Royal Arch - 6960
Freeway 2nd Flatiron - 6954
Royal Arch - 6960
Freeway 2nd Flatiron - 6954
|Flatirons Intro UPDATED|
This report is intended as an intro for anyone who hasn't yet checked out the Flatirons and is wondering if/how to get started. If you're already familiar with this classic climbing spot just SW of Boulder there probably won't be much of use to you here unless you want to browse pictures for memories sake or maybe chime in with some recommendations in the comments.
EDIT/UPDATE: After another visit and some more time checking out resources I've added a hopefully useful overview map which no resources out there seem to show, so I made my own (2nd photo below). I've also added a recommendation for Simon Testa's excellent guide book (see Useful Resources section below). Plus I added a few details on climbing with snow/ice around (doable but dicey) and lastly added a few warning under the summaries below.
In Part I I'll answer some basic questions such as:
In Part II I'll give photos and descriptions of some fun, "easy" routes:
Look for large, bolded section headers to quickly find the portions that are of interest to you. You can scroll down straight to Part II if you just want some images of the routes.
WARNING: I've added this little disclaimer section after noting how all the other resources have something like this and realizing the potential dangers after additional exploring. Rock climbing is inherently dangerous and while you'll see a few references in this report to things that are "comparatively safe" and routes that are "easy" please be aware that people have died here and others have been seriously injured. A slight change in conditions, a slight difference in skill level or choice of footwear or the briefest lapse of caution can all have enormous impacts on your experience here. It's for sure a great place but do take appropriate caution!
Update: Since the original writing of this report I've found another awesome resource with fantastic aerial views which label the features, trails, etc. The resolution I think got downgraded uploading into the report but this gives you some feel for it. You can access this at https://maps.bouldercolorado.gov/wildlife-closures
Note this originally only seemed to show up with the labels and such on my mobile but this link now seems to work good on my pc as well. You'll want to click the 4 squares in the top right and select the 2018 imagery basemap to get to excellent aerial images. This site also shows an overlay to tell what exactly is closed at any given time for wildlife closures, etc.
Part 1: Background
Quick side note to start with: I have a long history of bizarre butchering of words that I only see in writing and don't hear pronounced. So for the longest time, whenever I would see this place referenced in writing my mind would for some reason render it as:
Fla-tir-ons (a somewhat snazzy but incorrect pronunciation). Apparently the official pronunciation is much more simple:
Flat-irons. (as in Flat Irons because the large rock features look like, well, flat irons...).
Why climb the Flatirons?
I've heard about these neat rock features on the forum from time to time but my general reaction was why bother with some rock features that only run from about 6-7,000ft when there are so many 13er/14er routes left to check out and so few weekends to do them on?
Since I frequently hike solo and have lived/hiked long enough to gain some skill but also long enough to have lost the invincibility of a college student; plus given all the coronavirus pleas from various sources not to put SAR teams at added risk by getting injured during a pandemic, I've decided to slowly and organically grow my climbing skills through a combination of time in the local climbing gym and very gradually ramping up the difficulty of routes I do on 13ers/14ers.
The Flatirons, just outside of Boulder, offer an accessible place to practice some fairly high exposure scrambling routes that are "relatively safe" and where it's psychologically easier to talk yourself into backing down if needed than if you drive 4 hours, hike several more hours and then hit a wicked class 5 section 200 feet below a summit that looks much worse than the description made it sound and you feel the enormous temptation to go ahead and try something at the very outer limits of your skill level on high risk terrain since you're so close and don't want to come all the way back...
For those weekends this time of year when the high peaks are getting hit by a snowstorm that doesn't reach the Front Range and you don't feel like dealing with that, or when you don't quite have a full day open, this is a great place for some conditioning and for growing your climbing skills/comfort level.
Compared to the relatively remote locations of most 13ers/14ers the Flatirons giving an interesting change of pace in terms of views by proving an up close aerial of the city of Boulder.
How do I get there and get around?
One thing I discovered early in researching the Flatirons is that most resources either give way too little information - typically leaving out some of the most critical tidbits like 'how in the world do I find the darn thing?', or they dump such an overwhelming mountain of data that you just don't know where to start. I'll give some tips on using those various resources under the next section header but first some basics:
Chautauqua Trailhead: There are various potential places to park but if you want one specific location to plug into your GPS the "main" trailhead that gives the easiest access to all the major routes and which has a decent (but still limited) amount of parking spaces, seems to be the Chautauqua Trailhead. There were even some folks hanging out there giving directions to people like me who arrived obviously not knowing where they were going.
Trails: One feature you'll either love or hate about the Flatirons is that there are signs all over the place making it super easy to find the correct trails and the trails are all very well established and typically pretty trivial to follow. Some of the resources I found failed to point out how much signage there is and so I was left wondering if I'd be lost in a maze of trails (though you may still want some manner of map on your phone or printed out as you weave around the paths leading to the main features).
