Contact: Rich Kurz Page content last updated 10/05/2010
The Trail - Flattop Mtn. trail + North Inlet trail (map is 1 MB) / Distance: ~17.5 mi. / Elapsed time: 9-1/4 hrs.
Waypoints: Bear Lake: 7:18 / A - Dream Lake overlook: 8:18 / B - Emerald Lake overlook (1st lunch): 9:50 /
C - Flattop Mountain summit: 10:25 / D - Ptarmigan overlook / Top of 1st switchbacks: 11:30 /
E - Bighorn ram along switchbacks: 11:45 / Bottom of switchbacks - enter forest: 12:00 / F - Rich's big trip (2nd lunch): 12:50 /
G - A meadow pond / H - Big Ponds: 14:30 / I - Fox: 15:45 / North Inlet trailhead: 16:32 / J - Ice cream in Grand Lake: 17:15
Aspen above Bear Lake
Moon at treeline
B - Halletts Peak
Snow on north face
C - Flattop Mountain summit
Quicktime panorama of summit (3.7 MB)
D - Ptarmigan Point & Lake Helene
(stereo) Cairns at North Inlet and Tonahutu trail junction
Fall tundra colors
Looking into the Hallett Creek Valley
A head water creek
North Inlet trail on Flattop
Beginning the 1st switchbacks descent
E - Meeting the locals
Entering the forest
Along 2nd switchbacks - more aspens, but not many
F - Down on the valley floor
H - The upper Big Pond
Oddly shaped aspen trunk
(stereo) Along the trail, west of the Big Ponds
Coming out on Summerland Park - almost there
Hooray! the North Inlet trailhead
J - On Grand Ave. in Grand Lake, looking east
My daughter and I left the Bear Lake parking lot at 7:18 a.m. and quickly stopped at Bear Lake (ele. 9450 ft.) for a quick beauty shot. It is likely the most photographed spot in the Park, and the photographers positioned around the east and north shores of the Lake were adding to its reputation. Just above Bear Lake is a stand of Aspen within easy walking distance of a car. But just lke last year, they had turned and dropped early. Too bad. The remaining leaves of the stand were a fiery orange - a sight I would have loved to photograph at their height. The trail is rather rocky - not big stuff, just what's left after years of washout. After an hour we took a brief rest at the Dream Lake overlook (ele. 10,400 ft.). Watching the wind-driven ripples move across the lake surface six hundred feet below makes for an entertaining animation. We shortly came up to tree line at 11,000 ft and with the altitude gain, we maintained our careful pace. Suzanna leads because she has a good sense of a not-too-fast, not-too-slow speed. I would go too fast and then need to rest every ten minutes or so.
As we clear treeline and turn southward, we enter the hardest part of the climb. We need patience here because our muscles feel fatigued and the progress feels too slow. Distances and time are deceiving to me on a hike. And soon we arrive at an overlook (ele. 12,200 ft.) about a half mile from the summit. From here one has view of all of Halletts Peak and a portion of Tyndall Glacier. Last year the slope to our right was filled with snow in July, but it is bare rock today. We had forgotten to bring suntan lotion, but thanks to Doug from Philadelphia (Hi Doug! I hope you read this.) we were well covered. After a good lunch break, we continued to the summit (ele. 12,300 ft.) and it was not even noon!
I love the view on Flattop. It goes off in all directions: Trail Ridge to the north, Shadow Mountain Lake and Grand County to the west, the Indian Peaks to the south, and Halletts Peak to the east. The ground is flat, but strewn with fractured rocks and tundra ground cover. We descended to the west a short distance to the Ptarmigan overlook (ele. 12,220 ft.) at the junction of the Tonahutu and North Inlet trails. Tonahutu beckons as it rises over a ridge to the west, but we are going south today. From here, pairs of cairns about 5 foot high mark our path. We will pass maybe two dozen until we reach the switchbacks.
