Updated: Sep 23, 2020
"If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."
-President Lyndon B. Johnson, upon his signing of the Wilderness Act, September 3, 1964
It’s often difficult to choose between backpacking routes in any protected area simply because there are so many wonderful places to explore. When I first started researching potential hikes in the Flat Tops Wilderness, I sat paralyzed in my chair, unable to select a hike among the 160 miles of trails. Noticing my growing indecision, Angie offered to plan our trip and I gladly relinquished the responsibility to her.
A map of Colorado with the Flat Tops Wilderness highlighted in red. The Wilderness is located in the White River and Routt National Forests (Map taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/62/Flat_Tops_Wilderness_location_in_Colorado.png)
For Angie, picking the route was easy. She was captivated by the human history of the Flat Tops and felt compelled to set her eyes on the very same lake that inspired Arthur Carhart to advocate for the area’s protection in 1919. At that time, the U.S. Forest Service sent the young landscape architect to the unexplored region along the South Fork of Colorado's White River. Carhart’s mission was to survey the area to build a recreational housing development of summer cottages.
One of the few photos of Arthur Carhart in western Colorado (Photo taken from Colorado Encyclopedia https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/image/arthur-carhart-0)
He arrived in the summer of 1919 and made camp on the shore of Trappers Lake. Carhart spent the next couple of months roaming the evergreen forests and climbing the 12,000-foot flat-topped peaks to appreciate the lay of the land from above. Gazing out into the endless expanse of untrammeled country, Carhart was overtaken by awe and inspiration.
Trappers Lake, the site of Arthur Carhart's camp in 1919. In 2002, a lightning strike resulted in a fire that burned more than 17,000 acres of spruce-fir forest around Trappers Lake, amounting to almost 10% of the Flat Tops Wilderness
The visually striking Ampitheatre sits 1,650 feet above Trappers Lake, which is to the left of this photograph. The surrounding meadows were overflowing with wildflowers like subalpine fleabane (Erigeron glacialis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and parsnipflower buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides)
He saw sweeping U-shaped valleys framed by mountains with flattened summits, hundreds of pristine glacial lakes, and subalpine meadows of overflowing wildflowers. He was deeply moved and appreciative of all he saw. In the mind of Carhart, there was no way this precious resource could be developed without egregiously robbing humanity of something that simply couldn't be lost. He knew that the land before his eyes must be protected.
A quintessential U-shaped glacial valley with Trappers Lake in the distance
Carhart returned to his colleagues at the Forest Service in Denver and did his best to articulate the beauty he had seen. He wrote the following words to the father of wildlife management Aldo Leopold, one of his superiors at the time:
"There are great values of this type to be found in the several forests of the Nation, which in order to return to the greatest total value to the people, not only of the Nation, but of the world should be preserved and protected from the marring features of man made constructions. These areas can never be restored to the original condition after man has invaded them, and the great value lying as it does in natural scenic beauty should be available, not for the small group, but for the greatest population. Time will come when these scenic spots, where nature has been allowed to remain unmarred, will be some of the most highly prized scenic features of the country."
— Arthur Carhart, "Memorandum For Mr. Leopold, District 3, December 10, 1919"
Carhart's ideas resulted in the Forest Service canceling their plans to build a road and summer cottages around Trappers Lake. Additionally, many claim that it was Carhart's advocacy for land preservation that influenced Aldo Leopold to propose an administrative process of excluding roads and denying use permits to a wild area along the headwaters of the Gila River in southwest New Mexico in 1924. It was exactly this process that was adopted in 1964 when president Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill that became the Wilderness Act. Leopold's proposed area became the world's first congressionally designated wilderness area: the Gila Wilderness.
