All About the Flat Tops Wilderness

Colorado is famous for its stunning mountain landscapes, but one of its lesser-known gems is also one of its most spectacular. The Flat Tops Wilderness provides some of the most unique mountain terrain in the country. The scale of the place is grand. The scenery, truly, is like no other.

In 1919, Arthur Carhart was sent to the area to survey it as a site for summer homes. He was so struck by the landscape that he informed his superiors the land should be set aside – protected and preserved. He spoke passionately about the subject, and he and the area are credited with sparking the ideas fundamental to the Wilderness Act of 1964. It is for this reason the Flat Tops region is known as “the Cradle of Wilderness”.

Hiking this  place is a unique experience. As I wandered, I was briefly convinced that I was exploring some Swiss alpen hillside. The boggy conditions and flat rocky tundra of the high mesas were the Scotland of my imagination. To even apply the term “mesas” to mountains that reach 12,000 feet into the sky doesn’t seem quite correct and speaks to the scale of the landscape.

Enough can’t be said of this place, so I’ve narrowed it down to my favorite features.

Quick Facts:

  • Size: 235,214 Acres
  • Human History: circa 8500 years
  • Designated a Wilderness: 1975

 

Geology

Flat Tops cairn

Part of the White River Plateau, this area began to form about 52 million years ago. Tectonic forces worked to create swirling pockets of Magma under the region which forced the earth itself to rise. Subsequent volcanic eruptions coated the newly formed mountains with basalt, giving them their iconically-flat appearance. A series of ice ages then carved out the valleys and cirques, grinding the land into its current majesty. As a result, the Flat Tops are like no other mountain landscape in the country. Be sure to visit these must-see sites that show off Flat Tops’ unique geology and what makes it so special.

  • Chinese Wall
  • Devil’s Causeway
  • Kettle Lakes

Chinese Wall

Chinese Wall

As a glacier begins to melt, it leaves on its downhill side what is known as a moraine – essentially an earth-dam of debris the glacier had carved and pushed before it. On it’s uphill side, a glacier will leave a “cirque”. A cirque is the sheer, steep, circular cliff formed by the force of the glacier pushing its mass downhill. The Chinese Wall in Flat Tops Wilderness is a stunning example of this geologic process.

The Chinese Wall Trail, a 17.5-mile thru-hike traverses the length of this majestic mountain feature. The trailhead is about 45 miles east of Meeker. It begins at a parking lot about half a mile from the Ripple Creek Pass summit. You’ll be hiking at elevations nearing 12,000′ and at times it feels as though you are trekking through some kingdom in the sky. The vistas from this trail are unending and it is truly enjoyable alpine hiking. The rolling terrain is a challenge and the scale is vast. Come prepared to spend a night (or two) in high-elevation conditions.

Devil’s Causeway

Devil's Causeway

When two cirques meet, they form an Arete. The Devil’s Causeway an illustrative example of this phenomenon. At times only 3 feet wide, its sheer cliffs drop away on both sides 600-800 feet to the valleys below . You’ll no doubt do some rock hugging as you scramble over this rocky and uneven narrow section. The Causeway can be reached via the Chinese Wall Trail, or by coming up from Stillwater Resevoir via the East Fork Trail.

Though the narrow section may have your heart in your throat, it’s the 360-degree views that will leave you breathless.

Kettle Lakes

Flat Tops Lake

“Kettle lakes” aren’t a place, but a feature.

As a glacier melts and recedes, blocks of ice break off and plant themselves where they land. As the glacier continues to melt, it partially buries these ice blocks in debris via what’s known as an outwash plain (essentially debris being “washed” out of the glacier by meltwater). When finally the isolated ice blocks melt, they leave behind a water filled depression known as a kettle lake.

Little Causeway Lake is an example of a kettle lake, and showcases the area’s glacial past. About a mile and a half hike from the East Fork trailhead, Little Causeway is often a resting spot for those making the trek up to the Devil’s Causeway.

 

Hike Flat Tops Wilderness with a Guide

Guided Flat Tops Wilderness backpacking trips are available, and are a stress-free, exciting way to do this trip. The tour company handles permits, gear, transportation, meals, and provides a professional guide so you can focus 100% on enjoying your adventure. Read more…

 

 

History

The Flat Tops region has a long and occasionally tumultuous history. The Ute people, who can trace their ancestry in Colorado back 10,000 years, were driven from the area after a bloody confrontation in 1879. The region became the focal point of a statewide debate over who had grazing rights to the land. The land itself inspired the idea of “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

  • The Ute
  • Sheep Wars
  • Trappers Lake

The Ute

The Ute people can trace their ancestry in Colorado back 10,000 years. That is incredibly rare for a people to say. All throughout human history, the story of humanity is the story of migration. It is uncommon for a distinct group to remain in an area for much more than 1,000 years. The Navajo, for example, have occupied their iconic four-corners region for centuries, but their ancestors would have migrated from more northern locales.

The Ute have traversed the land now known as Colorado (along with parts of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming) since time immemorial. They have retained a language, retained a distinct culture for 10,000 years. That’s immensely impressive.

