Colorado, Colorado Hikes, Colorado Summits, Rocky Mountain National Park, US National Parks

Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak

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.

Bear Lake, with Hallett Peak in the background

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.

These photos aren’t blurry, that’s blowing snow!

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.

Looking down at Emerald Lake
Nearing tree line
Bierstadt and Sprague Lakes are visible near the center of this photo

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:

Dream Lake, with Hallett Peak (left) and Flattop Mountain (right)
Emerald Lake, with Hallett Peak (center left) and Flattop Mountain (right)

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.

Looking toward the Flattop summit

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.

Looking across Tyndall Gorge to the summit of Hallett Peak

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.

Flattop Mountain summit

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.

Looking down Tyndall Gorge

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.

Looking northwest along the Continental Divide
Looking back at Flattop
Our route to Hallett Peak
The final climb up Hallett (photo by Chelsea)

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.

Hallett Peak
Looking back across Tyndall Gorge to Flattop Mountain
Longs Peak (left) is the highest point and only 14er in the park

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.

Mr. Marmot on the summit of Flattop Mountain
A marmot decided to join us on Hallett as well (can you spot him?)

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.

24 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak”

  1. One of the most memorable hikes I’ve taken – I so enjoyed this post. That was before you needed to register in advance. I believe this is the one where we slid down a glacier on the way back, speeded the return trip up a bit!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great hike! Love that photo of the trees & clouds reflecting in Bear Lake. And how amazing is the contrast between winter and summer 😲. I can certainly see the last bit of that climb was a rocky one, but wow … what stunning views you had!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My thought to best avoid the crowds on Rocky Mt. National Park would be to enter through the Grand Lake entrance and then look around. The hikes seem more manageable for my abilities there than in the steeper interior of the park.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting! Perhaps they’re a different subspecies or something. Or maybe they just blend in better being so dark. I’ll be interested to make the comparison myself next time I’m in the Canadian Rockies.

      Like

  4. What a great day you had for it! We really enjoyed hiking to Hallett on our one and only visit to RMNP waaay back in 2001. It was the first time we saw pikas 🙂 I remember reaching the summit just before noon, and within 10 minutes we heard the first rumbles of thunder which prompted us to start our descent. We only just made it to the treeline before the storm hit us – and we met people still going up!! Is the Tyndall Glacier still there? It was already quite small in 2001 and we’ve seen how much some of the glaciers near Vancouver have shrunk in that time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aren’t pikas just the cutest? They’re my favorite tundra critter! Sounds like you guys had a lovely hike… bummer it was cut short by weather. I can definitely relate, it has happened to me multiple times.

      Tyndall “Glacier” is still there but it’s no linger classified as a glacier (not sure if it was in 2001 either). It’s visible as the snowfield in my photo that is taken from Flattop, looking across at Hallett.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes pikas are just the best! We saw a couple at the weekend again, the last little critters out and about as the marmots have all gone into hibernation now.

        The Tyndall Glacier definitely looked more like ice than snow in 2001 but, yeah, I’m not surprised it’s no longer classified as a glacier. So sad to see them shrink like that!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad it finally worked out on your 4th try! It looks like it was worth the wait. Dream Lake is such a great name for this beautiful setting! Your Bear Lake photo actually reminds me of a lake not too far from here. The reflection is beautiful.
    I’ve been super busy with work and way behind in my reading/writing so have some catching up to do. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Once again, you’ve posted an amazing and wonderful chronicle of sheer beauty. The photo ‘looking down at Emerald Lake’ impressed me, I hiked to Emerald in May. It’s really cool to see the lake shore where I had lunch. Really nice perspective. Thank you for your narrative and photographs.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So many beautiful photos, Diana, especially the wonderful reflections of the lake and the one with the marmot; they are such adorable creatures. I am glad to hear you finally made it to Flattop Mountain, Colorado is a seriously beautiful place for anyone who loves being outdoors. Hiking is fun and is a great travel experience, but walking is also an awesome way to immerse yourself in nature for a day and that’s why I miss exploring proper mountains. Thanks for sharing and have a lovely day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m glad that the fourth time was the charm! And what great weather you had that day: it made for sublime, clear views from the calm of the lake to the overhead lookout from the summit. Flattop Mountain looks to be place that I’d like to hike to, should I return to Colorado!

    Liked by 1 person

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