With a few days of hiking under my boots and some time to acclimate to the altitude change, I decided to take on a little greater challenge. Looking for new destinations and trails not taken in previous years, we fixed our sights on Flattop Mountain.
Flattop, as its name suggests, is a broad, rounded summit rather than a peak. The trail to Flattop is a little less than 9 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of around 3,000 feet. It’s summit is about 12,300 feet which places it noticeably above treeline.
From Flattop Mountain, there is also the possibility of following the ridgeline for approximately 1 mile farther and summiting Hallett Peak, which has dramatic views of both Tyndall Glacier and Lake Haiyaha.
We start our hike at Bear Lake, an easily accessible but still beautiful body of water nestled among the rocks and pines.
We quickly break away from the crowds and start our ascent to the ridgeline which will lead us to the top.
Paralleling the ridgeline on the shallow, Northern face, we fine a peculiar, almost linear boulder field. These rocks range in diameter from a few feet to as much as 10 or 15 feet across.
Looking down from the trail, we see Mills Lake hiding between the ridges.
In the distance we hear, and after a few minutes see, a Hairy Woodpecker tapping into a dead tree.
As we continue to climb, we reach the treeline. Within several hundred feet, the vegetation goes from towering evergreens to fir and spruce no taller than a man. It then quickly diminishes to only ground cover.
There’s something about that transition from the forest to the open mountain face. Seeing the light spread across the scene and feeling the unhindered wind…I truly think it’s one of my favorite parts of hiking in this part of the country.
On one switchback, we stare down the steep and rocky embankment to the sparkling water of Emerald Lake.
The complex texture of this Musk Thistle catches my eye as it grows from between the rocks.
Continuing on, we find a weathered and faded sign bolted to a large bolder. While this trail is relatively safe, the weather can change rapidly in these mountains as has happened to me on more than one occasion.
Above treeline, lightening is the biggest threat but wondering off trail or even walking right off a cliff due to severely limited visibility is also a real danger.
Among the rocks at this altitude, we find the always cute Pika. Though the Pika usually reminds me of a wild teddy tear hamster, it’s actually a relative of the rabbit.
Pikas are usually heard before they’re seen. The emit a high pitched squeak or chirp as a warning to defend their nests. If you continue to approach, they will appear on the tops of rocks to get your attention, then run in an apparent attempt to lead you away from the nest before disappearing again into the rocks and burrows.
Not to be outdone by the Pika, my father poses for a picture as we approach the top.
Also among the rocks we find some baby Marmots. The Marmot is a relative of the ground squirrel but much bigger. Adults can be up to 10 pounds and the size of a large house cat.
After several minutes photographing the babies, mother comes out and urges us to move along.
With the summit in sight, the winds have picked up and angry looking storm clouds fill the Western sky. Intermittent rain and sleet are starting to fall and we can hear distance thunder in the background.
As the mountain obscures our view of the full magnitude of the impending weather, we stop one hiker on the way down and ask how it looks from the other side. The simplicity of his answer speaks volumes, “It looks worse.”
Weighing our desire to get to the top against our desire to hike another day, we opt to make a quick descent back below treeline.
Back in the relative safety of the trees, the sky gradually clears as the storm passes by.
Living along the forest floor, we spot a King Bolete Mushroom. These giant mushrooms appear periodically in the more moisture rich areas of the trail.
While taking a break, a curious Chipmunk appears, searching for food.
As we walk by, we notice an Eastern Comma Butterfly perched on the side of a tree. It’s amazing what you can find in the woods with a keen eye and a little patience.
Almost back to the trailhead, we find a Fireweed in late bloom. The contrast of the flowers against the green underbrush is quite striking.
Even though we didn’t make the summit, I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. The beauty throughout the entire diverse range of terrains and ecosystems is simply amazing.