Blooming tall western groundsel (Senecio integerrimus) on the trail up the glacial valley overlooking Trappers Lake
The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Today, there are more than 800 federally designated Wilderness Areas managed by four federal agencies over 111 million acres of land and water in the United States. Wilderness is the term used for the government's most stringent form of land protection. All development and use of mechanized vehicles (along with bicycles) is prohibited, along with extractive activities like logging, mining, chaining, and water development. If mining and grazing rights existed prior to federal designation, sustainable levels of use are permitted. Agencies are permitted to build recreational trails and non-mechanized forms of recreation like hiking, horseback riding, camping, and regulated fishing and hunting are allowed.
Day 1: Trappers Lake to Wall Lake. We missed our turn to Wall Lake, so we retraced our steps and returned to the main trail
The Flat Tops Wilderness was designated a Wilderness Area in 1975. At 235,214 acres, it is Colorado's third largest Wilderness Area (after the 499,771 acre Weminuche Wilderness and the 249,126 acre Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness).
Our good friend and trusted navigator Luke (see Descent into Black Canyon) accompanied us into the great unknown.
Our first experience in what is sometimes referred to as the "cradle of wilderness" did not disappoint. We parked at the Wall Lake trailhead near Trappers Lake and upon our first steps, we envisioned Carhart laying eyes upon this landscape for the very first time. Our hike started around 9,768 feet in a stand of fire-ravaged spruce and fir. In 2002, a lightning strike resulted in a fire that burned over 17,000 acres around Trappers Lake, amounting to almost 10% of the Flat Tops Wilderness. As far as the eye could see, the forest was comprised only of skeletal trees and the many wildflowers brimming forth in newfound patches of sun. Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) graced the hillsides, forming vast swaths of purple that rejuvenated the landscape. Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), common toadflax (Linarea vulgaris), parsnipflower buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides), and Parry’s Gentian (Gentiana parryi) were other notable wildflowers that greeted us in the mid-afternoon sunshine.
Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) is one of the most common wildflowers to establish after fires. High in vitamins A and C, the spring shoots are nutritious and delicious. The flowers produce abundant nectar, which is used to make honey, jelly, and syrup in Alaska
After a half hour, we had ascended slightly into a higher, unburned portion of Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) forest. The understory was choked with trailing grouse whortleberry (Vaccinium scoparium) and the occasional mountain gooseberry (Ribes montigenum) and swamp currant (Ribes lacustre). I also noticed fruiting twinberry honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata), a species that we had seen in flower on the Four Pass Loop three weeks earlier in the Aspen-Maroon Bells Wilderness.
Fruiting twinberry honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata) growing on the margins of a scree field dominated by boulders of volcanic origin, like this basalt boulder
As we hiked higher, the views looking back towards Trappers Lake gradually became more impressive. Talus slopes stretched up above us towards the tree-line, where we could hear the high-pitched chirps of American Pikas (Ochotona princeps). An arctic fritillary (Boloria chariclea) fluttered frenetically and suddenly rested quietly on the path in front of us. A least chipmunk (Neotamias minimus) sent out an alarming chip and darted into a hollow in a nearby log. We admired the increasing numbers of Colorado blue columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) springing up out of the rocks along with sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) and elegant bunches of tall western groundsel (Senecio integerrimus).
The arctic fritillary (Boloria chariclea) is a common butterfly seen pollinating wildflowers in subalpine meadows
The Least Chipmunk (Neotamias minimus) is the most widespread of five native species of chipmunk in Colorado. It can be identified by its relatively small size and the burnt-orange color on the flanks
Colorado blue columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) growing above tree-line on a scree field near the summit of Trappers Peak
Sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) was one of the more striking trailside wildflowers
We were passed by a caravan of packhorses. A man with a cowboy hat and a handlebar mustache asked us if we’d be camping at Wall Lake. We’d have the lake all to ourselves, he said.
The song of the white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophyrs) sweetened the air as we panted heavily and turned up the last of the switchbacks toward the top of the plateau. I noticed that the loose rocks under my feet were spattered in air pockets, an indication that they had cooled rapidly after flowing out of the top of a volcano. This was basalt, an igneous rock produced from the volcanic activity present here between 24 and 7.5 million years ago.
