August 12, 2023
I pulled into the mostly empty trailhead lot for Square Top Mountain around 5 am. The forecast called for rain and clouds that day but I wanted a hike to a relatively high altitude. Square Top fit the bill. Despite the iffy weather, I saw dozens of cars piling into the parking lot for Square Top’s far more glamorous neighbor: Bierstadt. But more on that later.
After fiddling with gear for a bit, and donning my headlamp, I was off. I walked briskly as the trail traversed gentle, rolling terrain at the foot of the peaks. Soon sunlight leaked over the horizon, bringing the views to life. In early August, the days were still plenty long.
The trailhead, off Guanella pass, sat just above treeline. Low willows and wavy grass coated the hillsides in all directions. Everything came in various shades of muddy green. The sky was moody, and everything smelled damp and verdant. Oddly enough, I felt like I was back in Scotland, hillwalking on the Isle of Skye.
Square Top Lakes
The trail began to rise up Square Top’s lower slopes. Sometimes, it employed primitive switchbacks. But often it just marched up the relatively gentle fall line. Below I saw a handful of alpine lakes, dark and placid.
I could see most of the lower trail behind me. Just one or two other hikers dotted the landscape. But across the valley, on Bierstadt, a train of ant-sized trekkers could be seen. Alone in my thoughts, I contemplated the contrast between these two, adjacent experiences.
Square Top’s neighbor, Bierstadt, sees over 30,000 hikers per year, according to the Colorado 14ers Initiative. Bierstadt was long considered the most-hiked 14er in Colorado. That said, Quandary Peak stole the title for two years at the height of the pandemic. These two peaks can easily see close to 1000 hikers on peak summer Saturdays. And they rarely see fewer than 200 hikers on Saturdays between June and September. The recipe for their popularity is simple: paved parking, within two hours of Denver, and a relatively short and safe hike to the summit.
Now consider Square Top. Square Top’s parking lot sits literally across the street from Bierstadt. It’s so close that I suspect many folks simply use Square Top’s lot as overflow for the 14er. It’s roughly the same level of effort, though a bit easier 2400 vertical feet over 6.5 miles (Bierstadt is 2850′ over 7.25 miles). They’re both Class II hikes, neither particularly steep. And their summits feature comparable Front Range views.
… but no cigar
And yet, on a day when parked cars backed up along Guanella Pass road for miles, I saw perhaps only two dozen hikers on Square Top. What a contrast!
The reason is obvious to anyone familiar with the cultural implications of ‘peak bagging’. Square Top, at 13,799 feet, is not a Fourteener. It misses the mark by just 201 vertical feet. But that places it in the far less crowd-inducing category of Colorado Thirteener.
The margin of inferiority shrinks to “agonizingly close” when you consider that Square Top is the 111th tallest peak in Colorado. That means it falls short, by just ten feet, of nabbing a spot on the list of Colorado “Centennial Peaks”. The Centennial Peaks expand on the 14ers to include the 100 tallest peaks in the state.
Let me disclose here that I, myself am a devoted peak bagger. I take no issue with high usage on some of Colorado’s most charismatic peaks. The CFI and others have done amazing work making trails like Bierstadt’s resilient to high-volume usage. And whatever gets people off the couch and into the mountains is a net good in my book. To be honest, the people I least enjoy interacting with in the mountains are the ones incessantly complaining about how many other people are out enjoying themselves.
Along the summit ridgeline
The trail grew steeper, and the views more impressive. I saw a few upper lakes and plenty of lingering snow-pack on the cornices and gulleys of nearby peaks. Colorado had a banner snow year, and some of those cornice lines would last straight into the next one.
The approach along the ridgeline took surprisingly long. I ambled over some broken talus, up a very gentle slope. This was not an intense hike, but it proved a bit longer than I had anticipated.
Square Top’s summit
Eventually, I reached the true summit. I was perhaps the first person that morning to do so. I saw one other hiker heading up along the ridge. But otherwise, solitude. I soaked in some well-earned views of the surprisingly lush Front Range.
Then it was time to do it all in reverse. By now it was “normal morning hours”. Perhaps two dozen hikers passed me on my way down. The trail was no longer deserted but hardly deluged.
The lower, rolling approach took a bit longer than I remembered on the way out. They always seem to do that. But soon enough I was back at the car, with plenty of day left to enjoy. I started down the road to Georgetown, ready for a very early lunch.