However, those signs will only get you to the base of the various features. If you want to know, for example, where exactly do I find the Freeway and where exactly do I find the spot where you can walk right off onto the main trail, then you'll need to have some other resources handy to provide descriptions, photos, etc.
That's where it gets real complicated real quick so I'm putting in an entire section below giving overviews of some of the various resources out there and their strengths and weaknesses.
Useful Resources for the Flatirons
When I started researching the Flatirons I quickly discovered not all resources are created equally. So here I'll give an overview of a few key resources and which ones are best for which purposes. These are somewhat random in order but numbered for easy reference.
Resource 1: Eli Boardman's trip report
Eli wrote up an excellent trip report which helped convince me to start with the Royal Arch and the Freeway. I stumbled across it while looking around in the hopes that someone might have uploaded a GPX file which would pinpoint the entry and exit points for the Freeway. While he didn't include a GPX file (see the end of this report for my GPX tracks) he included some fantastic descriptions and very useful rankings of both difficulty and his own "Personal Fun Rating" which I found very useful.
You can find his trip report here: Scrambling the Flatirons, Pt. 1 (didn't see a Pt. 2 out there - not sure if that got merged all into this one report or just never happened...).
Resource 2: GAIA app
I've used my GAIA GPS app for pretty much every hike I've done over at least the last couple years or so and absolutely love the app since it's so easy to use but also has a ton of features built into it. Make sure you download the map for your region of interest before leaving home so you can access offline at full resolution.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a great level of detail for the Flatirons on the GAIA map including trail names and locations of some of the main features.
Below are a few different screenshots from the day (note: I've hardly ever lost signal on any 13ers/14ers but was having a lot of trouble with my tracks cutting off during this hike - thus the multiple disconnected chunks, but still gives you some idea.
Resource 3: Boulder Area Trails app
This app looked extremely useful at home, with its listing of various trailheads and whether or not there is a parking fee but when I tried to use it on location it didn't seem to want to load. Not sure if I needed some setting turned on or if it relies on cell service or what but this was only useful for at home research for me.
One other weakness (though potentially useful in certain cases) is that it just gives you trail lengths in terms of each tiny little segment (for example Royal Arch is longer than 0.81 miles if you include the connecting trails to get there from the trailhead - I think roughly 3.5mi round trip or so).
If you want to give it a try you can find it at this link: https://bouldercolorado.gov/osmp/trails-app
Resource 4: Mountain Project
This site is perhaps the most exhaustive resource out there for a listing of everything n the Flatirons - and I do mean everything. In fact it's jammed packed with so much data that it was an absolute sensory overload and way too insanely complex looking for me to want to try to dive into for my first trip to the Flatirons. It's just way too hard to find those basic introductory details like: "How do I find the Royal Arch" or "How do I navigate the Freeway."
However, now that I've had time to check out the basics of the region I think I'll be much better positioned to go back to this site and mine out some hopefully very useful data.
If you want to check it out you can find the main map at this link: https://www.mountainproject.com/map/105797700/flatirons
Resource 5: City of Boulder
In these current days of global pandemic - or in more normal times when you want to know about access issues or permission for placing bolts, etc the city of Boulder website will give you access to official stuff you may need to know. You can also lookup Boulder OSMP (Open Space and Mountain Parks).
You can find it at this link: https://bouldercolorado.gov/osmp/chautauqua-trailhead
Also at this same site are some useful maps like the one below which you can access online at this link: https://www-static.bouldercolorado.gov/docs/chautauqua-meadow-trail-map-1-201307151401.pdf
Resources 6 & 7: Gerry Roach Flatirons guidebook or Simon Testa Flatirons Scrambles
UPDATE: Since the original writing of this report I've since acquired a copy of Gerry Roach's book - I found a copy on Amazon at a high but not exorbitant price and grabbed it up. It was absolutely worth it. It's not pocket sized like Testa's is but easily fits in a climbing pack and has a ton more routes. While it doesn't go into as much fine detail of exactly how to do each route the overview photos of the routes are the best I've found anywhere - those alone make the book worth it. Sometimes the price for a used copy is insane so you might have to watch for a while to find one show up at a reasonable price. https://www.amazon.com/Flatiron-Classics-Colorado-Mountain-Guidebooks/dp/0979966329
EDIT/UPDATE: Thanks to a recommendation in the comments I ordered a copy of Simon Testa's excellent book: "The Best Flatirons Scrambles." He gives 25 scrambles and scramble link-ups which might not sound like a lot but a really nice feature is that he gives a suggested progression of scrambles from class 4 to 5.5 and he has an excellent collection of labeled satellite views showing the features, the routes to them and the approximate line the route runs over the rocks. Also describes the approach, the route, the descent, etc. Very, very highly recommend this book for someone getting started in the Flatirons.
