It was a long time coming, but 2021 was the year Chelsea and I finally stood atop Hallett Peak!
I don’t remember when we originally decided we wanted to do this hike, but it was a while ago. The first time we made plans for it, Chelsea had to cancel. The second time, I was the one who cancelled. The third time, forest fire smoke forced us to change plans. Finally, this past July, we made it! Fourth time is the charm… as they say. Or something like that.
This hike begins at Bear Lake Trailhead in Rocky, also known as the busiest place in the park as it’s the starting point for many great hikes. Due to its popularity and also COVID, timed entry permits are now required at Rocky from May-October in order to better manage crowds. Specifically, to enter the Bear Lake corridor between 5am-6pm each day one must have a permit. They are available in advance online and sell out very quickly, especially the early morning time slots. Fortunately I was able to snag one, and the weather kindly decided to cooperate with us on this particular day. So off we went!
Just a couple hundred yards up the trail is Bear Lake, which on this particular morning was completely calm.
From here, we continued along the lake shore to the north following signs for Flattop Mountain. Not long after, the trail forks; for Flattop and Hallett, go left. At the next fork, go left again. It’s a steady ascent for pretty much the entirety of the hike. However, we found it to be a fairly well-graded climb; not too steep, but a consistent 600 feet per mile (115 m per km).
Pat and I had actually snowshoed the first mile or so of this trail a few months prior, heading up toward Flattop Mountain for a short distance before the freezing wind forced us to turn around. Here are a few photos from that day.
Anyway. As Chelsea and I neared tree line, we were able to see progressively more and more of the surrounding landscape including many of the lakes along the Bear Lake corridor. By far the best view was that of Emerald Lake, which does indeed look somewhat emerald-colored from above.
As we continued our ascent, it became clear that the second half of this hike wasn’t going to be what I expected. Flattop and Hallett are adjacent peaks along the Continental Divide. Between them is Tyndall Gorge, home to Dream and Emerald Lakes. Here is what Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain look like from the shore of these lakes:
As we climbed higher, though, it quickly became clear that what you can see from the lakes is not the actual summit of either of these mountains. The Flattop summit (elevation: 12,324 feet/3756 m) is in fact fairly flat, but the actual highest point is quite a distance beyond what is visible from below. As we cleared the trees and the trail curved around, we were surprised how much further we still had to go.
And then there’s Hallett, which is scarcely recognizable from up here. The iconic angular monolith visible from below isn’t even close to being the summit. It’s actually just one end – the lowest end – of a lengthy ridge line. The summit is at the opposite end.
Eventually we made it across the expansive tundra to the summit of Flattop. It’s a very broad summit. We didn’t find a summit marker, but one area looked to be the highest so we rock-hopped our way over and climbed onto the tallest boulder.
Rocky only maintains the trail as far as the Flattop summit. From here, we followed the cairns that denote the unmaintained trail across the saddle between the two summits. I assumed we’d be able to see down Tyndall Gorge to Emerald and Dream Lakes from here, but once again I was wrong. We could see Tyndall Glacier and a small tarn, but the lakes themselves were blocked by the terrain.
The trail descends only slightly after Flattop before beginning the ascent up Hallett (elevation 12,720 feet/3877 m). The steepest part of the entire hike was the final rocky climb up to the Hallett summit.
And finally, there we were! It was a reasonably calm day by Colorado standards, and there are a couple wind blocks on the summit. We staked a claim to one of them, and once out of the wind it was pretty perfect summit weather; the sun was warm, the sky was mostly clear (although slightly hazy), and we spent quite a while soaking up some vitamin D while enjoying the lovely views.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the many alpine wildflowers and the tundra critters we spotted along the trail, including marmots, pikas, and even a couple ptarmigans.
Hallett and Flattop: check!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the trail departs from Bear Lake Trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park; follow signs for Flattop Mountain
- Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP (or interagency pass); currently you must also purchase a timed entry permit if you arrive to this trailhead after 5am (more info here)
- Hiking: for Flattop only, it’s about 9.2 miles (14.8 km) round trip with 2700 feet (823 m) of elevation gain; for Flattop + Hallett the round trip hike is 10.6 miles (17 km) with 3166 feet (965 m) of elevation gain
- Where to stay: there are 5 campgrounds in the park, a few near the park, and dozens of lodging options just outside in the town of Estes Park. Backpacking (permit required) is also an option; there are no backcountry sites along this particular trail but there are a few on other trails that connect to this one
- Other: Probably the biggest concern on this hike is the weather. We were above tree line for a loooong time, with no place to seek shelter. Keep a close eye on the clouds and be ready to turn around at any time if a storm approaches.