If you’re planning an intimate wedding or elopement and you don’t want to travel too far from Denver, you should consider the Brainard Lake Recreation Area near Ward, CO. Located in Indian Peaks Wilderness area and managed by the US Forest Service, there is so much beauty here!
So read on to learn more about planning a Brainard Lake Elopement!
Why choose Brainard Lake for your Elopement
I love Brainard Lake for a peaceful mountain experience. While it is a moderately popular place to explore (especially on the weekends), it’s well worth it, and the hikers and nature walkers you encounter will just add to your overall Colorado adventure experience.
It is also relatively easy to get to in summer and fall and is a fairly short drive from Boulder or Nederland.
To minimize the crowds, I’d highly suggest planning a weekday elopement.
How do you get to Brainard Lake?
From Colorado Highway 72 (Peak to Peak highway) at Ward, turn west onto the Brainard Lake Road. Travel 2.5 miles to the Brainard Gateway Trailhead, and continue another two miles to Brainard Lake. The entrance station is open seasonally.
Brainard Lake Road is very scenic in itself and there are several spots you could pull off for photos along this road.
Be aware that cell phone service is really spotty along the drive, so download your directions ahead of time as you’ll likely be completely cut off once you turn on the Brainard Lake Road (and it will be spotty as you approach as well).
You should also be aware that Brainard Recreation Area sits around 10,000 feet in elevation, so the weather can be unpredictable and you should be aware how altitude can affect your wedding celebration.
How much does it cost to get married at Brainard Lake?
As of now, it is free to get married at Brainard Lake Recreation area, as long as you have a parking reservation for each of the cars you need.
Where do my guests and I park at Brainard Lake?
During the pandemic, and to help control crowds, the National Forest Service instituted a timed reservation system for parking. So you and your guests will need to reserve a space for each car. You can reserve your space here. Reservations for the summer season open the Thursday before Memorial Day at 8:00am MST, and then are released 2 weeks in advance, on a rolling basis. Your parking pass is only valid for the lot you reserved and you must enter the lot during your purchased window. However, once you are in the park, your pass is good for the rest of the day.
Parking costs $14 a day for a regular vehicle.. If you have an Annual National Parks Pass (America the Beautiful pass), bring that along, as that will waive the entrance fee for the park itself.
The Brainard Parking lot is by far the largest lot, and where you’ll want to park for your Brainard Lake elopement. The Long Lake and Mitchell Lake parking areas are much much smaller and only ideal options for 2 person elopements in these areas.
Also note: The Brainard Lake parking area opens after Memorial Day, but Long Lake and Mithchell Lake parking areas don’t open until July 1 because of the weather.
Where do I get ready at Brainard Lake?
There are no getting ready spaces at Brainard (and only pit toilets at the trailheads), so you’ll want to plan to get ready offsite. The closest town with good amenities is Boulder.
What spots can I get married at?
Ah, the fun part! The part where you get to dream about the locations you could get married at.
Here’s my rundown of the best spots to explore!
Brainard Lake Elopement
Brainard Lake is the most popular spot for sessions and elopements as its easily accessible from the main Brainard Lake parking area. You can host up to 20 people for your lakeside ceremony and can choose your favorite backdrop along the lake. There are beautiful views of the mountains across the lake. After your ceremony you can walk along the lake and take in foliage and trees and rocks for photos.
By the parking lot there is also a covered area in case you have a rain delay, as well as a couple of pit toilets you and your guests can use.
There is also a cool little wooden bridge that cuts through the trees to the lake that I’ve seen used as a bit of a holding area if you’re saving your first look for the ceremony.
Long Lake Elopement
*The Long Lake Trailhead opens for parking on July 1, but you can still access it from the Brainard Lake parking area via a 1 mile trail that connects the two trailheads.
I love Long Lake for it’s variety of backgrounds, as well as how easy it is to get to. From the parking area, it’s only about a .25 mile walk to the lake, and once you’re there, you can find so many beautiful spots for photos, from the towering evergreens, to the rocks by the water and small streams that feed the lake.
If you’d like to get married along the shores of the lake, it’s easy to do that, or your could find a spot you love anywhere along the trails. While you could encounter hikers (particularly hikers heading to Lake Isabelle), you’ll likely find some seclusion here for an intimate and meaningful vow exchange.
Mitchell Lake Elopement
Mitchell Lake is a short .5 mile hike from the Mitchell Lake parking area and it’s pretty easy going. You’ll pass through lots of evergreens before the trail opens up at the lake. You could choose one of the wooded areas for your actual vows, or you could choose the lake itself.