Where should I start?
Ok, so the above section covered a bunch of resources on where to get the sort of information you'll need in order to get started. But with so much data out there and so many many options, some of which are technical routes for which a beginner would probably want to be roped up, how do you decide where to go?
Obviously that will depend greatly on your experience/comfort level. Hopefully this trip report will have armed you with an understanding of the basic navigation of the area and some resources for getting more data. But if you want a starting point on where to dive in I'd recommend (especially for anyone not ready to rope up just yet) that you go with Eli's top two picks: The Royal Arch and the Freeway up the 2nd Flatiron. I'll give some teasers for those routes in Part II below.
Part II: Routes
Since there are a ton of resources out there for the Flatirons (scroll back up the section header: "Useful Resources for the Flatirons" if you missed that and want some more maps/route descriptions) I'll just highlight two of the routes that seem to be the best introductory ones to start with: The Royal Arch and the Freeway on the 2nd Flatiron.
These are more like teasers to let you know if the routes seem interesting enough to try. For more detailed route finding specifics see Eli's trip report or any of the other resources listed in Part I.
The Royal Arch
Overview: Sweet feature with solid (but steep) trail right to the arch. "Easy" climb to the top from the east side (class 4). Great way to see if you're up for the harder routes. No special equipment needed.
Times: ~45min to hike from Chautauqua Trailhead to the Royal Arch (leisurely paced).
The Royal Arch is a really neat feature that gives you the chance to actually climb up on a bonafide arch. I'm sure it's nothing compared to Arches National Park (haven't been there yet) but it's the best local equivalent.
So how do you get to this cool feature? From the main Chautauqua Trailhead take the Bluebell Hiking Trail that starts off parallel to the Flatirons and alongside the neighborhood houses. It's the left path in the photo below. Take that to the Bluebell shelter and follow the signs.
Note that you'll come to one high ridge (Sentinel Pass) before the arch. You have to drop down the far side of that and then back up along the trail to reach the Royal Arch.
As I was poking around online for details on how to get there (before I realized how abundant the signs are on the trails) I couldn't help but chuckle as I read the somewhat dramatized description of the trail at this link: https://dayhikesneardenver.com/royal-arch-trail-hike-in-boulder-colorado/ however I will grant that there are a couple somewhat steep sections that might deter your non-hiking tourist couch-potato friends who might want to check this out. No climbing needed to get there and the trail is very good but flatlanders will likely be huffing and puffing along the way.
Once you get to the arch the trail goes right up into it. At first glance the west side (mountain side) of the arch looked like the easiest way up onto the arch but upon closer inspection I decided that while I might be able to climb up that side I wasn't sure I could climb down it (maybe I'll try it on a future trip now that I know you can easily get down the east side if needed).
The east side (city side) of the arch can almost be walked right up. I say almost because it is fairly steep and exposed. But there are lots of large and solid holds if you pick the right line.
EDIT/UPDATE: On my second journey to the Flatirons I went with a climbing partner on a day with snow/ice around. I was still able to climb the Royal Arch since there were only isolated pockets of snow/ice but it was dramatically more sketchy. Be very, very carful if attempting these features in winter (one good/bad thing: snow tends to build up most in the best holds - need a better hold? Scoop some snow/ice away. Just be very, very careful!)
Likewise the Freeway on the Second Flatiron was doable that day though I skirted the bottom section and came up the right side then had to dodge so inconvenient snow/ice deposits.
The very top is fairly small and airy enough that I only stood for a brief moment before deciding that sitting was the preferred posture. That allowed for a fun photo of 3 hikers fitting within the size of my boot.
Great views from the top. Getting down just involves a simple retrace of going up but it's psychologically more intimidating. I briefly considered stepping down facing out but then opted instead to face into the rock for most of it.
So overall I'd say this is a very worthwhile feature to check out and climbing up/down the east side of the arch to reach the top will tell you if you're ready to proceed to the Freeway and other fun routes on the Flatirons.
Note: If you can't handle climbing up/down the Royal Arch don't bother trying the routes up the main Flatirons! The routes there - such as the Freeway described below - are similar to this but much, much taller and exposed.
On the flip side, if you enjoyed going up the arch and didn't feel overly uneasy on it then read on about the Freeway - it's fairly similar in terms of difficulty except that you go up much higher and have more challenge in terms of route finding.
