Located just under an hour from Boulder, Colorado, Brainard Lake Recreation Area is one of the best nearby locations for an adventure elopement. Brainard Lake sits at an elevation of over 10,300 feet, and surrounded by trails that lead into Indian Peaks Wilderness, that’s just filled to the brim with forests, alpine lakes, wildflowers in summer, and plenty of snow in winter.
Learn everything you need to know about eloping to Brainard Lake in this ultimate guide below:
Reasons to Elope at Brainard Lake, Boulder, CO
- The Scenery! Probably our favorite reason to elope in Brainard Lake Recreation Area: the natural scenery is hard to beat. Here you’ve got an amazing combination of alpine lakes, tall grasses and wildflowers, creeks and small waterfalls, glaciers and snow-capped mountains, and even the chance to see wildlife (like moose!). For anyone that doesn’t want to “settle” for mountain views alone, this is always one of our recommendations to couples eloping in Colorado.
- Proximity to Boulder + Denver. This entire area can feel like you’re a world away from the hustle and bustle of Denver and Boulder metro areas, but only 50 minutes from Boulder and 90 minutes from Denver.
- Fewer crowds…if you know when to go. Especially in the early mornings at sunrise, or in the fall after the summer crowds have left, this place can give you the quiet, peaceful space you need to say your vows with hardly anyone around. After the sun comes up on summer days, this place quickly becomes crowded, so we always recommend sunrise elopements from mid-June through July here, or weekdays between August through October. You can also avoid plenty of other people if you’re open to snowshoeing in the winter — although it’s over 5 miles roundtrip from the winter parking lot to Brainard Lake.
- No shortage of activities to do. The recreation area is perfect for couples who may want a mix of everything when it comes to outdoor activities, from kayaking to hiking or a lakeside picnic.
- Dog-friendly! Looking for an epic spot in the Rocky Mountains to elope with your furry family members? Brainard Lake Recreation Area is very dog-friendly for elopements. If you plan to bring your pup(s), head on over to our dog-friendly elopement guide.
Best Places to Elope near Brainard Lake Recreation Area
The first lake and the most easiest to access in the recreation area is Brainard Lake. The lakeshore is only a short walk from the main parking lot, and is the only one that allows larger groups of 10-20 people here.
It’s a great spot for anyone wanting mountain and lake views, and/or for anyone with guests who aren’t able to walk very far. For couples who want to hike separately, we recommend either doing a hike up to Lake Isabelle before or after your ceremony just the two of you (or with your dogs!).
For smaller groups of 2-6 people who are all comfortable hiking a few miles, the views at Lake Isabelle are completely worth the trek. From the Long Lake parking lot (only accessible typically from early July through early October), the roundtrip hike to Isabelle is about 4 miles and only a little over 400 feet of elevation gain.
Since this is in a designated Wilderness area, guest counts are restricted and no drones are allowed in this region. However there is still plenty to enjoy both at the end of the hike and along the way, from waterfalls and plenty of wildflowers!
A short hike from the parking lot, Long Lake is another nice place for water views in the area. It’s not as scenic as Lake Isabelle or Brainard, so we often recommend taking portraits at Long Lake on the hike to Lake Isabelle, since you’ll pass it on the way out and back anyway.
Mitchell Lake + Blue Lake
A less popular hike, but still with plenty of views is the Mitchell Lake Trail, which is only 1.8 miles roundtrip and 200+ feet of gain to the first lake. If you are wanting to go farther (and get away from more people), you can take this same trail an additional 2.5 miles one-way up to Blue Lake.
How to Elope at Brainard Lake
1. Select a date. Brainard Lake Recreation Area’s summer operating season is typically from mid-June through mid-October, and opening/closing dates depend on the weather. At all other times of the year, you’ll likely have to snowshoe hike up to Brainard Lake from the winter parking lot. We personally love sunrise elopements in July for wildflower season, or a weekday in August through mid-September for fewer crowds around.
