Flattop Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park

Flattop Mountain Summit
Rocky Mountain National Park

by Lloyd Garrick

Flattop Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Although somewhat strenuous, it is not so difficult that any good hiker can't do it; there are always many people on this trail and at the summit. If you want solitude in the wilderness go somewhere else. The "summit" is actually a flat plain, more than big enough for a pro football game (and stadium!), hence the name of this mountain. It is 12,324 feet above sea level. From trailhead to summit is about 4.5 miles, and the elevation gain is about 2850 feet. A moderate hike by Colorado standards, but the thin air makes it seem much harder, especially if you are not used to this altitude.

This hike starts at about 9475 feet, almost a thousand feet higher than anywhere I had been before, and it rises 2800 feet from there. The altitude definitely got me. Beware of this factor if you do this and have not hiked this high before.

If you are in Colorado you know all about Rocky Mountain National Park. If visiting from out of state, get on highway 36 around Boulder, head North and follow the signs; it will take you through Lyons and Estes Park and then right into RMNP. After paying the entrance fee, take the first immediate left and head towards the trailhead at Bear Lake, about 10 miles.

Get an early start. The parking lot fills quickly in the prime months, and you want to plan enough time. This hike took me 8 hours; you need to plan at least 6. Wildlife is everywhere in this park, and they have no fear!

Elk on the road approaching Bear Lake.
These Elk aren't afraid a nothin! Right in front of my car. I got out to take this picture, couldn't have been 10 feet from them. And they didn't care!

Bear Lake at the trailhead.

The trail is very well kept, one of the best I've been on. It is uphill steady all the way, but never very steep. Generally very easy to travel, not steep and rocky like the Fern or Shadow canyon trails.

At first a pleasant walk thru the Aspens.

Then rocky thru the pines.

Longs Peak, distant left.
Early on the trail.
Longs Peak is seen right at the trailhead (parking lot, ranger cabin), and you never lose sight of it the whole way. You will see it from various distances and perspectives; it may be difficult to recognize at times. But it will be a constant companion beginning to end.
The first part of the hike is below the tree line; you will see forests forever.

Panoramic vistas and pine forests abound.

The temperature was moderate, a little cool, at the trailhead. Above the trees there was a noticeable temperature drop. At the summit it was around freezing (there was ice / snow patches all over). And the wind was extreme! Especially near the top.

Emerging above the tree line, the green rapidly thins out and looks mostly like this. Soon it will be totally gone. The trail circles to the right and behind this mound.
Well above tree line, approaching the barren rocky landscapes. The trail winds and weaves, but from here the summit is almost strait ahead, well beyond those rock mounds. We will see them soon from the other side.

Flattop Mountain is quite close to Longs Peak, actually just behind (West) and North a bit. We will get much closer later in the hike and at the summit.

Well up the trail now. Those will be Lake Helene and Two Rivers Lake (if I read my map right).
Longs Peak again in the distance. It will never look like the "Squatting Bull" as when it is seen from the South / East, however the summit block is always the giveaway. From here the trail goes foreward and off to the right - closer to Longs Peak.