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  • Brian Johnson

The Flat Tops Wilderness - Part 1

Updated: May 13

Flat Tops Wilderness Journal: September 5-11, 2022


Monday a.m.


What a wondrous world we live in, where a fellow can leave his house in Grove City, Ohio in the morning, and have his happy hour camping by a wilderness mountain lake in Colorado. Of course, it means getting up at the crack of dawn to drive to the airport, flying three hours, driving four hours, and hiking a couple of hours uphill with a full pack, but the point is it can be done, with the proper intent.


I find myself this week with a free week at work, and a loving and saintly wife. There are probably better things I could do with my time, but I’ve decided to fill the unforgiving minute by getting as far from civilization as I can. Call it a spiritual retreat. The trick was to find a place that doesn’t require permits or reservations, with relatively easy access from a major city, jaw dropping scenery, and virtually devoid of people. Fortunately I am something of an expert in getting off the beaten path, if I do say so.


Many years ago, 35 or so, I had my heart set on a backpack trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness, but in the end my buddies and I ended up going somewhere else. Ever since then it’s stuck with me, like a brain worm. The Flat Tops are a huge 235,000 acre wilderness area sitting on a high plateau in an empty corner of Colorado, with most of the area being above 10,000 feet. Somewhere roaming around up there is possibly the largest elk herd in North America, numbering some 30,000 head. A hundred and thirty odd mountain lakes are scattered among pine forests and huge expanses of alpine tundra. I first read about this place in an actual book, before the internet era, and it has always captivated my imagination, conjuring up visions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World.


I’ve just stopped for refreshment in Yampa, the last town before the wilderness. Sadly there was not much on offer. I don’t think it even qualifies as a one horse town. They still have dirt roads! Well, there’s only the one. I’m about to take it out of town about 20 miles to my trailhead, where I’ll have a couple of mile hike to get to tonight’s mountain lake. Unfortunately I’m getting to the age where I’m running out of hiking partner victims, so this is a solo trip. Just me and 30,000 elk. As always I will keep a travel journal of sorts.


Monday p.m.


It was a little less than two miles from where I parked my car at Stillwater Reservoir to my first night camp at Little Causeway Lake. It was a beautiful drive to the trailhead from Yampa as the road switchbacked up into the mountains across open meadows and through pine forest before arriving at Stillwater at an elevation of 10,255 feet. From there the trail climbed 500 feet through heavy forest, passing along some lovely meadows on the way to the lake. I wasn’t expecting some of the steep sections, and I was feeling the altitude, so that by the time I stopped to make camp I was breathing heavily.


I followed a faint trail around to the southeast side of the lake and found a secluded spot in the trees above the lake, at the requisite 100 feet from the water. It was a lovely clear night so I decided to forego the tent and sleep cowboy. I lay in my sleeping bag and watched the sun slide down through the trees and out of sight behind the lake as I enjoyed my two Oktoberfest beers from 4 Noses Brewing Company and my Austintatious Tortilla Soup from Packit Gourmet. Now this long and lovely day must come to an end, as Big Daddy is exhausted. I don’t plan to stir from my nice warm sleeping bag until the sun comes up. Or well after. Tomorrow I get to cross the Devil’s Causeway, and I can’t wait.


Continued below...



Tuesday


After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee I made the 1000 foot climb up to the Devil’s Causeway, which is a narrow, rocky land bridge which connects two high plateaus. It’s a neat feature because it has a cirque on both sides as you cross, with tremendous views down to several lakes on either side. The crossing itself is about three feet wide, very rocky and uneven, with drops of 600 to 800 feet on both sides. It’s a thrilling crossing but not for anyone with a fear of heights. I saw another couple who had day hiked up and were having lunch before heading back down. The lady had declined to make the crossing.


