Location: Bear Lake trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park
Dogs: Not allowed in the National Park
Entrance Fee: $20 for a 7 day pass to the park
It seems everyone wants to climb a 14er. Flattop Mountain at Rocky Mountain National Park is a good training hike for someone considering a 14er. It's a challenging hike with great views and it will get you hiking above 12,000 feet.
The trail for Flattop Mountain starts at Bear Lake. For the first mile, there are several trail splits. At Bear Lake, turn right. A few steps later, take the trail split toward Lake Bierstadt. (The Bierstadt 14er is not in the park, it's near Georgetown.)
This is when the trail starts going up. Expect a steady climb with just occasional flat spots on the trail for the next 4+ miles.
About a half mile from the trailhead, leave the Bierstadt trail and take the split toward Flattop Mountain and Lake Odessa. Here the trail becomes a very rocky path on the side of a hill. This area is very sunny in the morning with just occasional shade from the trees next to the path. As you head up, don't just watch the rocky trail and your feet, take the time to look up and around you. The views of Long's Peak, Glacier Gorge and the mountain range next to Long's Peak are just breathtaking. The trail here is fairly steep and you can expect that most of the way. Remember, this trail climbs 3,000 feet in 4.4 miles. If you're struggling here, consider turning around and hiking to Lake Bierstadt.
About 1 mile from the trailhead comes the last trail split. Going straight takes hikers to Lake Helene, Lake Odessa, Fern Lake and a nice loop to Cub Lake and the shuttle back to the main parking lot. For Flattop Mountain, simply follow the sign for Flattop Mountain and keep climbing.
While the views on this hike are amazing, the trail to Flattop Mountain also has two overlooks. The Dream Lake overlook at 1.75 miles from the trailhead features a shallow Dream Lake below. There's also a beautiful view of Long's Peak and Mills Lake below it in the Glacier Gorge valley. If you turn to your right and look through the trees, you can also see Hallet Peak and Tyndall Glacier.
Between the Dream Lake overlook and the Emerald Lake overlook 1.25 miles away, hikers cross treeline and start up a series of steep switchbacks. Notice at about 11,000 feet how the trees shrink until all that's left is occasional ground cover. There are large cairns piled up at some of the switchback corners. Why not add a rock or two as you go by?
At the Emerald Lake viewpoint, a sign warns hikers "do not descend." Possibly because it's 1,200 feet and nearly straight down to the lake. From the Emerald Lake viewpoint to the top of the mountain is another 1.4 miles and 1,000 feet. The next 1,000 feet gets tough. The air is thinner. Make sure you drink plenty of water and consider having a snack at the Emerald Lake viewpoint.
A few steps up from this viewpoint is a sign warning hikers how quickly the weather can change. That's good advice. Watch the skies and if clouds are forming, turn around. You don't want to be up here when there's lightning, fog and other dangerous weather.
Just below the final .4 of a mile to the top is a horse rack. A place for riders to tie up their horses. In mid-July, our group found a large snowfield here. While it looks like a place to play and take pictures, it's also the trail. Go up the snowfield, look for the cairns and continue to the top of FlatTop. The FlatTop trail ends at a trail split telling hikers they can continue on to the Tonahutu or North Inlet trails on the other side of the park. At this point, you're at the top, 4.4 miles from the trailhead. But don't stop here. Turn left towards Hallett Peak and Tyndall Glacier. Follow the cairns through the rocks to the sign for Tyndall Glacier. The views here are once again breathtaking. To your west is Grand Lake. To your east is the glacier below you, then the valley back to Bierstadt Lake, Sprague Lake in the distance and even the strip of land for the Bear Lake parking lot.
Standing on the Continental Divide is a gift. The views are incredible. There's a photo opportunity in every direction.
When you arrive, the first thing you need to do is look at the clouds. Are you safe to stay or do you need to hike down and fast?
Second, consider if you have the time and the strength to climb Hallett Peak on the other side of Tyndall Glacier. It's another 400 feet of steep scrambling over talus and rocks to get to the top.
Third, take photos in every direction.
Then if you have time, find a spot near Tyndall Glacier, hopefully behind/below a rock, out of the wind and enjoy the views and a snack or lunch. This is a peaceful spot to take in the view and to congratulate yourself on a peak bagged.
As you hike back down, enjoy the alpine flowers. Notice how so many of them grow next to boulders for protection from the wind.
Look and listen for pikas and marmots. Some came way too close to the trail the day we were hiking. Do not feed the animals and do not touch them. The animals need to remain as wild as possible for their own protection.
If you have a favorite trail to share or a question about this hike, e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.