By the late 1800s, however, clashes with American settlers began to undermine the Utes’ ability to remain on their land. One such clash, dubbed the “Meeker Massacre,” took place outside of the present-day town and galvanized the campaign to forcibly remove the Ute from the resource-rich region. They were placed on arid strips of land in Utah and Southern Colorado where many of their descendants reside today. A plaque outside of Meeker commemorates the sad events and gives a brief history of clashes in the area.

Sheep Wars

Sheep Wars Colorado

In the late 1800s a fierce debate raged across Colorado regarding who had “natural” rights to grazing on the public lands of Western Colorado. Specifically, cattleman – who were the first to begin grazing animals in the area, were wholly against what they saw as an “invasion” of sheep herds onto “their” land.  The debate got ugly, being somewhat racially-based. In the San Luis Valley, families were being threatened. In the Flat Tops area, near the town of Craig, a man named George Woolley lots his entire heard to the debate. A former cattleman, George decided to instead raise sheep. The decision rankled local cattleman and while George was off in Denver for business, a goup of men clubbed his heard to death.

The violence of the act made the papers and worked to sway some sympathy towards the sheep farmers who, to that point, had little. Sheep populations in the area continued to grow as did animosities. In 1920 the Colorado militia had to be called in to quell the “Battle of Yellowjacket Pass” – a skirmish which took place between the towns of Craig and Meeker.

Eventually the Taylor Grazing Service was created to oversea and regulate grazing on public lands. Sheep graze here today and you may run into a flock while hiking the high country in summer.

Trapper’s Lake

Trapper’s Lake bears the nickname “the Cradle of Wilderness”. It was here that the ideas which led to the Wilderness Act were first kindled.

Arthur Carhart, a recreation engineer for the forest service, was sent to survey Trapper’s Lake. He was to map out a plan for a marina, a road around the lake and 100 homes. Immensely touched by the scenery, Carhart returned to his superiors and convinced them that the project should be abandoned and the land should be set aside. Successful with his superiors, he continued to lobby for the creation of protected areas in the National Forest System. His passionate writings and outcries eventually led to the Wilderness Act of 1964. The essential premise is that there should exist places where no machine of man’s invention, no roads or other intrusions mar the pristine nature of the area.

There are designated campgrounds near the lake, but there is no road to or around the lake itself. Surrounded by a ghost forest (the result of bark beetle infestation and devastating fire), it is a somewhat otherworldly place – especially on a full moon. Sheer volcanic cliffs rising to lofty heights surround the shoreline and add to the lake’s rugged, yet lush scenery.

Trapper’s Lake is a fantastic starting point for any backpacking adventure into the Flat Tops.

 

Hike Flat Tops Wilderness with a Guide

Guided Flat Tops backpacking trips are available, and are a stress-free, exciting way to do this trip. The tour company handles permits, gear, transportation, meals, and provides a professional guide so you can focus 100% on enjoying your adventure. Read more…

 

 

Activities

Hike Flat Tops

Because of its Wilderness designation, no motorized vehicles or mechanical devices (e.g. mountain bikes or boat carts) are allowed within the wilderness boundary. Therefore, hiking is the preferred way to traverse the landscape. The terrain can be challenging at times and you may need to bring micro spikes for snow in the higher elevations. Be sure to use caution in the snow pack. Due to the rolling terrain, it is sometimes hard to know where the “edge” of a snow drift is, and areas are often undercut.

If you choose to hike to one of the 100 or so lakes in the Flat Tops, be sure to pack a fishing pole. The area is popular with anglers and is home to the native cutthroat trout. As this Colorado fish’s numbers are dwindling, it is a catch and release policy for cutthroat caught within the wilderness boundary.

Backpacking is perhaps the best way to spend your time in the Flat Tops. Allowing you time to properly explore the area and take in its treasures, it also affords a wonderful night sky sleeping 11000′ feet closer to the stars.

However you choose to spend your time in this pristine wilderness, you will no doubt be touched by its beauty.

Hike Flat Tops Wilderness with a Guide

Guided Flat Tops backpacking trips are available, and are a stress-free, exciting way to do this trip. The tour company handles permits, gear, transportation, meals, and provides a professional guide so you can focus 100% on enjoying your adventure. Read more…

 

Wildland Trekking Hiking Adventures

Wildland Trekking Tours As the world’s premier hiking and trekking company, Wildland believes in connecting people to fantastic environments in amazing ways. Flat Tops Wilderness offers an array of incredible hiking and trekking experiences. Wildland Trekking provides 2 different multi-day hiking and backpacking adventures in the Flat Tops. Read more about our Flat Tops Wilderness trips.

To learn more about our guided backpacking trips and all of our award-winning hiking vacations, please visit our website or connect with one of our Adventure Consultants: 800-715-HIKE

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All About the Flat Tops Wilderness
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All About the Flat Tops Wilderness
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The Flat Tops Wilderness provides some of the most unique mountain terrain in the country. Considered the inspiration for the Wilderness Act of 1964, it is a rugged and special place. The scale of the place is grand. The scenery, truly, is like no other.
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The Wildland Trekking Company
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Jenn McCarthy

Jenn lives in the Colorado Rockies near Aspen and travels extensively throughout the Southwest. A backpacking guide and avid history buff, she is currently writing a book on the history of the American West.