For the next 45 minuutes, it is a pleasant hike, mildly downhill. We are wrapping around the Hallett Creek arm of the North Inlet valley, and the switchbacks are visible across the valley. We met the only people we saw between the Emerald Lake overlook and the Big Ponds along the switchback. They were sweating up the switchbacks under their backpacks. We learned they came up from Grand Lake and were hiking the Continental Divide across Rocky. It is a sizable descent from the tundra down to the forest (11,600 ft. to 10,800 ft.). Along the way we came across one of the locals - a sizable bighorn ram. The photo was taken just 20 feet from him! We slowly made our way while he slowly ambled off away from us. We reached the forest right at noon.
Hiking in the forest was actually rather warm because it shielded us from any breeze. We soon packed our overshirts and proceeded in our short-sleeve T's. It was also continuously downhill now and I was watching out for a good second hiking stick to help my knees. We made it down a 2nd batch of switchbacks and I found an okay stick. About halfway tween the last switchback and the Nokoni Lake trail junction (ele. 9,600 ft.), I made a special trip. Trip I did! I couldn't get my foot up over an obstacle and all I had time to do was exclaim "OH NO" before I hit the ground. I managed to twist enough to land on my shoulder instead of face-planting, but I scraped my knee and cramped my calf, so it took a couple of minutes before I could get up. Suzanna was cool and her first thought was on first aid, which she had prepared for. I decided that was a good place to have our second lunch (and let my joints and muscles rest and relax). Anyway, Suzanna insisted. In 20 to 25 minutes, we were back on the trail with no hurts to accommodate.
This part of the hike is all in wooded terrain and as such is not visually very interesting. It also makes it harder to judge progress. The longer we went, the slower time passed. I was hoping to see aspen on this hike, but there were few along the trail and they were not at all dazzling. The lack of rain for the last two months has affected them and they looked all dried out. From the Nokoni trail junction on, we were on the valley floor and hiking along North Inlet Creek, which empties into Grand Lake. We marked our progress by the campsite signs. The next notable waypoint for us was the Big Ponds (ele. 9,000 ft.). They are big only in comparison to the lack of them elsewhere. Still, they are a pleasant stopping point, tree-shaded and inviting to wade into. But we did not see anyone doing that, and we did not do so (although Suzanna had been voicing her intention for an hour). We did not because by this point the hike was beginning to hurt her feet and my knees.
Between the Ponds and Summerland Park, we found an oddly shaped aspen trunk. How did it grow that way? We also came upon a very healthy looking fox who was hardly concerned by us. He and we stayed withing 5 to 10 feet of each other for a good 3+ minutes before he decided which way to go. But the hike was starting to become tiresome and irritating, and from Summerland Park on it even seem interminable. The lower half of Summerland Park is actually private property and the trail is lined by fencing much of the way. As the trail curved around another fence we kept expecting to reach the trailhead. And just as often we would look ahead another eighth of a mile and see another fence! Or worse... we would see another hill!! In the last half mile, my knees started to seriously hurt and I began to limp. But at last we saw the parking lot at the top of the last rise. Suzanna ran up that hill with a joy-driven sprint, while I judiciously kept moving while I still could. It was 4:30 and we had made it! (ele. 8,500 ft.)
But it was hard to sit and hard to stand.
Because our ride was due to pick us up at 6:00, I decided, knees or not, to head into Grand Lake.
I had promised us each an ice cream cone at a favorite home-made ice cream shop in Grand Lake.
I still don't know the store's name, but it is just a half block west of the community hall on Grand Avenue.
We set out again, but descending the road from the trail head to the town was by now excruciating.
I only made it down by poling myself down, grimacing overtly, and remembering the Bill Cosby routine in which he endures a tonsilectomy by chanting, "ice cream."
It took me 15 minutes to get to the end of the road.
Suzanna was insisting insistently that we rest right there by the road and WAIT for our ride.
I was not convinced, but I was also not ready to go on yet.
And lo and behold, not a minute later, who should come along, but our ride - my wife and my youngest daughter!
We hopped in and drove down to the ice cream shop for our well earned treat.
It was with a painful limp that I walked from the parked car, into the store, ordered my cone, and made my way out to the nearest bench (ele. 8,484 ft.).
But I did it. And WE DID IT! And we are not yet talking about doing the Tonahutu trail.
Not yet, anyway.