Road: dirt; hard-packed and loose gravel in spots
Round-trip from Denver: 549 miles
Length of Byway: 82 miles
Vehicle types: car, motorcycles – dirt and dual sport, 4×4 and OHV trails all along byway
Elevation change: 6240 to 9763 feet above sea level
Location: North Western Colorado
The Flat Tops Trail Scenic and Historic Byway is as unassuming as the father of the Flat Tops Wilderness area, Arthur Carhart. Known as the ‘cradle of wilderness’, Trappers Lake, which is centrally located about 11 miles from the main byway into the wilderness area, is where Carhart suggested that,
“There are a number of places with scenic values of such great worth that they are rightfully the property of all people. They should be preserved for all time for the people of the Nation and the world. Trappers Lake is unquestionably a candidate for that classification.”
After driving along this byway over the span of two days at the end of June, I wholeheartedly agree with Carhart. This area is serenely beautiful and that is an understatement. Luckily for me, a friend had joined me on this tour and so, I have corroboration for the breathtaking views and tranquility all along this byway.
This byway skirts along the northern edge of the second largest U.S. wilderness area in Colorado. All along the byway, you can find hiking, OHV, horseback riding, fishing and hunting areas. But, if you look at the wilderness area on map, you will see that the actual ‘wilderness’ area is untouched by any roads.
It’s been a while since I’ve been through such untouched beauty. Is Colorado beautiful? Oh without a doubt, but actual wilderness in Colorado? Well, the Flat Tops Wilderness really does live up to its name.
Start of Tour
My friend is also my co-worker. She’s a transplant from Florida and since she’s been here for about two and a half years, there’s a lot of Colorado she has not seen yet. We began the tour from the eastern end where the byway starts just outside of Yampa. Our first stop was the Yampa Ranger Station where we were lucky enough to speak with the ranger there and learn a little more about the area. After picking up the driving tour guide, we were on our way.
The next stop was the Bird Homestead just north of Yampa. This little home along the rolling high country prairie had quite the view back in the day. After taking photos and breathing in the sweet clover-filled air, we rounded the bend and came upon a typical western Colorado site…cowboys in a meadow prepping a calf for vaccinations.
All along this drive, as you get closer to the Flat Tops area, the hills gently rise above the valleys and meadows in the deep greens of summer…from the dark pine green to bright green aspen and every shade in between. Not only that, but since it was the end of June, the wildflowers were in full bloom. My friend and I couldn’t stop our amazement and joy in the beauty of all of it. And I was more than happy to oblige her gasps of wonder by pulling over along the road every now and then. I knew that the day was going to be quite long, but it was well worth it.
Leaving the pavement behind
Once we left the paved road, the byway began to rise in elevation and as we rounded each bend, my friend and I gasped in amazement. We truly felt like we had left a world behind us and had entered a world where nothing mattered at all. As I drove along, I had told my friend that since the wildflowers were blooming, that I would stop once I saw any Columbine (Colorado’s State Flower). She had said that the only Columbine she had ever seen were those that were planted…never wild. After saying that, we decided to take a break for lunch and found the turnoff to Chapman Lake which was only a mile off the byway. About 50 feet down this road, I noticed a bunch of Columbine hiding amongst the Aspen. I decided to pull off the forest road and park, so we could get some photos. When I turned around to back into an open area, my jaw dropped. There, on the other side of us and growing by the hundreds amongst the Aspen were hip-high Columbine.
We didn’t even make it to Chapman Lake. After taking about 15 minutes for photos, we pulled out a blanket, spread it out under the Aspen, ate lunch and looked around in wonder. To think this spot was right there, just a few feet off the byway…amazing!
After lunch, we both wandered through the stand of Aspen, wildflowers and forest undergrowth. At one point, a Rio Blanco County deputy sheriff (Deputy Baughman) who was driving up from Lake Chapman had pulled off the road and chatted with us for a bit. He gave us a detailed map of the OHV trails in the area and pointed out a view of the Flat Tops Wilderness that we would not want to pass up.
On the road again
My friend and I did not stop admiring the beauty and serenity of the landscape. As we drove, we found ourselves stopping every few miles to step out, stretch, take photos and breathe in the fresh air. I knew we weren’t going to be able to take in all of what this byway has to offer, but we were going to give it our best effort. Although Deputy Baughman’s description of the road he had suggested we take was hard to pass up on the first day, we ended up waiting until day two to take that side trip. On this day, we made sure to take the Trappers Lake side trip to get a glimpse of the wilderness as Arthur Carhart had so many years ago.
Even though some of the area had been devastated by wildfire in 2002, we were happy to see the resiliency of nature as amongst the charred remains of the forest was new growth; wildflowers, bushes, small pine and aspen had been springing up all over the hills since the fire. Trappers Lake is one area in particular where you can also witness the volcanic activity from millions of years ago and how it had carved the landscape. I found the exposed lava rock to be quite interesting as I walked the trail along the lake.
On to Meeker
Not to rush you, but there was a lot to see and do along this byway, my friend and I stopped at almost every sign post that had been placed by the Flat Tops Byway organization. By the time we made it in to Meeker, it was past dinner time. Our resting place was the Meeker Hotel. We got lucky enough to get the Gary Cooper room which is located on the second level of the hotel and just above the main street. This room can be joined by a second room, which turns it into a suite and the old wood floors, décor and ambience do a pretty good job of taking you back in time. Oh and yes, Mr. Cooper had stayed in this room many years ago.
I woke early the next morning….it’s just in my nature to rise with the sun…and so I took a short walk around Meeker and down to the city park before my friend rose and breakfast at the Meeker Hotel Café. After breakfast, we were on our way again and back over the byway to see more of the wilderness and share in the peacefulness one last time. Before we found the road that Deputy Baughman had suggested we take, I pulled over quickly to watch three Sandhill Cranes in a soggy meadow. I had never seen any in the wild. I’ve seen plenty photos and heard about people flocking to see them in February in southern Colorado, so this sighting was quite the treat for me.
After the crane sighting, we were off to find the turnoff by Buford to head south along a dirt road which shared some amazingly breathtaking views of the deep Flat Tops Wilderness valleys. Although the temperature was quite moderate, around 75 degrees and the elevation just above 9000 feet, I still found myself sweating when we took a short hike to Cliff Lake which was one of the spots that the deputy suggested we stop at. After that hike, the next view was spectacular. This view looked eastward and down into two different valleys of the wilderness area. One valley went northward and the other eastward. The hills rising above both valleys became cliffs of red sandstone which were covered in aspen and pine. My friend and I kept saying that this drive was definitely one someone would want to take in the fall for a spectacular color show.
Not the end
Before I end this byway blog, I want to share some interesting websites. I’m still amazed at how few Coloradoans know about this area. My thought is that if you are a true Coloradoan, then you’ve been here at least once in your life.
- Rio Blanco County Government
- Meeker Colorado and the White River Valley
- Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway – hiking and fishing trails
- Wilderness.net –
- USDA – Forest Service: Trappers Lake – Cradle of Wilderness
- The Wilderness Act of 1964
- Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet