A mostly Class 2+ with perhaps some brief Class 3 depending on specific route chosen, when ascended from Mt. Audubon via the west ridge of Paiute. A rocky affair. A descent into the upper basin above Blue Lake offers some spectacular backcountry viewing, including wildflowers. Passenger car accessible. Lidar added 6 feet of elevation.
Because there are so many possible ways to do this, and depending on where on the Front Range many people may live, we'll leave it to you to figure out how to get to state highway 119, also known as the "Peak-to-Peak" highway which along with SH72 and SH7 connects Blackhawk, Nederland, Ward, Allenspark and Estes Park. If coming from the west on I-70, you'll probably want to take the newer Central City cutoff just east of Idaho Springs, to Central City, Blackhawk and SH119. Out of Estes Park, the road you want is SH7. North of Nederland, SH119 switches to SH72. The goal is to get to Ward. Just north of the turn for Ward, turn west onto the Brainard Lakes Road (FR112). The poorly-maintained, paved road climbs up some switchbacks and then heads generally west and comes to a new, large parking area on the right with facilities. This new lot serves as a trailhead for some trails that take you on back to the Brainard Lakes, but starting from here will add significantly to overall mileage if heading back to the main group of peaks. Just past this lot, there is an entry, "fee" station. Cost for admission is $10 with various government issued passes allowing free access such as a "Senior Pass." During off hours, you'll need to self-register.
Continuing past the entry station, in a couple more miles you'll come to another turn on the right, just before the main Brainard Lake for the Pawnee Campground, and just past there will be another road on the right that will take visitors into yet another large parking area with toilet & water facilities and a wheelchair accessible picnic area. Continue driving west to the west end of Brainard Lake. After crossing S. St. Vrain Creek, the road forks. Take a left turn, then shortly after, do NOT take the next left (which goes to the Long Lake TH), but continue straight (Veering right), cross an open meadow and then drive up to the Mitchell Lake/Audubon TH parking area. Being the closest parking to the main trails, both the Long Lake lot and this lot fill up the earliest on summer weekends.
WARNING: Because of the popularity of this area and its close proximity to the recreational-seeking hordes of the Front Range, the parking for Brainard Lakes quickly fills on summer weekends to the point where later arrivers may have to park far back from the trailheads. Arrive Early! Think - Longs Peak parking problems.
The only close-by camping is the Brainard Lakes Campground, a fee area maintained by the Forest Service. Presently, advance reservations cannot be made, so finding an open campsite between Memorial Day to Labor Day can be difficult. No camping is allowed beyond the entry station in any other area. The Indian Peaks Wilderness does allow backcountry camping, but by permit only. If that's your choice, you can begin your research at the link below. Because of the mixture of private and forest service land all around Ward, it's very difficult to find any at-large spot where you can pull off and spend the night without possibly violating someone's private property or being so close to such, that you have no privacy. The nearest other National Forest campgrounds are Camp Dick (less than 10 miles north on 72) and the Rainbow Lakes, south on 72 and then up CR116.
The following trail description is largely provided by a climbing associate who last climbed Audubon/Paiute in 2016. To keep mileage reasonable, save Mt. Audubon for when the Forest Service opens the road all the way to the two trailhead parking areas for Long/Isabel Lakes and Mitchell/Blue Lakes. The former we call the West Trailhead and the latter, the North trailhead. The road back to these parking lots may not open until June some time. If you have to start hiking from the east end of Brainard Lake, it will add another 1.5 miles to your day. For Audubon/Paiute, you'll want to park at the "North" parking lot. There are two trailheads here: one for Mitchell and Blue Lakes and the other for Audubon. The Audubon trail will be at the east end of the parking lot, away from the ranger hut and restrooms. Just read the signs to make sure!
