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40 Mile Bear Lake to Grand Lake Loop, RMNP, Sept 7, 2009

October 14, 2009

Day 1

Posted October 13, 2009


Every once and a while, you do something really smart.  And then, just to keep things in balance, every once in a while you do something really, uh, NOT smart.

And then occasionally, you do something that you’re not really sure was smart or not smart (ok, dumb).

On Monday, Sept 7 (Labor day : ), Will and I began our “we’re not really sure if it was a smart thing to do but we had fun mostly and lived to tell about it” epic hike.  The short version of our trip was to start hiking from Bear Lake, RMNP, hike over the continental divide to Grand Lake, and spend the night there in a motel.  Around 20 miles.

And then, the next day, hike back to Bear Lake by a different route of another 20 miles.

Before I go any further in the trip’s description, here is my standard comment. Please check my photo galleries here for all the larger and higher quality photos for this trip. The photos in the gallery are a quantum leap in size and quality compared to the little teaser photos I put in this site’s trip narrative.

In addition, I have two other links that will help locate the area if you are interested in making the hike yourself. A Google Earth map can be found here. Use the scale bar on the left side of the Google map to help zoom in or out to help locate the area based on where you live. (This link will direct you to a Google map that shows ALL my trips.) In order to help you with the actual trail itself, you can use this link to view a topo map (a low quality one, care of the great National Geographic TOPO program that one of my sons purchase for me : ) of the Bear Lake to Grand Lake trail. All links open a new browser window.


In addition to the Google map link above, below is a Microsoft Live map. The red tack shows the general location of the trail from Fort Collins, CO. You can click on the map to bring it up in a “live” mode and zoom in or out (move the map around) to get more detail.

Map image

The day started off with extremely nice weather.   We got to the Bear Lake parking lot at around 7:30 in the morning.  Plenty of time to find a good parking spot.  It didn’t cost anything to leave the car there overnight, but I did have to get a permit from the back country ranger station (back at the park entrance).


Bear Lake is around 9,475 feet elevation.  The first “leg” of the hike is about a five mile hike up to the top of  Flattop mountain at 12,324 feet in elevation.  Guaranteed to warm you up : )

The fall colors were just starting to show off.


Now, I’ll go ahead and tell you right at the beginning, you see a lot of Longs Peak on the way up the trail.  So, obviously, I had to take some photos.


We really didn’t do a lot of this.  Sitting that is.  Although Will did a little more than me because I had to take photos.  Which means he had to wait for me to catch up.  Well, taking photos is my excuse and I’m sticking with it.  That said, the trail up to Flattop Mountain is pretty much of a steep walk.  For five miles.  And, occasionally I had some trouble finding oxygen to pull into my lungs.  But, there are some very pretty sections, so we enjoyed it on this first day (not so much the following day : )


Bierstadt Lake close in and Estes Park in the distance


Will probably looking at Longs Peak in the distance.  You get some great views down into Bear Lake and Emerald Lake along the way.


At this particular point, we are still quite frisky.  Hallett’s Peak behind Will.


Pretty sure I’ve seen that peak before.  This shot was a little bit of a strain.  Into the sun and I could have reduced my exposure a bit.


This frames it pretty nicely.


Weren’t too many flowers left.


Little closer shot.  It was a tad breezy.


The upper tundra was definitely showing fall colors.


As can be seen, the weather was very nice early on.


So at this point, we though we had it licked. Hey, we’re above timberline, right?  How much further can it be to the top?  Well, as it turned out, quite a ways.


I went for quite a ways without taking a photo (probably close to an hour) to get to this point from the last photo.  But, this is getting fairly close to the top.  Maybe 20-30 minutes (I was not exactly running up the trail at this point).  Nice view back towards Estes Park


This is a shot looking up the trail.  Great clouds.  If you ride horses up to this point, there is a place to tie them up.


Will sitting down near the sign that marks the top of Flattop Mtn.  Waiting on me, of course.  So, if you are keeping track, we’ve done slightly less than 5 miles out of the total 20 we need to do before it gets dark. Our immediate route is pretty much the direction the camera is pointing.  The trail kinda curves a little over to the right towards that, uh, what they call a glacier around here.  Or, permanent pile of snow.  It called Ptarmigan Point and provides a really nice view.