The Freeway on the 2nd Flatiron
Overview: solid trail to the base of the 2nd Flatiron. Visually imposing starting section but "easy" climbing (described as class 4). If you've done Crestone Needle you can probably do this route. Pretty much nothing loose on the route so I didn't bother with a helmet (but some do put one on, and it might not be a bad idea just in case). Hiking boots were perfectly adequate** due to the abundance of excellent holds (not as large/lumpy as on Crestone Needle but almost that good).
**NOTE: While hiking boots were certainly adequate for me on this route, when I went ack a second time with some snow/ice on the Freeway and had to do an unexpected diversion it took me 5-10 minutes to fight up a section with stellar handholds but hardly any decent footholds. A little later someone in climbing shoes came up that same section with very little effort in no more than a minute. So there certainly can be advantages to climbing shoes, just be wary of getting them wet...
Times: Base of Freeway to walk off point; 1st time = exactly 1 hour (going slow, not sure of the route). 2nd time = ~50min
Eli's personal fun rating #2 was the Freeway so I decided to give it a go after deciding that climbing the Royal Arch hadn't been that bad. The pictures make this route look intense, and standing there looking up at it in person it was no less intense looking. In saying this I'm probably outing myself as a fairly rookie climber (lots of "walk up" summits under my belt but far less that resembles anything like actual climbing).
However, it's really not that bad at all. Stellar hand and footholds the whole way up (though occasionally you might have to pause and look around for a good hold) and it was a little uncomfortable the first time up not knowing quite exactly where the walk off onto the main trail was other than knowing to stay to the right of the Pullman Car and don't go all the way to the top.
I liked this route enough that as soon as I made it to the walk off near the top and took a short break, I parted ways with Scotty (a guy from Pennsylvania I met on the way up) and went down the main trail to make another loop up.
When I reached the bottom of the Freeway for the second time there were a number of tourists there including a family with young kids. I'll confess it was a nice little ego boost to hear them exclaim "You're going to climb up THAT!?!" I smiled and nonchalantly said (as if I was some pro-climber who's used to doing a free solo of El Capitan - rather than the rookie that I am...) "Well, yeah, it's actually not that bad. Really solid holds the whole way up." I couldn't help but also add: "I'm actually on my 2nd lap up today..." (which is nothing compared to Justin's many laps but it was enough to really wow the tourists, lol).
One of the things that's fun (though initially intimidating) about this route is that there are so many different ways to do it. Being accustomed to cut and dry routes up 14ers or 13ers where I at least usually have a GPX file to fall back on in areas where the trail might fade (or not exist), for the Freeway there is no trail and it's next to impossible to describe an exact route up.
That's because at any given moment/location you have may a stellar handhold in one spot and next to nothing around it until there are some more huge ones a foot or two to the side. It's really a choose your own adventure kind of route - just be sure to frequently look up ahead to make sure you're not about to trap yourself on a portion of the rock that's beyond your current skill level.
One especially fun little feature you reach after staying high along the ridge off to the right of the Pullman Car is "the jump." It's maybe about 5 feet down to the rock below but with an abundant landing zone so it's not bad.
However, it's that's not your thing, it looked like you could 'probably' avoid that by going up the gully on the right side of the Pullman Car. I say probably because it looked from above like that route would be easy but I didn't actually try it since I enjoyed the jump both times. I didn't get the impression that the climbing would be too hard up that gully, but try it at your own risk...
I also come across a 2nd jump-down not mentioned in the descriptions I had looked at (see waypoint in my GPX tracks for the 2nd jump - I forgot to mark the first one).
I might have hit that by being too far to the right but I'm ok with jumps so I did that both times as well (the landing is a bit more uneven on the 2nd jump but angles back to the rock you just jumped off so it's not too big of a deal as long as you're ready for it).
Again it may be that I was too far to the right but the hardest section, from a climbing standpoint, was just before getting to the walk off. There were 2 or 3 moves up a rock face to get up to where I could reach the top of the rock above the walk off. Probably could have reached there more easily if I lined up a little more to the left instead of coming all the way up that rock. I then walked down off the little ledge between the large rock and the tree (2nd image below).
After my second loop on the Freeway I walked the trail up to the back of the 2nd and the 1st Flatirons then eventually walked down around to the base of the 1st Flatiron. Here are a few photos from those locations.
Overall this is a great place that's lots of fun for gaining experience with exposed scrambling or actual technical climbing if you want to get your feet wet before tackling harder routes at the end of a long hike at high altitude.
Note on the GPX file: I've almost never had issues while hiking 13ers/14ers with GAIA but for some reason I repeatedly had the tracks stop dead that day - didn't even have the 'resume track' option showing. Not sure how much of that was due to issues with limited view of the sky vs. me accidently hitting the wrong button but the result is the choppy multi-segment tracks you see below. But I'm mostly including it for the benefit of the waypoints marking the start and stop of the Freeway since that was one key item I was unable to find elsewhere.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
|Comments or Questions|
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