Follow the well-used Audubon trail NNW. This old trail is very well-worn, many times rocky and sometimes deeply entrenched from use. In about a half mile, you'll begin to exit the trees as you approach timberline. You'll be staring up at a hillside of boulders. The trail turns abruptly east on a switchback and climbs more steeply for the next 300 feet with a couple more switchbacks. For photographers, our source advises that a ninety minute start before sunrise will place you in this location with an unobstructed view of the eastern plains and the emerging sunrise. After the switchbacks, the trail emerges from the last trees and gradually ascends in a NW direction. Stay left at about 11,280 ft. where the Beaver Creek Trail heads off to the north. Earlier in the season, you may have snow to deal with. Just below 12,000 feet, there are a few more switchbacks. At 12,600 feet, the trail flattens and comes to a col of sorts, just west of Pt. 12,706, affectionately named "Notabon." It has a wind-swept summit with at least one rock shelter. There's a great view north toward the Coney Lakes and into the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. The knobby summit of Audubon is another 625 feet of gain to the SW. Leaving behind the nicer tundra terrain, the main trail begins to fragment into multiple paths through all the rock. Just choose the best path that climbs up through the sloping talus. A number of cairns may mark the best path. This last stretch is the steepest and most difficult and really the only part of this hike that deserves a Class 2 rating. From the col to the summit, you're likely to encounter windy conditions. The summit has several, perhaps as many as a dozen rock shelters people have constructed to block the high winds typical of a Front Range peak.
From the summit, you'll enjoy nice views looking down on Blue Lake, and of the high twelvers to the SW. The view to the eastern plains of Colorado is unobstructed. From here, either continue on to Paiute Peak or return by the same route that you ascended. If returning to the TH from here, many average hikers can complete this hike in about 5-6 hours.
The traverse from Audubon over to Paiute is along the connecting west ridge of Audubon - same as the east ridge of Paiute. This ridge connect is all rocky, hence, slow going. Plan on taking up to an hour to cover the mile long distance. Elevation loss and regain is not that significant, with a loss of 575 feet and 470 feet ascending. There are no great obstacles or clefts along this ridge, but plenty of large, broken rocks to navigate around or over, and plenty of just plain old rubble. Most paths of avoidance took us on the south side of the ridge. The low point saddle is about 23rds of the distance over. The last bit of gain is steep and over more broken boulder rubble. While any number of sources rate this traverse and ascent as Class 2+, a few offer a 3rd class rating.
From the summit, you can view into the more isolated peaks of this wilderness including the spectacular Lone Eagle Peak to the west. This is a very impressive view of some rugged terrain. Be aware that there are two summit areas for Paiute. Last reports I could find place the register on the southern summit while all maps indicate the northern summit to be the true high point at 13,088 ft. The two appear to be equal and various reports indicate any number of persons do not go over to the north summit. One source says the two summits are separated by a short, blunt knife edge ridge. Unfortunately, our notes from then are not detailed enough to offer any other help. What's most interesting is that Google Earth shows the south summit to be highest. We measured 13,058 but could only obtain 13,033 for the north summit, making it over 50 short of the USGS elevation. Best strategy, when in doubt, hit every high point.
For a descent path, try one of two options. Both involve heading down the south ridge that connects over to Mt. Toll. Option 1 departs the ridge a little above 12,800 and follows down a couloir that many use as an ascent route. The east side of the couloir has more stable rock for hand holds, etc. Some persons even prefer to use the rock rib on that side. This couloir will deposit you down west of "Little Blue Lake," the unnamed lake above Blue Lake at 11,833 ft. From there you can work down to Blue Lake on some tundra and/or rubble. Pick up the trail on the west and north side of Blue Lake and follow that trail back past Mitchell Lake to the parking lot.
The other option simply takes you farther down the south ridge of Paiute until you reach some difficulties above the Paiute-Toll saddle. Instead of contending with those difficulties, head east down a mix of rubble, talus and some tundra to the vicinity of "Little Blue lake" (11,833 ft.), and again, pick up the Blue Lake Trail to follow back to the parking lot where the Audubon trail began. This return hike will cover about 4.3 miles total.