Brainard Lake – Long Lake/Isabel Glacier Trail
Location: West of Boulder, between Nederland and Estes Park, near Ward
Directions: From Boulder there are two ways of getting to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area:
1. From central Boulder take Canyon Blvd. west to Nederland, turn right (north) on Highway 72 (the Peak-to-Peak Highway) and go 11.5 miles. Turn left at the brown sign indicating the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Once you enter the park, follow the signs to Brainard Lake, and then the Long Lake trailhead parking lot.
2. From north Boulder and I-36, take Left Hand Canyon Drive west through the small town of Ward. At the T-intersection at Highway 72, turn right (north) and make your first immediate left where you see a brown sign for Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Once you enter the park, follow the signs to Brainard Lake, and then the Long Lake trailhead parking lot.
Duration: 2-1/2 to 5 hours, depending on if you go just to Isabel Lake or all the way to the top of Pawnee Pass (elevation 12,943 ft.) and back.
Access Notes: If you’re planning this hike in summer and going as far as Pawnee Pass, which is above treeline and very exposed, it’s wise to get as early of a start as possible—before 8 a.m. This way, you’re more likely to be off the mountain when afternoon summer thunderstorms and lightning occur. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area and the Long Lake and Mitchell Creek trails are one of the most popular alpine hikes near Boulder, particularly in summer and on weekends. The parking lots fill up quickly, so arrive before 8 a.m. or even earlier if you can manage it. If one of the lots is full, try the other and walk to the trailhead. That will only add 15 minutes to your hike. There are limited spaces to park along the road.
Brainard is an hour’s drive from downtown Boulder.
The Forest Service may discourage hiking the Long Lake and Mitchell Creek trails as late as mid June due to snow drifts, slush or muddy conditions on the trail by closing the parking lots to the trailheads. Check before you go by calling ahead.
There are pit toilets in the parking lot and the road all the way to the trailhead is paved. Dogs are allowed on leash, and this is strictly enforced. As of 2010, there is a $9 entrance fee per passenger car that is good for five days.
This hike is one of the most scenic alpine hikes near Boulder, and if you’re a fan of it, you can’t wait for the snow to melt and the mud to dry in early summer so you can go all the way to Isabel Lake or even the top of Pawnee Pass. Lush green forests of pine and fir are framed by the snow-covered Indian Peaks above: Pawnee Peak to the north, Shoshoni in the middle, Navajo and Arikaree Peak to its south, and the smoother-topped and grassy Mount Albion flanking the trail to the south. At the base of the mountains is Isabel Lake and Isabel Glacier, which fills in summer and cascades down in the form of small waterfalls and brooks lined with green grasses and wildflowers.
The Isabel Glacier trail, which is accessed at the Long Lake trailhead, ends at the glacier 2 miles from the parking lot and intersects with the Pawnee Pass trail at that point. The first 1-1/2 miles up the trail are easy, with little elevation gain and a sandy trail with the occasional tree roots to watch for. The trail passes through thick pine and fir forest whose floor is lush and green in mid-summer. Long Lake will be to the south next to the trail, then later a few small meadows afford a nice view of the Indian Peaks on your way up.
At the second wooden sign for the Isabel Glacier the trail begins to gain elevation and the path becomes rocky. You’ll have to cross a waterfall on a small bridge and a few hundred feet further up, you’ll be skipping wet rocks to cross another waterfall (bring waterproof boots). Lake Isabel is over the crest past the falls—deep, dark and flowing. You may see snow banks in the crevices of the mountain peaks as late as mid-July, and you may even walk across the slushy remains of the “glacier” as you reach the lake.
Beyond and above the lake is a long, rocky climb up to Pawnee Pass that is moderate in difficulty due to the elevation gain and switchbacks. You’ll pass a rock fall where you may spot pikas or marmots. At the top, you’ll be near the Continental Divide and rewarded with a view of the lake below, Boulder to the east, and believe it or not, Lake Granby directly west and below the Pass. It’s hard to believe that Lake Granby is so close to Nederland and Boulder, since the only two ways of getting there from the Front Range by car is a long drive up I-70 and Berthold Pass, or over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. As the crow flies, however, it’s closer than you may realize.
The New Cosmology
As you reach Lake Isabel, ponder the following essay on the evolutionary role of humans.
Scientific discoveries in the last two centuries have allowed us new and amazing insight into who we are as human beings and our role on Earth. These discoveries have necessitated the telling of a new story of our origins and the purpose of our presence in the world. The old story of creation, based on religious doctrine that’s thousands of years old and adapted by Western culture, is that humans are the pinnacle of existence on Earth, that all the world’s creatures were created for our use, enjoyment and “dominion.” We are told that we are God’s favored creation and that our role is to create a loving and compassionate society to serve God, so that we may further honor and worship Him in the afterlife.
In this old story, originating mostly in monotheistic religions, humans are favored creatures apart and separate from the rest of nature. We are tasked with either caring for our more-than-human friends (in the form of “management”) or we’re given authority to use natural resources for our livelihood and prosperity in order to “go forth, be fruitful and multiply.” This paradigm has resulted in placing human endeavors as a priority over the wellbeing and health of forests, animals and oceans. It elevates the economy as the ends to justify the means, with ecology in service to the human economy.
The consequences of such a paradigm have been disastrous. Species loss on the scale of 20,000 per year, world-wide soil degradation, fresh water shortages and climate change are just a few examples of evidence that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the picture.
