Trail of the Week: Mandall Lakes
I officially have a new favorite hike. Let me introduce you to trail 1121. Like trees, this trail goes by a few common names. It’s Mandall Creek, Mandall Lakes or Mandall Pass. It’s official or “scientific” name, if it were a tree, is 1121.
This trail is in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and accessible from a parking lot just past Yamcolo Reservoir. Parking is on the left, and the trail begins on the right.
I’m not 100% sure how far my co-worker/friend and I hiked, but it was somewhere between 10.1 and 11.78 miles. Technology is inconsistent. We hiked the out-and-back trail in just under four and a half hours.
No matter the distance, it was 100% worth the hike. Standing on Mandall Pass made me feel like I was a hobbit on a grand adventure in Middle Earth. The pass is an accessible section of the steep-walled Flat Tops. From a distance, it looks like someone placed a saddle on it to smoosh it down a bit. The last section of the ascent includes some cairn-guided wayfinding and a steep rocky climb. The view at the top is breathtaking.
Before finishing the trek upwards to the pass, the view is expansive to the south, including Flat Top Mountain in the distance and a handful of small lakes below. At the very top is a meadow full of the largest marmots I’ve ever seen and a patchwork of wildflowers blowing in the wind.
The pass and the final stretch are very exposed, so make sure to start this hike early, as one always should at elevation. We were off the pass by 11:45 a.m. and started the descent.
The best part of the trip to the pass is it’s broken up by other landmarks and is relatively moderate, gradually bringing hikers uphill alongside Mandall Creek. Bring your bug spray because the moisture from the lakes and creek bring out every mosquito in the world. At least it feels that way.
There are a few creek crossings, but none that require boots to get wet. The fresh snow melt water is perfect for splashing on the back of one’s neck to keep cool as well.
First, a little over halfway in, is Slide Mandall Lake. It backs up to a 500-foot wall, the landscape the Flat Tops are famous for.
Just up the trail is Black Mandall Lake. The trail splits and the lake is to the right, and the pass is to the left. We decided to check out the lake first. The creek dribbles over rocks to form a small cascading waterfall at the lake’s edge. As suspected, the water was dark, and the evergreens left mirror images of themselves on the still surface. We spent just a few minutes appreciating the beauty of the area before heading up the pass.
As the trees dissipate, so does the trail, but cairns make it easy to stay on track. As we started going up, the trail appeared again, guiding us up the gentlest and safest route.
The descent was mild and mostly easy on the joints except for a few short steep sections. Most of the way back to the car, at about the 10-mile mark, is a brutal bout of climbing. Our legs were jello, but we kept moving, one step at a time and made it up the hill. From there, the hike to the car is smooth sailing.
I have completed part of this hike in the fall, as well. The first section is covered in aspens and is bright yellow if you time your trip right. The rest of the way is colorful as well, with bushes burning bright orange and ground plants turning a deep red. There aren’t any mosquitoes in the fall either.
Mandall Lakes is officially my favorite trail and an added bonus: A hike this long has a good night’s sleep guaranteed.
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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