Flattop Mountain: Rocky Mountain National Park
12,362 feet. That's the elevation of the mountain we climbed Wednesday. We being Kris and Carrie, my bosses, and their three kids Emma, Abby, and Jack. The kids are 13, 12, and 12 respectively, so it was really impressive that they accomplished such a feat. I'm accustomed to hiking mountains between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. They're very difficult at times with the trails cutting up at a steep incline gaining elevation very quickly. Today's hike was completely different from those in the Whites, and challenging not because of the terrain but because of the altitude.
We chose Flattop Mountain because of its relatively short approach and little elevation gain. The hike was about nine miles with around 2,650 feet of elevation gain. In the White mountains of New Hampshire this hike would have been a piece of cake for all of us. In fact last summer all of the kids climbed Mt. Washington with no issue, a seemingly much more difficult hike on paper.
When we got to the trailhead we were all ready for the long day. The kids were dreading it a bit, but we were all prepared with the necessary equipment and enough snacks to feed an army. Our biggest concern was water because at this altitude dehydration can make physical activities nearly impossible. This was my first real hike in a National Park, so I was super excited to start on our way.
We started on our way at Bear Lake, the same trailhead we had stepped foot on the day before. The trail was very flat and wide for the first half mile consisting only of dry dirt with no rocks and the occasional log step. As the trail started to very gradually incline there were more and more rocks under our feet, but it was still very easy terrain. I was feeling good for the first few miles, and everyone was in a cheerful mood. When we reached our first viewpoint we took a snack break and looked down on Dream Lake. We had been there just the day before and looking down gave us great perspective as to how much elevation we had gained. It looked so far down with the giant boulders we had climbed on looking like tiny pebbles below.
As we climbed and climbed the trail stayed very gradual with great footing. There were long switchbacks as we made our way up, and they got a little bit frustrating after a while. We are all used to the extremely steep direct trails in NH, so adding all of the extra mileage made the hike drag on. As we got further and further up though, we started to be more and more thankful for the easy terrain because catching our breath became difficult.
The second viewpoint overlooked Emerald Lake, yesterday's destination. We could see the bright green water and with the mountains in the background it was a perfect view. As we made our way above treeline the clouds began to push in and the views were suddenly no longer. This part of the hike was the most challenging. Breathing in the dry mountain air was becoming more and more difficult, and I started to get a bit lightheaded. I was surprised that I was feeling the elevation when we were still so low because when I was in Peru I only started to be out of breath like this over 14,000 feet. I then remembered that on that trip I had been at 9,000 feet for a week before hiking, and this was only our second day here.
I could tell Emma and Jack were having a bit of trouble with the altitude. Their faces told me that they weren't having fun anymore and they just wanted to get to the summit so we could be done with the ascent for the day. I tried to crack a few jokes to cheer them up, but it was hard when I felt the same way. Abby on the other hand was a beast, motoring up the mountain like it was a molehill. I was super impressed with her conditioning and a little jealous that she was making it look so easy!
As the threat of afternoon thunderstorms approached the parents struck a deal with the kids that if they made it up to the summit by noon they would get extra screen time to use when we were in town later for dinner. This motivated them to push through and keep going until we got to the top. We were all so relieved that we had made it we quickly rewarded ourselves with sandwiches and cookies. Unfortunately the summit was socked in and drizzling rain so the views weren't as beautiful as we had hoped.
Luckily on our descent the skies cleared and showed off the beautiful mountains that surrounded us. Many of them were covered in glaciers, one of which was so close to the trail that we could touch the snow. I love snow and have been missing it so much, so that was one of my favorite parts of the hike.
I took my time on the way down to treeline taking in all of the views. I could have sat up there all day just looking out at the mountains in front of me. I could see Longs Peak in the distance, so I made a silent vow to myself that one day I would come back and hike to its summit.
Above treeline we also saw a few yellow bellied marmots. They looked like a cross between a squirrel and a beaver and were much bigger than I had imagined. There were also little pikas, another type of squirrel looking rodent scurrying over the rocks. There isn't much wildlife above treeline in the Whites, so it was really interesting to see them on the trail. The last few miles below treeline were a bit less pleasant than the hike up. We were all pretty tired at that point, and although we were moving fairly quickly it seemed to drag on forever. The thunder booming behind us was a bit of a motivator, so after a few rolled ankles we were glad to finally make it back to Bear Lake.
The hike up to Flattop was one of my favorite so far. The views were amazing and the terrain, although easy compared to what I'm used to, was turned into a challenging hike because of the altitude. It felt great to get my blood pumping and feel like a hiker again after a few days off. I'm really proud of the kids for completing this difficult hike, and although there were times that they didn't want to go any further they persevered to make it to the summit. There was very little complaining all day, and I hope they really feel the significance of this accomplishment. Hell I barely made it up there myself! It was a gorgeous hike and a big achievement for everyone.
Flattop Mountain from Bear Lake [9.25 mi, 2640 ft, 5:20].
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