your elevation gain happens in the last bit of the hike. At the following trail junction, take a left toward the lake instead of continuing up to Pawnee Pass. The lake is breathtakingly beautiful in all seasons and provides fantastic views of serrated ridgelines.
If you’re ready for the glacier, continue westward, paralleling the north shore of the lake. At its western edge, the trail will begin to ascend into an alpine basin. There is no tree cover once you pass Lake Isabelle.
The trail will rise in a southwest direction with the stout cliffs of Shoshoni Peak framing the right-hand side of the basin. Along the way, you’ll get increasingly dramatic looks at Navajo Peak, one of the most identifiable summits in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The peak itself holds a handful of fantastic scrambles and snow climbs, so it’s a regular mountaineering target.
The Glacier is located on a bench between Apache Pk. and Shoshoni Peak. After arriving at an unnamed tarn, the route takes a turn to the right (north) and climbs the glacial bench. This final section is short but steep with some switchbacks thrown in to ease the ascent. Once you top out on the glacial bench, you’ll have excellent views of Isabelle Glacier and the Queensway Couloir to the west.
Isabelle Glacier is best visited from late July-September. If you arrive earlier than that, the basin it’s located in will have additional, large snowfields that may obscure the true size of the glacier. By September, Isabelle Glacier and the Navajo “glacier” (a permanent snowfield just to the right of Navajo’s summit cone) should be the only large patches of snow left. Later in the summer, Isabelle Glacier also develops a beautiful little tarn at its lowest point. The water is stunningly clear and stunningly cold.
If you plan on hiking onto the glacier, make sure you have microspikes, snowshoes, or some type of comparable traction device. Slipping and sliding into the glacial tarn would certainly be an unpleasant experience; unless getting into a glacial tarn is the goal. You won’t need mountaineering equipment unless you’re climbing any of the three couloirs on Shoshoni Pk. or Queensway Couloir.
Despite its manageable 8-mile distance, you’re going to want to spend some time up here if you have the weather, so budget most of the day for this one. Now, obviously, this is no Columbia or Southern Patagonia Icefield, but the handful of glacial remnants left in Colorado harken back to the last ice age, providing a brief window into thousands of years of mountain history and evolution. There’s also no telling how long these little pieces of alpine ice will continue to hang out in Colorado, with nearly all of the documented glaciers in retreat. Get out there while you can.