RMNP: Flattop & The Trail of Cairns
- CDT Miles: 1,352.7-1,366.8 (14.1 nobo)
- Total Hiked: 2,262.7 miles
- Elevation Range: 8,790-12,320
"Huh, I expected the Rocky Mountains to be a little rockier than this." "I was thinking the same thing... that John Denver is full of shit, man." - Lloyd and Harry (Dumb & Dumber)
Something was pattering my tent when I awoke, but I wasn’t surprised. Not then at least. Rain, I figured. When I went to retrieve my bear can and saw it was clear skies and that some stars were out, that surprised me. Must have been some pine needles or something falling from above.
6:26am start. Switchbacks up right away with views getting more and more open. My campsite had been very near the tree line, around 10,700′. Couldn’t believe my luck with the weather!
This next pic looks out from the side valley I’d turned and hiked up into at the end of the day yesterday. The bigger valley is the one that leads down and out to Grand Lake…
Started hearing an elk bugling as I continued going up “above.”
The sun was hitting some of the peaks, but I stayed in shadow still for a while.
The Pikas (small high elevation animals, grey and quite camouflaged in the rocks, mouse -like, but slightly bigger with big circular ears) were out and squeaking this morning!
The trail had nice tread and overly marked with these giant cairns. I think someone started and then it just became a competition to see who could make the best or tallest.
It was so open up here and sort of flat, which I was digging.
The sun was sneaking its way overtop!
I think this one wins for it’s symmetry and pure craftsman. I particularly enjoy the placement, resting it atop a large smooth boulder that’s pleasant all on its own. I feel the the two objects complement one another in a simple, yet elegant way. The trail passing by in such a straight and continuous, ever onward, also plays into the scene in a way I have yet to understand…
This one wins for tallest at 6′ 3″.
While all this fun was going on, meanwhile, Mr. Elk was just bugling away. And then, I saw him. Standing bold and brave on top of a ridge across the valley. It was so small, but the fact that I could still see antlers up above its head at that distance, let me know it was a big boy. And actually, as I got closer, I learned there were two bulls and a cow, all circling around each other.
Not a great video, but if you listen close you can hear a bugle and if you look close you can pick out some elken.
I wound closer to the elk ridge and as I did I saw there was actually a whole herd, maybe 10-15 total. They crossed a snow/ice patch and then went overtop the ridge out of sight. A very cool experience. In real life, the calls were louder and I could see them more clearly than what shows on my phone camera.
Before turning away, a panoramic sweep up this magical spot…
I followed the shallowly rising trail of cairns up to Flattop Mountain. Or at least a junction labeled that on my app. Not sure where Flattop actually was since it’s somewhat flat. Who would’ve thunk it? Hallet Peak and Ptarmigan Point were very prominent nearby and there were awesome views all around up here.
Not sure if y’all can zoom in on these pics, but if you can, on this next one that looks back, you can see the silly amount of cairns there are. It’s pretty cool and I suppose would be really nice if covered in snow up here…
Here’s the trail junction.
Since it was such beautiful weather, I decided to go on a short side trail to see Tyndall Glacier. The walk was gentle grade and I had breakfast overlooking the giant mass of ice. Amazing!
I tried to capture the noises from the glacier I was hearing, but didn’t show on the videos. I could hear rock and ice breaking and falling from within the mass. Even got to watch a small rock/ice/mud slide along the side. Never really experienced an actually glacier up close I don’t think. This one is small and the whole time I was thinking… I got to get to Alaska!
The team liked the show too. Or at least I think Sumi did, he’s a hard one to read sometimes.
Heading back to the CDT, I could see the trail winding further ahead.
Saw this sign, walked right by.
I take after Ron Swanson and carry a slip of paper ad my permit that reads, “I can do what I want.” Ok the truth is that the ranger told me I could go past any closed signs and such since I have my backcountry permit.
Some ice below Ptarmigan Point too…
There was more shallow blip up, then a slow gradual down to the trailhead. I out on John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High album here and you may laugh, but I got chills.
I got down to the trailhead around 2pm. After a bit hanging trying to hitch, I finally got picked up by some Appalachian Trail section hiker guys… Thanks to Upstream, Twilight and crew! They brought me right into town, right to the laundromat where I wanted to go, even though I think they were only headed part of the way to the Visitor Center. Super nice guys.
While waiting for laundry on a chilly, rain threatening days, why not enjoy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food?
Afterwards, it was up to Shadowcliff Mountain Lodge. I checked in at the office with Kathy and she gave me a tour of the main building. It was so great to shower and got situated!
That night I went back into Grand Lake for dinner and a beer at Sagebrush. I was treating myself after a long stretch, essentially coming all the way from Rawlins, Wyoming. Shadowcliff is wonderful. The staff are great and it has a unique, historic feel to it. Pretty special vibes, so much so that I decided to book another night and make tomorrow a zero day. Woohoo!
Album of the Day
“Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver (1972)