This volcanic activity, coupled with glacial activity in the last ice age around 15,000 years ago, is what made the Flat Tops so unique. The high mountains were covered in an erosion-resistant cap of ash and basalt, creating a flat appearance to the tops of the rounded mountains. Later, they were scoured by 2,000-foot thick glaciers, leaving behind vertical walls (glacial cirques), sweeping U-shaped valleys, and hundreds of glacial lakes called kettles.
Star Lake (as seen from Trappers Peak) and the many small lakes around it are good examples of kettle lakes
Cresting the trail, the landscape opened up into a flat meadow (which was more like marshland in some areas) dotted by small lakes and open fields. We noticed several American pipits (Anthus rubescens) flying in and out of willow carrs, occasionally landing on the ground, where they took to walking around with distinct, chicken-like jerks of the head. We followed the sign to Wall Lake, where we set up our camp and relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon and evening.
To me, the wildflowers were the most striking feature of our campsite. It was hard to find a spot where we could pitch our tent without crushing the wildflowers. Seemingly endless fields of rhexia-leaf indian paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia), broadleaf arnica (Arnica latifolia), and subalpine fleabane (Erigeron glacialis) spilled out from all corners of the forest. In the dappled shade, we admired leafy lousewort (Pedicularis racemosa) growing in the understory of the conifers.
Rhexia-leaf indian paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia) growing in a subalpine meadow near our campsite
The American pipit (Anthus rubescens) is a common bird of subalpine meadows and alpine tundra. They are in the longspur family, distinguished by a long hind toe called a halux. This adaptation likely helps them secure their footing on uneven and snowy terrain
Fields of purple subalpine fleabane (Erigeron glacialis) and yellow broadleaf arnica (Arnica latifolia) surrounded our campsite
Angie hiking near our Wall Lake campsite
Leafy lousewort (Pedicularis racemosa) grew abundantly under spruce trees near our campsite. This plant was originally given the name lousewort because it was believed that livestock grazing on the plant would get lice. This claim has not been substantiated
We camped at Wall Lake (11,133 ft), named for the rock wall on its west side
In the morning, I fished for an hour or so with absolutely no luck. Not even a bite. I tried several different Panther Martin and Roostertail lures to no avail. There were two anglers fishing about 100 yards down from me who caught several decent-sized greenback cutthroat trout (Onchorhyncus clarkii stomias), but they all contained a white coloration on the scales that appeared to be fungal in nature. I wondered if it was a manifestation of whirling disease, a water-borne parasite brought in with non-native brown trout from Europe.
Apparently there is great trout fishing in the Flat Tops. Some have reported cutthroat trout of 24 inches or larger. Maybe I just need to work on my technique, I thought. When the fishing got mundane, I peered out into the distance at a raft of over 100 Barrow’s goldeneye (Bucephala islandica). Angie and I had seen the common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) back in Denver (see Conference of the Birds), but this was our first time seeing the Barrow’s. Hash tag life lister!
A female Barrow's goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) on Wall Lake. This species is a bird of wild western landscapes. It can be differentiated from the common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) by its vertical forehead. The female common goldeneye has a more slanted forehead. The male Barrow's goldeneye has a crescent-shaped white patch on the forehead compared to the circular white patch on the forehead of the male common goldeneye
Leaving our camp standing, we set off with lightened packs to the summit of nearby Trappers Peak (12,002 ft). With no established trail to follow, we navigated through a massive scree field where Angie accidentally dropped her phone into the cracks between the boulders. Luke and I carefully dislodged several smaller boulders until we finally could see the phone deep below us. In his unwavering intrepidity, Luke got on his knees and we lowered him down into the crevasse where he was able tor each out and grab it. Post-hike when we stopped to have a beer, Angie realized her license was inside the phone. That, undoubtedly, would have been the worst thing about losing the phone.