2. Find your vendors. Our elopement photography + videography team has worked at Brainard Lake and Lake Isabelle before, and have hiked there even when we’re not working, so we’re super familiar with the landscape here! As for other wedding vendors, like officiants, chefs, musicians, or hair and makeup artists, we typically recommend finding them from Boulder. The nearest towns are Ward and Nederland, but they’re so small that finding vendors that close by may be very difficult.
3. Reserve lodging. Although you can easily drive up from other areas like Denver for the day, we recommend staying close by to make it easiest for you to travel on your wedding day and avoid more unneeded stress about running late. We’ll drop some of our top recommendations on places to stay in the next section below.
4. Obtain any permits you might need. So far, we’ve helped couples elope in this region without needing special event permits, but rules and regulations in public areas can and do change often. It’s always best to check for the most up to date information with the national forest rangers here (Boulder Ranger District; 303-541-2500), especially if you plan to have more than 15 people or want to bring any additional items with you, like chairs or a ceremony arch. You’ll also need to reserve your entry and parking permit in advance, as they do now have a timed entry system in Brainard Lake. The reservations open up on a two-week basis, and can be reserved online here.
5. Get your marriage license. Some couples prefer to get the legal paperwork done in their home state prior to eloping to Colorado, but it can also be nice to have an official Colorado marriage certificate. In the state of Colorado, you don’t need any witnesses or even an officiant to sign on your marriage license at all. If you bring your dog along, you could even have him sign his paw-print as a witness for you! We recommend getting your license in the nearby counties of Boulder, Jefferson or Larimer. You may need to make an appointment in advance, so be sure to reach out to the nearest county clerk’s office to wherever you plan to stay while you’re here.
Best Places to Stay near Brainard Lake
The nearest towns and cities to the recreation area are Ward, Nederland, Allenspark, Estes Park, and Boulder, but there aren’t any hotels in the first three of these locations. The closest option for overnight stays is the Pawnee Campground inside the recreation area, open from July through early September. For anyone wanting a less rustic option, here are some of our favorite places nearby:
Mountain Oasis near Nederland, Black Hawk
Activities to do in Brainard Lake Recreation Area
If you didn’t already know, one of the best parts about eloping is that you can do almost anything you want on your day! Some of our favorite things to do in Brainard Lake include:
- Kayaking or paddleboarding
- Having a picnic
- Seeing the fall leaves (aspens here turn a bright gold in fall!)
- Catching sights of wildlife (moose can sometimes be found here — be sure to keep your distance)
- Having your first dance on the lakeshore
- …and more! Get creative and come up with some ideas!
How to Get to Brainard Lake
The main road to visit Brainard Lake Recreation area is in the town of Ward, off of Highway 72. The drive from Boulder takes about 45-50 minutes (here is the Google Maps link to directions):
- Head north on Broadway or 28th street, and turn left onto Lee Hill Drive.
- Take Lee Hill Drive up to Lefthand Canyon Drive and turn left.
- Once you get just past the town of Ward, you’ll turn right onto Hwy 72, and an immediate left onto Brainard Lake Road.
If you’re coming from Estes Park, drive south on Highway 7 for 19 miles, turn right onto CO-72, drive for another 10 miles, and turn right onto Brianard Lake Road.
Where to Celebrate with Guests After Your Elopement
If you’d rather have a larger reception but are hoping to have a small ceremony and/or some adventurous portraits at Brainard Lake, then we’d recommend the following nearby wedding venues for a celebration of that size:
Where to Eat/Drink in Boulder for a Just-Us-Two Elopement
Some of our favorite spots to celebrate for a nice intimate dinner after your elopement include:
Reach Out to a Boulder Elopement Photographer + Videographer
Skyewater Photo + Film is an adventure elopement and destination wedding photo and video team based in Colorado. We help couples plan elopements all over the US, and offer insight for more than just photography: from planning assistance, finding and booking locations, vendor references and more! Reach out to our elopement photography and videography team today to get more info!