Bear Peak: Guardians of the Flatirons. Training Hike #5
That big red circle in the above picture is a loose estimation of our route.
Bear Peak was an incredible hike, but it definitely gave us a run for our money. And by run, I mean a slow hobbling back to the car after 8 hrs, missing our trail junction, and running out of water.
The weekend we did this trail was after a week of intense hail and rain. As a result, the OSMP (Open Space and Mountain Parks) closed several trails in Chautauqua (one potential trail head for the Guardians). When trails are muddy, hikers tend to walk on the sides. Over time, this results in a widening of the trail and an erosion of the land. OSMP is good about closing off trails where this is a possibility. With this in mind, we decided the best way to get to the Bear Peak trail head would be via the NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) parking lot.
Our route to the summit consisted of finding the Mesa Trail in the NCAR area and following that to Fern Canyon. Fern Canyon then continues to the saddle and ultimately the summit of Bear Peak. Immediately out of the parking lot, the Flat Irons come into view. They are absolutely incredible. We wound through the NCAR park and down into a small valley where we came to a stream crossing. FUN!
After the stream crossing, the trail steepens a bit until you reach a junction. You can either go right to Bear Canyon, left to Bear Peak West Ridge, or straight up Fern Canyon. Fern Canyon is the steepest, but shortest, so we chose this route. The trail was green and lush, and it was quite humid. From the beginning, we were climbing, and the climb alternates between large stair step type boulders and a gravely trail.
Eventually we reached the saddle, which is also the “false” summit of Bear Peak. I understand why people stop at this point. The views are incredible, and by the time you reach it, you’ve already had quite a good little hike. After a brief break and a snack, we continued left and up to the summit.
The summit is only a mile up at this point, but every step was taxing. Its very steep, and careful foot placement is important. My legs were on fire, and I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that the top wasn’t far off. When the summit comes into view, its made up of a path of loose rocks and large boulders. The scramble to the top was fun. The billions of gnats flying around and getting stuck in my sweaty sunscreened arms were not. Sadly, Andy twisted his knee about half way up the scramble, and turned back. I made it to the top, but only have one picture taken on my phone because he wasn’t there to take others and he had the camera. The views were incredible but I was happy to descend because the bugs were miserable! The summit was crowded as well, and there are parts that are definitely a “one up, one down” type path.
We descended off of the summit and headed the opposite direction from where we came. We assumed we would be catching up with the Bear Peak West Ridge Trail. Somehow we missed it and ended up at the trail junction towards South Boulder Peak. We jumped on that trail and took it down assuming it would just wrap around the back of the mountain and back to the car. Which it did. Eventually. There was a lot of assuming going on this afternoon. I recommend a better pre-plan and a map to avoid this. The trail was rough. There was still a lot of damage from flooding in the fall, and parts were closed for raptor nesting. A lot of the forest was charred and burned from a fire (not sure if this was last year or the year before?) and the landscape was intense. It felt like some sort of Tim Burton wonderland. We didn’t pass many people on this trail, which was a bit concerning, but we knew that everything was one giant loop, and ultimately we were headed towards the parking lot. Turns out, the lack of people was due to the fact that the trail led to South Boulder Peak, which is the most difficult of the Guardians to summit by itself. i.e. less popular.
We think we wound up adding a mile on to our originally intended route, but that mile was just enough for us both to run out of water. I could have easily gotten frustrated, and at times I did, but I kept pausing to look around and take in the beauty. This trail system is stunning. There were wildflowers that smelled amazing, birds singing, and butterflies all around. These things kept me “mostly” positive. Eventually we made it to the car, completely exhausted, but agreeing that it was an awesome day.
Bear Peak via Fern Canyon (Completed Saturday May 18)
Start Elevation: 6104ft
End Elevation: 8461ft
Round Trip Mileage: 7.6
Gain: 2998ft in 3.3 miles (908ft/1mile)