Niwot Ridge, Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, Colorado

Niwot Ridge - 10.1 miles

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

Mt Audubon and Little Pawnee Peak from the Niwot Ridge Trail

Mt Audubon and Little Pawnee Peak from the Niwot Ridge Trail

Round-Trip Length: 10.1 miles
Start-End Elevation: 10,515' - 12,285' (12,295' max elevation)
Elevation Change: +1,770' net elevation gain (+1,938' total roundtrip elevation gain)
Skill Level: Moderate-Strenuous
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
Related Trails:

Niwot Ridge - 10.1 Miles Round-Trip

The Niwot Ridge Trail climbs 1800' from the Long Lake Trailhead to a narrow, divisive ridge between the South St Vrain Creek and North Boulder Creek drainages. The latter is part of the Boulder Watershed, a string of six alpine lakes that provide the balance of Boulder County's water supply. 

Trail Map | Photo Gallery

The Niwot Ridge Trail offers a rare glimpse down this secluded valley.

The Niwot Ridge Trail passes through the 1200 hectare Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve, established in 1979 for the study of alpine tundra. Visitors will enjoy diverse alpine landscapes, good trail conditions and arguably some of the best views in the Indian Peaks:

The trail follows a level path to the Jean Lunning Trail (.2 miles) and veers left over Long Lake's outlet. It continues clockwise to an unmarked split (left) for the Niwot Ridge Cutoff Trail (.4 miles : 10,558').

The trail enters a spruce forest at the base of Niwot Ridge and climbs methodically up its north face on long, winding switchbacks. This section is well-defined but can be obstructed by deadfall and snow.

The trail clears treeline (1.65 miles : 11,220') and moderates through open tundra to the first of two Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve markers (1.75 miles : 11,275'). Here it bends decisively south for a saddle in the lower, eastern portion of the ridge.

Behind you (north) are views of Longs Peak (14,259'), Mt Meeker (13,911') and Mt Audubon (13,223'); to the east a good look over Left Hand Park Reservoir. Look for ptarmigan, marmot, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goat in the open tundra.

The trail passes a second Niwot Ridge Biosphere marker (2.3 miles : 11,425'), crests on the ridge's saddle (2.6 miles : 11,460') and drops south to a 4x4 road. The valley ahead is part of the Boulder Watershed, a chain of lakes framed by Kiowa Peak (13,276') and Arikaree Peak (13,150').

The trail fades but is adequately marked by cairns to its convergence with the road and official Niwot Ridge Trail (2.9 miles : 11,407').

The road-trail rises steadily up the south-side of Niwot Ridge with great views across the open tundra and valley below. Watershed boundary markers and research facilities line the way for guidance.

In 4.1 miles the trail bends north for the ridge's high, narrow center with simultaneous views of the Watershed and South St Vrain Creek valleys.

Perennial snow clings to upper valley walls, the water system's primary benefactors. Navajo Peak (13,409'), Apache Peak (13,441'), Shoshoni Peak (12,967') and Isabelle Glacier (12,025') emerge to the west and north as the trail levels on the ridge top.

The trail reaches the last research post and cairn marking its unofficial end (5.05 miles : 12,285'). You may continue west to Navajo Peak and the Divide, or roll north for a look over the Isabelle Glacier valley. Honor the Watershed boundary, which extends all the way to the Divide.

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • N40 04.674 W105 35.077 — 0.0 miles : Long Lake Trailhead
  • N40 04.426 W105 35.255 — .4 miles : unmarked split for Niwot Ridge Trail
  • N40 04.274 W105 35.095 — .85 miles : Switchbacks up thinning spruce forest
  • N40 04.145 W105 35.072 — 1.25 miles : Winding travel up north face of ridge
  • N40 03.811 W105 35.073 — 1.75 miles : Enter Niwot Ridge Bio Reserve
  • N40 03.462 W105 34.799 — 2.3 miles : Heading south over saddle on ridge
  • N40 03.146 W105 34.947 — 2.9 miles : Join Niwot Ridge Trail and service road
  • N40 03.278 W105 35.487 — 3.5 miles : Moderate climb up south side of ridge
  • N40 03.276 W105 36.021 — 4.0 miles : edging toward center of narrowing ridge
  • N40 03.410 W105 36.492 — 4.5 miles : Travel on Niwot Ridge top
  • N40 03.587 W105 37.041 — 5.05 miles : End Trail at large cairn; begin x-country t

Worth Noting

  • Arrive early to secure parking, avoid crowds, and afternoon thunderstorms. Be mindful of changing weather patterns and get below treeline before storms develop. Expect cooler temperatures, strong sun, and wind in this completely exposed environment.

  • Respect research markers, equipment, and buildings associated with the Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve. Honor Boulder Watershed boundaries and stay on designated trails.

Camping and Backpacking Information

  • Permits are required for all overnight campers June 1 - September 15.

  • Permits are required year-round for day and overnight use by large groups (8+) or organizational groups such as scouts, churches, schools and hiking clubs.

  • Group size is limited to 12 people or people and packstock combined.

  • Campfires are prohibited east side of the Continental Divide, as well as Caribou Lake, Columbine Lake, Gourd Lake, Crater Lake and in the Cascade Creek drainage above Cascade Falls.

  • Pets must be on a handheld leash at all times.

  • Camping is permitted only at designated campsites in the Diamond, Jasper, Crater and Caribou Lakes Backcountry Zones.

  • Camping is prohibited in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone (Mitchell, Blue, Long, Isabelle) May 1 - Nov 30.

  • Camping is prohibited within 100' of lakes, streams and trails.

  • Packstock is prohibited in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone, in the Cascade Backcountry Zone above Cascade Falls and on the Diamond Lake Trail #975.

Rules and Regulations

  • There's an $11 fee to enter the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Use the self-service pay station if no attendant is on duty. Fees, Parking, Pet, Camping and Trespassing regulations are strictly enforced.
  • Dogs must be leashed at all times on trails within the Indian Peaks Wilderness and Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Directions to Trailhead

Niwot Ridge is accessed from the Long Lake Trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area off of CO 72 (12 miles north of Nederland, just north of the town of Ward).

From Highway 72, turn west on Brainard Lake Road. In 2.6 miles you'll reach a pay station. Use the self-service pay station if no attendant is on duty. Continue another 3.2 miles on the paved road to the Long Lake Trailhead. This road may be closed at the halfway point from late October through late June or early July (depending on snow).

Contact Information

Boulder Ranger District
2140 Yarmouth Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301

Trip Reports

There are no trip reports on this trail.


"Hiking it tomorrow but please note it is a 10$ entry fee now."
Casey  -  Loveland  -  Date Posted: August 24, 2015
"Can you access this trail from the CU Research Station off of Peak to Peak just north of Nederland?"
Diane  -   -  Date Posted: July 27, 2014


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