I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification. Black lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections. Blue Lines=Class 2 sections. Red= Class 3 sections. Purple = Class 4 sections. Orange = Class 5. The class system is based on the YDS rating scale.
All vehicles entering Rocky Mountain National Park need a pass to enter, there is no free entry into the park without a pass (excluding free parks day which occurs once a year). You can find more information here.
Quick Background and Approach
The above picture from Odessa Lake is one of the multitude vistas that pushed the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. Simply put, it’s breathtaking. Front and center to this view is the Little Matterhorn. Many people have stared at the peak from the lake shores but far fewer have scrambled up to its exciting summit. While imposing and daunting from the lake, you can approach Little Matterhorn from the backside and keep the scrambling at a manageable Class 3 with significant exposure.
There are two ways to attack little Matterhorn, from Bear Lake or from Fern Lake trailheads. My first visit to the area was from Fern Lake Trailhead up to Odessa Lake, the vistas unveiled at Odessa from this approach are wonderful. If you’re set on climbing Little Matterhorn from this direction you need to make your way up to Tourmaline Lake and hike Southwest to the low spot on the ridge between Little Matterhorn and Knobtop on the Continental Divide. The shorter and easier approach is from Bear Lake and only costs you about 7.6 miles with 2800 feet of vertical. The only “disappointing” thing about this approach is that you realize Little Matterhorn is really an extending ridge from Knobtop and not the solitary behemoth that it appears to be from Odessa. This is why I put the picture form the lake shore up top, so you can see why people named it Little Matterhorn. All perspectives from Bear Lake will show the mountain in a much different light.
From Bear Lake (get there reallllllly early on weekends or you will not be able to enter, no joke, like 5 am. Weekdays are a bit better but not by much) begin by hiking counter clockwise (right) around Bear Lake. At the first very obvious trail sign, take a right up hill towards Flattop. Begin climbing for .4 until you reach another junction, head left. From here, you’ll hike around the bulk of Flattop mountain (at the Flattop summit trail junction just keep heading straight) until reaching the height of land between Flattop and Joe Mills Mountain to your right. At various points, you will see a massive wall of mountains in front of you. Start paying attention when the trail begins to lose elevation, if you don’t deviate, eventually, you’ll descend down to Odessa Lake. Right before the trail takes a sharp right hand turn, look for the unmarked junction in the picture below. At this point you’re a little more than three miles into your journey.
After moving a couple of minutes down this path, with the shallow Lake Helene to your left, you’ll see another unsigned junction with a smaller trail heading right through some grass, take this trail.
This new path will lead you towards your target. As is the case with “off trail” in high elevation areas, even in the trees it’s fairly obvious to see where you’re heading. Occasionally the unofficial path you’re on will fade, don’t panic, keep your eyes on the prize and note that you will lose about 200 feet of elevation at first which is necessary to avoid some cliffs. Keep Grace Falls to your left. The general trajectory is to circle the head of the basin you’re in and head to the saddle between Little Matterhorn and Notchtop. See the pics below.
To the Ridge Line
One you cross Fern Creek begin your climb by performing an ascending traverse to your right. The slope will change to an all talus affair with no trail. On occasion, you’ll pass areas that are susceptible to rock slides (evidenced on my trip by flattened alpine grasses and fresh streaks of dirt across large areas of boulders). Make sure to parallel the steeper areas instead of ascending into them.
Once you are in the proper gully (fairly obvious as all routes further to your right put you on slabby/steep rock), ascend until you find a logical break in the slabs to your right. It is NOT necessary to follow the gully all the way up to the low point of the ridge, you can cut off a significant corner by angling an ascent diagonal right towards a prominent rock on the ridge-line.
There are plenty of options further right to tackle some scrambling early on but make sure to head up to the prominent rock circled in red in the picture above. Various trip reports have called this rock a variety of names over the years, the two I see most often are “Lizard” or “Dune Worm”. To be honest, it looks like both, point is, it’s really hard to miss and when you get closer, looks like this.
It is easier to bypass the rock on its right hand side and attain the ridge, though veering left provides a fun, brief Class 3 section. In either scenario it is possible to scramble up the backside to the cleft in the rock, from below it’ll look like you’re being eaten.
Once on the ridge, the scrambling begins and the seriousness of the summit ridge presents itself. While only Class 3 and not very long, the exposure is fairly relentless. Take your time and watch where you plant your feet.