Here ya go.  You can see the trail winding off into the distance.  It keeps going for quite some ways.  We spent approximately an hour and a half crossing the alpine tundra after leaving this sign.  But, the views were such that the time wasn’t a problem at all.  Also, the sign is giving directions to a place just down the trail where trail splits in two.  One continues “straight” (kinda NW, what you see in the photo) and is the Tonahutu Trail.  The other goes to the “right” (kinda S) and is called the North Inlet Trail.


Here is looking back at Hallett’s Peak.  Quite a number of the hikers that we met were continuing towards the top of that peak.


And, even though my camera doesn’t have a super zoom lens on it, here is a zoomed view of some of those hikers (they really stand out on my smugmug site; see link above).


Passed a little snow pack on our way to Ptarmigan overlook.


Nice red algae.


Here we are at the trail juncture I was talking about.  I’ll be coming down that trail towards this spot tomorrow.  But not Will (more on that later).


And here is the view from Ptarmigan overlook.


Slightly different perspective.


So, here we go.  It would be difficult to get lost on this trail.  It wasn’t as well maintained as this section all the time, but you didn’t have to worry about getting lost.  Although I did wonder (quite often) exactly “where” the trail was leading.


Almost lost in the surroundings, Will spotted a marmot out sunning itself.  And, in addition, being entertained by strange looking creatures walking past.


Here is a little bit of a zoom.


Nice photo that gives us a bit of a reason to keep moving along.  That’s Lake Granby in the distance with the edge of Grand Lake (our destination for tonight) just barely showing near the bottom of Lake Granby.


But for now, we head in a slightly different direction.  Which was a bit unsettling because, well, I mean, the lake’s over thataway.  Why are we going thisaway?  O well.  The scenery was nice to look at : )


At this point in time, we didn’t care about the direction (mostly).  The day was lovely (if you didn’t look too far to the west : ), our surroundings were glorious, and, if you haven’t noticed, the trail was flat.  Which was a really good thing after the almost 5 mile climb up Flattop Mountain.


Hmmm.  I could have sworn I put the pizza in here.  Dad, did we forget the pizza?


Great view of the upper reaches of Tonahutu Creek.  And look.  Yes, I do believe its DOWNHILLLLL!  Yeah, we got it made now.  Downhill all the way to Grand Lake.  Got this hike licked.  Heh, heh.  We hiked through some very pretty upper meadows just below here.  Most of them were to the left.  Looked like a great place to camp and explore.  As did that far valley just above Will’s head.  Lots of really cool country.  We had seen no one on the trail (or off the trail) since leaving the trail juncture back at the top of Flattop Mountain.  And this was Labor Day.  All the people, or the vast majority, were all down on the roads in the park.


Hmmm.  A sign.  Gee.  What could it say?


Oh.  Twelve miles?  Well, that IS a ways.  In fact, we haven’t even gotten half way.  No biggie, it’s all downhill.  Right?  So, no big deal. And, actually, we were doing pretty good.  We had made very good time.  Even with me taking photos.


So, we start the big downhill.  Actually kinda a nice section of the trail.  Great view.  Pretty surroundings.  I had a hard time not taking a photo every ten feet.


You can see the trail winding across the steep upper slope of the head of the valley.  There are some old switchbacks above the main trail that you can barely see.  Not sure from what.  Almost too well defined to be a game trail.


We crossed a lot of little springs along this section of the trail.  Doing their part to try and keep the last flowers of summer in full bloom.  And of course, after two and a half to 3 hours of above timberline hiking, we were back in the trees.


This was a pretty fun area.


Now, here is a photo of the upper Tonahutu valley that we would be going down.  Some where down there, about 5-6  miles or so, are Big Meadows.  But before that, a rather long hike down a pretty valley.  You can see (barely) one small meadow down the valley.  I stopped there and took a photo looking back up at where Will and I are currently standing.


Into the woods we go.


Will is scouting out a big rock for us to sit on for a real lunch break.  I’d like to come back some day and hike/camp up in that valley up above boulders.  The main valley we hike down is off to the left.