The question then arises, why did human beings evolve in the first place? If our presence on Earth is so destructive, where have we gone wrong? What is really our true story and purpose? Perhaps the answers lie in the new story of creation, a story that places humans at the razor’s edge of evolution and reveals a greater directive—only if we have the courage and determination to face the truth squarely and accept responsibility.
Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist and author, tells a new story of creation based on the last century’s scientific discoveries. (See www.brianswimme.org)
The new story starts with a flash, an explosion. It starts with the birth of the known Universe during known time—13.6 billion years ago. That’s how long ago astronomers and physicists calculate the Big Bang took place. Shortly after that moment, all that existed in space was light and energy, which eventually coalesced into matter. This matter created stars, which in turn created their own source of light and energy.
Stars have a life cycle, just like anything else. Throughout their life cycle, stars actually create elements such as hydrogen, phosphorus and oxygen. In the later stages of their life cycles, stars create iron, and since iron can’t be burned up, the star no longer can hold back its gravity. It collapses in on itself. In a split second, it goes from being a massive cauldron of energy to a tiny spec, and then explodes outward. This is called a supernova. It is the death of a star, and it is at this exact moment that the star creates its last element—carbon.
For life to even exist on Earth, carbon had to be present. Therefore, a star had to die in order for life to evolve. All of life on earth contains carbon. Without carbon, not even bacteria would exist. You can think of living forms on Earth as the further evolution of a star. The elements in our bodies, including oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, originated in space billions of years ago when stars formed, transformed and died. Stars created the building blocks to life itself.
The Earth reflects the evolutionary process of the Universe, a process of which we are a part. Humans are not elevated above all species as we were told in the old story of creation. We are simply at the tip of evolution’s arrow, the tip of the arrow of time, an arrow that has traveled the path of ever-increasing complexity and interconnectedness from its origins 13.6 billion years ago.
Here’s something else to think about: Life existed for 3.5 billion years before creatures evolved eyesight. The ability to see isn’t necessary for life. So why did life evolve eyes? Furthermore, why did it evolve a brain, or a consciousness?
This is the mystery that is endlessly fascinating and unanswerable. It is examined within the context of Brian Swimme’s writings and also in anthropologist Loren Eisley’s book, The Immense Journey. If life doesn’t need eyes or a brain to survive and thrive (bacteria and single-celled organisms don’t, for example), why is it that life developed refinements with respect to the senses? Some animals have hearing and eyesight ten or a hundred times more acute than ours. We have the largest mental capacity of all mammals. Other life forms may have evolved communication that is beyond our capacity to perceive or understand.
One might say that the imperative of life is to simply survive and reproduce, but if that were really the case, then wouldn’t evolution just stop at single-celled organisms or bacteria? They are very efficient at reproduction.
Perhaps life itself wanted to deepen its understanding and awareness of itself and its origins. It wanted to see more, hear more and sense more. Ultimately, in the form of humans on Earth, life is now able to contemplate itself, look light years beyond the boundaries of our solar system, ponder the past and future, touch and examine not just everything within our immediate grasp but also rocks and soil from the moon and nearby planets. We as humans have a capacity to care deeply for one another and for the Earth itself. We can have spiritual experiences and feel wonder and a communion with things beyond our immediate grasp.
One of the theories about why we developed and evolved as humans was that a genetic mutation in our evolutionary past slowed down our rate of development. We remain children much longer than any other mammal species. This makes us more dependent on our parents for guidance and education, but also prolongs the period during which we feel wonder and curiosity about the world. We aren’t born with instincts. We must learn everything we need to know about how to survive in the world from our parents and our society. We are who we are and we know what we know because of 200,000 years of human culture that has been passed down to each generation, through books, stories, art or tradition.
If stars evolved into humans in order to be self-aware, what is our purpose as human beings in the Universe? Right now we are living at a time of a great mass extinction, one that happens only once every 100 million years. In the past, these cataclysmic events took place because of external forces: asteroid impacts, super volcanoes, rapid climate change, advancing and receding glaciers. This time, however, humans are the primary driving force behind this latest extinction. We have displaced species, destroyed habitats and polluted our oceans, lakes and rivers. If the arrow of evolution has led to this moment, why is this happening? Is it because we are simply a transient species, soon to be extinct ourselves to make room for a more complex, even more perceptive beings?
There’s simply no reason to think that the “bucks stops here” (at humans) when it comes to evolution. Everything is constantly in flux. Millions of species of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles have come and gone since the dawn of creation. The only thing we can surmise from looking at the past is that things change constantly and evolution tended toward more complex, more aware life forms. Sometimes the experiments failed, and sometimes they persisted. Where evolution goes next is unknown.
Our challenge now is to identify our true role, thereby creating a new society of humans who live with the Earth community, not apart from it.
Consider that you are the end result of the Universe attempting to know itself, to see itself, to perceive itself.
What do you think is human’s role in the Universe?
Do you think that because animals have evolved to be increasingly more complex and aware, evolution has a purpose? What do you think that purpose is?
Really think on the idea that YOU are the Universe, and that you are now seeing, feeling and hearing yourself for the first time. You are awakening to the end result of billions of years of change, upheaval, death, birth, and adaptation. You are perceiving creation, the force of life and change. How do you see the Earth and all its creatures and landscapes? What would you change in the future? What would you keep the same?
Knowing there are forces of destruction on Earth, whether man-made or natural, that are creating great changes in the ecology of the planet, how does it make you feel to know that you are living at such a time? Does it frighten you or empower you?
What do you think is your personal role in the evolution of the planet at this point in time? In other words, what do you think you’re supposed to do with your time on Earth?