Just a note that it can sometimes be super windy at the lake, so if the wind keeps you from your plans of saying your vows at the lake, you can easily tuck yourself into the trees right by the lake and reserve the lake for quick portraits.
Lake Isabelle Elopement
Lake Isabelle is the most strenuous and farthest hike from the list, but it’s still not crazy difficult, as long as you’re accustomed to hiking at higher altitudes.
From the Long Lake trailhead it’s about 3 miles to Lake Isabelle, though if you’re heading to the trail before July 1, you’ll have to add on an extra mile from the Brainard Lake parking area.
The trail winds through evergreens, across rocks, and runoff streams, and ends at a gorgeous lake (actually a reservoir), that has fantastic mountain views. At one end of the lake there is a waterfall that plummets down the valley, though you’ll likely only see this from the top as it’s not accessible.
Since you’ll be at 10,500 feet at the lake, you’ll have to conscious of weather patterns, which can change quickly at this elevation.
If you’re planning to say your vows, you could hike in your wedding attire, or jump behind a rock to change clothes when you get to the lake.
What time of year should I choose for my elopement at Brainard Lake?
While the Recreation Area is open year round, the entrance gates close in November and access is hike in only from the entrance gate parking lot until the gates re-open in May the following spring. While it can be nice to explore in the winter with proper gear, be aware that you’ll be adding miles to your hike to any of the lakes. For example, this closure makes the hike to Lake Isabelle over 11 miles round trip.
If you want to capitalize on the best weather I would recommend July, August, or September, though June could be a good option for Brainard Lake. Long Lake often still boasts snow in late June and you’ll get patches of snow and mud along the Lake Isabelle trail in June as well.
Wildflowers are usually plentiful in Colorado in late July, and you might encounter some of them along the trails here, too.
Fall is beautiful in this area and you’ll see foliage starting to change in mid to late September. While there are few aspens at the lakes itself (the main trees are evergreens), Brainard Lake Road, which you’ll drive for a couple of miles before you reach the entrance gates, has a plethora of aspens. There are several spots along the road that you could pull over to take advantage of the fall color.
What time of day should I choose for my elopement at Brainard Lake?
Most people choose either sunrise or sunset for their session at Brainard Lake and both are beautiful!
It’s easy to catch the sunrise at Brainard Lake, as the parking lot is right next to the lake, so you can time the alpenglow by arriving just shortly before the actual sunrise time.
If you plan to be at Mitchell Lake or Lake Isabelle for sunrise, you’ll want to build in time to hike in the dark, so you’ll need a bit more planning.
If you want to capitalize on sunset, I recommend staring your session about 2-3 hours before sunset, and ending right after you lose light behind the peaks. Be aware that this is often up to an hour before actual sunset time, so make sure we’re working closely together to craft you the perfect timeline.
When choosing your time, you might also want to consider the weather. Afternoon storms can roll in at any time all summer, so you should be prepared for rain delays if you’re aiming for afternoon/ evening.
How many guests can I invite?
There is a 12 person group size for Long Lake, Mitchell Lake, and Lake Isabelle. I usually recommend keeping your group very small for these spots (2-5 is perfect, including you two and your photographer).
While there isn’t technically a limit at Brainard Lake, in the interest of following Leave No Trace principles, I recommend capping your guest count at 20.
How long do elopements at Brainard usually last?
Depending on which spot you choose for your elopement, I recommend at least 3 hours of photography coverage at the lakes, plus additional time if you’d like photos of you getting ready, or any of a reception covered. The hike to Lake Isabelle takes about 2.5 – 3 hours on its own, so you’ll need to build in time for a ceremony, photos, and exploring on top of that.
If you need more info on timelines, you can check out my elopements page
Are dogs allowed at Brainard Lake?
Dogs are allowed in Brainard Recreation Area, but they must be on a hand held leash the entire time.
What else should I know about Eloping at Brainard Lake, Long Lake, Mitchell Lake, or Lake Isabelle?
MOOSE! There are plenty of this large wildlife in the recreation area and you should be aware of your surroundings at all times. You might see them by the roads, wading in the lakes, or along the trails. Anytime you encounter a moose, keep your distance, go another direction, and leave it alone!
Check out these sessions for more Elopement Inspiration at Brainard Lake Recreation Area!
Additional Resources for planning your elopement
Coming from out of state and looking to elope? I provide location help and long distance planning to all of my couples! I want to make sure your destination elopement goes off perfectly! Let’s talk about your vision!