Taking a well earned break.


Will took my camera for a spin and nabbed a photo of the old guy.


After leaving our lunch spot, we came onto a nice set of small waterfalls.


Little closer.


Will seeing how high he can bounce on the logs.  Note the poncho in his hand.  It rained on us for a few minutes, and then stopped.  That was the only rain we got that day.  Although, it was cloudy going down most of the valley.


Just the waterfall by itself.


The trail runs through a few small meadows on the way down to the “big” meadows..


Like I said, here’s looking back up the valley at where we had descended into the treeline.




Ran into a nice set of waterfalls going down a series of “bowls”.


Close up.


So, nice section of trail.  Not a lot to see as far as vistas, but just pleasant.  Except that we’ve been on the trail now for around 6 -7 hours and getting a little tired.  Got another 3-4 hours to go.  But we didn’t know that : )


Starting to get close to the big meadows area.


Stopped and took a break next to the stream.


Now we’re at the upper reaches of the Big Meadows.


The trail follows the outside curve of Big Meadows.  So, it almost looks like you are circling them during the hike.  But, you are not.  However, it is one heck of a big meadow.


Will wondering if the meadow will ever end : )


But, slowly, the meadow grew narrower……


Until we were back in the forest.


Now, at this point in time, I’m fairly sure that we entered a time/space warp.  Or, possibly a portal into another dimension. By the map, we only had another 4 plus miles to go to Grand Lake.  But, due to the strange anomaly that we encountered, our best guess is that we actually traveled another 437 miles over approximately 65 days before we got to Grand Lake.  It was………………..the Twilight Zone.  Really.
However, even in the shadow land that we had to cross, it was still very pretty.  But, we were getting just a tad tired.


The people in this strange twilight zone built their waterworks out of wood.  As with this long snaking pipe made of wood.




It went on for miles.


Eventually, after months of hiking, we came to the fair town of Grand Lake.  Around 6 pm at this photo.  So, about 10 hours (Earth time) on the trail.  Not bad.


Sorry.  No photos of Grand Lake.  My primary goal was to “find bed”-“eat”-“fall in bed”.  So, thoughts of taking photos kinda became non-existent.

It was close to another mile of hiking into downtown to our motel (the Lone Eagle, I think; nice management, nice place, good price, they even said they would just leave the key out for us if we got in after 9pm).  Once we ditched our backpacks in our room, we walked slowly (much easier without the packs) back to the Sagebrush for something to eat.  Great place.  Awesome food (even if we hadn’t been starved out of our minds it still would have been great food : )

Once we got back to our room, Will stayed up watching TV for a few minutes.  I took a quick shower and went to bed and fell asleep immediately.  Actually went to bed early enough that when I woke up at 6:30 am the next day I felt like getting up.  Ok.  I was a little stiff.

To be continued………………..

– Geoff Weatherford

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Lois permalink
    June 29, 2013 11:25 am

    Did you used to live in Fairbanks, AK?
    I knew a Geoff and Annie Weatherford in the 80’s and was just wondering….
    I am getting ready to do this hike with my daughter, Dania, for the 3rd time and saw
    your blog…let me know.
    Lois DeRaadt

    • July 7, 2013 4:48 pm

      Yes, that would be me. Alaska was a cool place (but hot during the summer : )

      Enjoy the hike. I want to do it again some day.




      • Lois permalink
        July 7, 2013 6:16 pm

        How do I get in touch with Annie ?
        I’m sure you don’t remember me but I was at wills birth with the midwives.
        I would love to touch base with her.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    July 10, 2013 4:50 pm

    I did the Bear Lake to Grand Lake in 1954 with a friend, Bob Hamilton, both from Topeka Kansas. We were 16 years old and camped at Bear Lake for several days doing shorter hikes first like Flattop, Hallets, Otis, Taylor in a day. It never occurred to us to hike back, just had friends meet us and drive us back over Trail Ridge Road.


  1. 40 Mile Bear Lake to Grand Lake Loop (day 2), RMNP, Sept 7, 2009 « Paths Trails and Beyond

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