The crossing is not as bad as it looks as long as you exercise some common sense and keep three points of contact with the ground. You’d have to be a fool to go over the side, but unfortunately that commodity is not in short supply. As I made way for the couple to head out an older lady with her dog showed up, also out day hiking. I let her cross first, as she had the dog on a leash and I wanted no part of that. They made heavy work of the crossing and there were a couple of times I thought one or the other of them were going over the side and pulling the other after them. I wanted to tell her to let the dog cross without the leash as it would be safer for both of them, but sometimes you just have to let people live their foolishness. I’m a case in point.


After the Devil’s Causeway the trail headed out onto a vast plain of low shrubs and tundra stretching as far as the eye could see, eventually arriving at a solitary wooden sign marking my trail junction, with one arrow pointing to a trail heading in the opposite direction I wanted to go. The other arrow pointed to the Chinese Wall trail, which is the one I wanted. Except that there was no trail. Zilch. Nada. Nothing at all but open tundra. There was nothing for it but to head off in the general direction and hope to pick it up at some point.


Well, as hard as it may be to believe, Big Daddy got lost. I eventually came to a big ridge of rock and stayed low when apparently I should have gone high, up and over. After several miles of slogging under a relentless sun I came to a small unnamed lake in a little basin and decided to call it a day. I do have gps, and do know where I need to go, but it involves some climbing I was not ready to tackle today. Truth be told I’m feeling the effects of the altitude and it’s slowing me down. As Scarlett said, tomorrow is another day.


After filtering some water from the little lake I curled up in my sleeping bag and had my last beer as I made supper. It promises to be a cold, clear night, so I decided to do without the tent again.


Continued below...



Wednesday


I once was lost but now am found. That’s kind of how my day went. Having taken a slight wrong turn on the tundra yesterday I ended up at this little unnamed lake for the night. This morning I awoke stiff and sore, and still feeling the effects of the altitude. I’ve been above 10,000 feet since Monday afternoon, and above 11,000 feet since about noon yesterday, so about 11,000 feet higher than this flatlander lives. Heck, even setting up camp makes me breath hard. So I lay in this morning and didn’t break camp until 10 o’clock.


When I finally roused myself I followed the line of least resistance up and over the ridge above my lake and pointed the gps app where I needed to go. After a mile or so of walking across the open tundra the small sign at the trail junction popped into view in the distance. Talk about your happy camper. Once back on the proper trail I made good time across the open country. There were clear blue skies and no shade, and the mountain sun beat down relentlessly. In one of those surreal moments like out of a western movie, far in the hazy distance in the middle of nowhere a string of horses materialized into view. As we walked toward each other the image slowly resolved into a couple on horseback, wearing cowboy hats and accompanied by a couple of ranch dogs and trailing a pack horse and a horse with an empty saddle. As we passed, the lean and weather beaten cowboy tossed off a nonchalant “howdy” and the ponytailed blond cowgirl offered a friendlier smile. I wondered about the one horse with a saddle but no rider, but some things are destined to remain mysteries.


After a couple of miles I came to another trail junction, and a choice. Either trail would eventually get me where I was going, but one was 1.6 miles longer while the other involved some elevation loss and gain. Not comprehending the extent of the climbing involved, I opted for the shorter route, and proved once again the age old adage that the shortest way is not always the quickest way.


The open tundra quickly gave way to broken, rocky country and patches of pine trees, with tremendous views off the plateau. I passed several scenic lakes before descending down to Deer Lake, surrounded by trees but situated on a shelf looking out over the valley below. The climb out of the Deer Lake basin was strenuous but provided nice views back down to the lake. After a couple more miles of up and down hiking I finally reached my destination at Island Lakes, a group of several small lakes bounded by a semi circle of high cliffs.


It took me a while, but I finally found a suitable camp site among some pine trees on a shelf overlooking one of the little lakes. I was exhausted and didn’t bother setting up the tent and was quickly ensconced in my sleeping bag. I had happy hour (tequila and lemonade) and cooked supper from the comfort of my sleeping bag as I watched the sun set behind the cliffs. I have been here thus for some hours now, other than a quick visit to the privy, and don’t think I will stir until morning. I’m so tired I can hardly lift pen to paper, metaphorically speaking.



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