Winter is coming!
Words that most people dread. But don’t fear the quickly approaching season; I have a recipe for a perfect winter day:
1 part great friends, 2 snowshoes per person, 1 warm winter outfit. Add wine to your taste preference. Pair with a big mountain. Serving: One epic day.
The mountains can be intimidating, especially to those who don’t live near them year round. Add cold and snow into that mix and they seem almost untouchable. Tackling the mountains, especially in the winter should be done caution and experience, but there are some epic adventures to be had for those who want to venture out into the cold during the winter months.
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is a pretty spectacular place to do just that. Not being familiar with the area, I contacted a Colorado local for some advice on a good beginner trail to snowshoe in the park; offering sweet views, a bit of a challenge and not so remote that it removes the level of safety for our small group. His recommendation was Flat Top Mountain, in the heart of RMNP. Don’t have a local to give you a recommendation? Talk to the park rangers for some managable ideas that match your skill and comfort level as well as information on trail and weather conditions you may face. There are many great winter trails for all levels in RMNP !
Find the start of the Flat Top Mountain trail at the Bear Lake Trailhead (I recommend making sure your car as good winter tires. Our rental barely made it to the trailhead on the icy, snow-covered roads in March). This trek is a basic out and back, but be prepared for an up hill climb. The first part of the trail has gradual switchbacks, while the final push to the top of the mountain is steep and directly uphill. You will gain about 3,000 feet in elevation over 4.3 miles. (The hike is 8.6 miles return).
Start at Bear Lake and head counter-clockwise around the lake on the Bierstadt Lake Trail. In 0.3 of a mile, turn left on the trail for Lake Helene.
After 0.5 miles you will turn left again for the Flat Top Mountain trail. What I love about this trail is the ever-changing views along the route. While you climb through the trees, you can catch glimpses of Dream and Emerald lake down below (which are on a more popular, easy winter hike worth exploring if you are in the area).
Once you break out above tree line, the route will become far less obvious and you will have to find a path of least resistance to the top of a very steep hill. If your snowshoes have heel lifts on the back, this would be the ideal time to use them to save your calves.
From here on out the views get exponentially better, even when you didn’t think it was possible! From the top of Flat Top, you can look directly over to Glacier Gorge and the infamous Longs Peak.
360 views are the reward for a grueling climb. The true “summit” itself is open to interpretation as the name “flat top” means that the top is basically wherever you choose it to be.
Don’t stay for too long, the wind and cold at the top are harsh, so you will want to get moving soon enough. If you find a spot among the rocks and out of the wind, dig out your hand warmers and a glass of vino and salute a cheers to your pals for joining you on this crazy adventure. It’s a worthwhile view and a day well spent with your friends.
One a more serious note: fun in the mountains, especially in winter is not without danger. Be sure you talk to a Ranger and be knowledgable about the rapidly changing weather conditions and avalanche risks inherent to the terrain. Make sure you are always prepared for anything when you set out on the trail, especially in the winter. Don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen; even if the sun isn’t out, the reflection off the snow can be damaging. Use extra caution and be safe; you’ll sure have an epic day.