Luke hiking up the boulder field that swallowed Angie's phone
The summit of Trappers Peak (12,002 ft) behind a cairn on the trail. Over 100 lakes and ponds can be seen from the summit
Up above us near the cliffs that fall from the summit of Trappers Peak, a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) soared effortlessly and in an instant disappeared from sight behind the ridge. We soon reached the saddle and continued up the ridge-line hoping to get a better view of Colorado's largest bird of prey. We soon reached the summit, but the raptor had managed to elude us.
Standing at the top of Trappers Peak (12,002 ft) with Wall Lake behind us
Angie and Luke admire the alpine tundra on top of Trappers Peak
We followed Luke down several rock gullies on the opposite side of Trappers Peak, when we began to hear the distant cries of elk (Cervus canadensis). Scanning the countryside with my binoculars, I was excited to come across a herd of nearly 200 cow elk and their calves, prancing wildly throughout the meadow. I was immediately overcome by the daunting scale of this wilderness. The elk were a mere spattering of beige and brown paint on the canvas of greens unravelling before us.
I couldn't believe my eyes. A scene as wild and vast as this could be seen on the tundra of Alaska with giant herds of caribou (Rangifer tarandus), but never with elk in Colorado. I suppose I was just naive.
The Flat Tops Wilderness is home to Colorado's largest herd of elk and what some say is the largest herd of elk in North America. There are an estimated 39,000 elk in the Flat Tops. It is a hunter's paradise, with ample opportunity awaiting around every corner. After having spent a considerable amount of time in Rocky Mountain National Park where hunting is prohibited, I noticed how skittish the elk were here in the Flat Tops where regulated hunting is permitted. The minute this herd caught site of us, they were trotting quickly off into the distance.
After watching the herd, we continued our descent down towards Star Lake, where we ate lunch and I unsuccessfully fished for trout. We were watched closely by a chickaree (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), whose chattering trill rang out across the water.
The chickaree or American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is one of the more common squirrels of coniferous forests, except for on the Pacific coast, where it is replaced by the Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii). They drop the scales from stashed pine cones at the base of a single tree, where the scales form a massive mound known as a midden
Characteristic landscape of the subalpine meadows and forest found in the heart of the Flat Tops
Leaving Star Lake, we swatted at giant mosquitos in the subalpine meadows and forests as we hiked around Trappers Peak where we found a drainage back to our campsite. I stopped to photograph a blooming alpine sorrel (Oxyria digyna), admiring its singular beauty.
In the saddle of Trappers Peak (seen to the left)
Alpine sorrel (Oxyria digyna) is also found in the arctic circle. It is an important plant food for deer, elk, and caribou. The leaves have a fresh acidic taste and are high in vitamin C. This plant is used by the Inuit in Alaska to prevent and cure scurvy. Notice the distinctly volcanic rock in the background of this photo
Day 2: Wall Lake to Trappers Peak, Star Lake, and back to our campsite at Wall Lake
Angie admires the cliffs adjacent to Trappers Peak
Arriving back to camp, we kicked up our sore feet and prepared hot meals on our camp stoves. The full moon rose high above us, with Jupiter and Saturn nearby. It was a perfect evening for camping in Colorado.
In the morning, I tried my hand at another round of fishing but once again came up empty-handed. Luke and Angie joined me lakeside where we soaked up a few rays of sun on what was a beautiful bluebird day.
Day 3: Wall Lake to Trailhead
It's never easy for me to return to civilization. Leaving the splendor and beauty of the mountains is always a struggle. However, the serenity that I find in the wilderness always settles in my soul, comforting me in the swarm of the city. I imagine Arthur Carhart drew a similar sense of peace from this remote region - this cradle of wilderness. It was a tranquility he always wanted to go back and find again. And thanks to his advocacy, I am grateful to know it will still be here when I return.
Until next time, Flat Tops.