From Flat Land to Flattop


I somehow managed to get up when my alarm sounded at 4:00am; usually alarms just don’t work that early for me part of it has to do with my general laziness with waking up and the fact that I was only going to be working off of about 5 hours of sleep.  Now, I know that isn’t exactly the best situation, but I was determined to take a mountain on that day and knew that getting up early would be my only chance of conquering it.  Checking out was a breeze and early enough that the clerk had not yet had the chance to slip my bill under the door yet.  By 5am (or earlier) I was out in my rental car heading northwest towards Boulder than on to Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park.

The roads were pretty empty this early in the morning with no one really in front of me, behind me, or heading the other way for the most part, until I started to get to the mountains – that is where the driving got interesting.  Here I was in the wee h0us of the morning (still completely dark outside) driving up mountains in the dark on roads I had never been on before.  It wasn’t really nerve-racking, but you did have to be careful.  I just didn’t want an elk or a dear to jump out in the highway with nowhere for me to turn to avoid.  Actually once I got just outside of Estes Park, I did have to stop briefly while some Elk crossed the highway as they fed in the early morning light.

I made my way to the park, taking a bit of a back way due to missing where US 36 made a turn, and was relieved to see that it was early enough that I would not have to worry about paying the $20 entrance fee; the day was getting off to a good start.  Eventually I made my way down twisted roads to reach the Bear Lake Trailhead parking lot.  Getting here this early meant getting a parking spot at the trailhead and not having to rely on the shuttle bus system at the park.

There were a few other hikers getting started this early as well as a group that looked like they were preparing some snow gear.  There wasn’t any substantial amount of snow or ice really anywhere along the trails that I was aware, so maybe they were going to go down a glacier?  All I know is that I quickly changed into my hiking boots and grabbed my gear and made my way to the trail.

Bear Lake

Start of the Flattop Mountain Trail

Starting out, I knew that this trail was not going to be very easy.  It had been some time since my last hike and one in the mountains at that.  Plus there is this whole thing about me being from Florida and enjoying my thick, sea-level air.  So here I was only 10 hours after landing in Denver at a trailhead with an elevation of 9,475 ft about ready to start a 4.4 mi trail that has a nearly 3000 ft change in elevation.  It was going to be a challenge, but from what I read in advance, if I made it to the top I would be rewarded.

Slowly starting off, I made my way up the trail making sure I made the right turn off for Flattop Mountain where I was greeted by a trail that was different from before.  No more was it the nice smooth trail of before, but now a rather rocky trail heading up.  I knew that this was going to be like this in advance, but I guess I expected it to be a bit more like this closer to the top and not this.  Either way, I set out and made my way up the switchbacks stopping occasionally to catch my breath and take in some of the scenery.

The trail turned rocky fairly quickly

And let me tell you, the scenery out here was amazing.  I think the first time I stopped for a longer rest was about an hour in to the hike or so.  From the vantage point I found myself looking over Bierstadt Lake, which is one of the other destinations one can reach from the Bear Lake trailhead.  It was still early in the morning at this point -not even 8am so I just sat there taking it all in.  A few hikers and some trail runners interrupted my thoughts, but all was good.  Hiking by yourself does not mean hiking alone, especially with a trail as popular as this one.

Overlooking Bierstadt Lake

As this story will continue to go I kept hiking my way up the mountain, stopping every now and then to catch my breath in this thin air and to take in some of the scenery.  Along the way I would hike from time with other individuals hiking in small groups or by themselves.  Everyone, back home take note: Hiking by yourself isn’t that crazy, especially on a popular trail (now a more remote trail, that wouldn’t exactly be a very smart thing).  I met lots of interesting people during the climb up and generally all were interested in the fact that I had only got to Denver the day before from Florida and that I was not suffering from any form of altitude sickness.  Thank you modern medicine!

Me at the Dream Lake Overlook

One of the reasons I picked this trail, aside from the challenge it would present to me or it being a popular summit trail, was that this trail starts out in a thick forest to the alpine summit with the transition zones in between.  It makes for some great panoramas of the surrounding peaks and valleys while giving you taste of so many different ecological systems.  Obviously, certain creatures and plants live in the different zones, and on this trail you see how they all manage.  As you break out of the treeline you start to see Pikas (a little rodent like mammal that live off of the grasses that grow in the alpine areas and live in the rocks) along with other small creatures and birds that live only in these high altitudes.

At this point we are talking about being in excess of 11,000 ft and approaching 12,000 ft in elevation.  At these elevations the air was noticeably thinner to this flat-lander.  I was stopping more frequently, but I was determined as the summit was just so very close.  I was going to make it if I was this close; there was no turning back for me.  It didn’t take that much longer and as I followed the cairns up the final change in elevation I reached the summit of Flattop, which is well, flat.

Transition Zone

Looking back down the trail as I near the final push to the summit

Longs Peak hiding behind a ridge next to Flattop

Getting to the summit, as one would expect was amazing.  Not just for the expansive panoramas of the Rocky Mountains surrounding me, but just the fact that I gave myself a pretty tall challenge and managed to accomplish it!  Of course it’s really only the halfway point since one still has to go back down the 4.4 miles back to Bear Lake, but at least it is all downhill.  After 30 minutes or so on the summit where I rested up and ate some lunch it was time to make my way back down.  Many hikers choose to go to the summit of Hallets Peak which is right next to Flattop Mountain and just an additional 300 ft in elevation change.  However, I decided that I just wouldn’t be able to do it – The hike up took long enough and I did want to get back down and the clouds were starting to roll in.  Being above the treeline during a thunderstorm would not be a good idea.

The Summit!! From here one can continue on the Continental Divide Trail

GPS showing that I did indeed make it to the top

Heading back down the mountain was relatively easy and I made it back to the trailhead at Bear Lake in just over 2 hours.  That put the total time for the hike at somewhere just over 7 hours, which meant by this point I was pretty much worn out and just wanted to be checked into my hotel for the night in Denver.  As I left the park it started to rain for a bit, which I was glad I missed on my return hike, as good as I’m sure it would have felt.  There wasn’t anything remarkable too much about the drive back other than stopping for a rather late lunch in Boulder before parking my car at the Sheraton Denver Downtown.  Essentially I walked in the door of my room and couldn’t get into the shower fast enough.  It was only after taking that shower that I noticed that I had been upgraded to a “Mountain View” room facing towards the Rockies to the west of Denver.  The rest of the night was simply spent here, I just didn’t have the energy to go out and that led me to ordering some room service chicken tenders.  At $18, they weren’t exactly cheap either…

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