The short and dirty version: From the Lizard/Dune Worm rock, you’ll flip over to the Northern side of the ridge and traverse underneath two ridge knobs, which look very prominent from below but are easily bypassed. Continuing on, you’ll flip to the South side and traverse under a Third knob until you reach the Crux. It is possible to ride the crest on the second and third ridge high-points but it will require at least a few exposed Class 4 and Class 5 moves on the backside. Once again, the exposure here is severe. After the Crux, hop up to the summit.
Keep in mind there are three knobs, and the Crux area before the actual summit. The formula is left around the First and Second Knob, right around the Third Knob, stay on top of (or very close to) the ridge crest until the Crux, and then up to the summit cairn.
Longer version: Take off from the Dune Worm/Lizard rock and veer left around the First Knob. Keep your trajectory and perform an ascending traverse around the bulk of Knob #2 which is longer than it looks. Some Class 3 moves are required on the traverse. Once you round the corner depicted in the photo below, the terrain eases for a brief moment and you are presented with a couple options.
The easiest method is to stay at your elevation and traverse until arriving at the gap before the next knob. At the gap, you want to flip to the right side of the ridge (the South side) in order to bypass Knob #3.
Sensing an opportunity for adventure, I reascended the ridge crest early (still on Knob 2) and found a passable (albeit very exposed) descent to the low-point between 2 and 3. While not super efficient, it does provide a great idea of the typical level of exposure out here.
Once you flip over to the right (South) side, traverse along some sloping rock to bypass the bulk of Knob 3, paralleling below the crest.
Once you’ve polished off the South side slabs, the Crux section becomes apparent. It is the most exciting set of moves on the mountain and quite exposed, although the moves themselves are only Class 3.
At this point, the ridge whittles down to a set of stacked boulders with huge drops on either side. In order to reach the Crux, you need to scramble up to the crest by climbing the rocks shown below. There is a work around but it is not easier, I’d even rate some of the individual moves as low 4th, the only benefit being less exposure. It’s a gully running left and around to the north side of the Crux, but I did not scout all of it so I can’t tell you how beneficial it is in the end.
Yeah, so it’s a bit of a doozy, ESPECIALLY if it’s windy. Unfortunately, without a climbing partner it’s difficult to show human scale, but the Crux involves you stepping out onto a Pride Rock looking ledge. There are handholds, which you will be white knuckling. As you face into the rock, there’s enough room on the ledge for a full boot length but not much more. The most critical moves are when you shimmy around an exposed corner to find more suitable rock on the other side. The ledge your standing on is overhung and drops at least a hundred feet before catching the slope at a 25-30 degree angle and continuing to fall down to the Fern Creek drainage some thousand feet below that. BE CAREFUL. I’ve attached two pictures below (one angled down, the other angled towards the summit rock) to hopefully give a better understanding of the terrain. The silver lining is that it’s not long and much easier on the way back.
Once you round the corner, the terrain lessens and all that separates you from the summit are a couple climbable boulders. The top is a large flat rock with a surprising amount of space considering how narrow the ridge was at the Crux. Enjoy! There is a summit register there as well.
There is an Eastern Summit, marked by a gigantic cairn. This requires some Class 4 moves to get to. Proceed down from the summit until reaching a crevice that you have to wiggle into and drop down to a lower plateau before re-climbing a rock ledge to the Eastern Summit. The crevice is a complicated down-climb and up-climb with little space to work with, I’d call it Class 4, the rest is simple Class 3. I did not do it on this adventure due to typical (and annoying) front range winds gusting into the 30’s. Oh well, gives me a reason to go back!
Owing to the nature of the summit ridge, the only acceptable course of action without ropes, is to retrace your steps to the Lizard/Dune Worm rock. From there you can head back down towards Bear Lake or veer right and descend into Tourmaline Gorge. The formula for the way back is ridge crest past the Crux, left around Knob #3, right around Knobs 2 and 1, then left off the ridge and descend the way you came up OR right into Tourmaline Gorge.
Little Matterhorn may not be much to look at from various points (see below) but is an excellent and heart pumping scramble that at 7.6 miles roundtrip should only take the committed climber half a day to complete. In addition, because it is under 12,000 feet, the season for scaling it usually extends much longer than area 14ers or high 13ers.