Ah, the Flat Tops Wilderness Area! Where else in the US can you hike for miles across unspoiled, grassy flatlands, see pristine mountain lakes, look over cliffs that make your stomach flip, see Basque shepherds and their sheep, and have those top-of-the-world feelings that makes hiking so worthwhile? In August, I got to experience all of this in one day by hiking around the Devil’s Causeway Area in the eastern section of the wilderness area. I already detailed that general hike in another post, but we did enough differently that I thought I’d write another post. The highlight of this time for me was striking off the beaten trail and across the Flat Tops toward a formation we called “The Giant’s Skateboard Ramp” (aka Lost Lakes Peak East). Not only could we see the Trapper’s Lake Area and Amphitheatre Peak, but the views across the miles of grassland were perfectly lovely!
We started up the trail early one morning in August. Knowing that there would almost certainly be thunderstorms later in the day (always in August!), we wasted no time heading up Trail #1120 (Bear River Trail), enjoying the views of the cliffs over Stilwater Reservoir. After 0.7 miles (1.1 km), we turned right onto Trail #1119 (East Fork Trail), then continued into the actual Flat Tops Wilderness Area at mile 1.07 (1.7 km). Shortly after this, the Causeway comes into view – although you can’t tell that this is what it is. It just looks like some very impressive cliffs rising above an alpine-like meadow. In early August or late July, this meadow is studded with lovely alpine wildflowers.
We kept walking, and, after passing Little Causeway Lake, the trail began to rise more steeply. It climbed along the hillside, through ever-increasing views, into a kind of bowl. Here the trail began to switchback upward in long switchbacks amid some very nice wildflowers. Don’t give up here; you’re almost to the top!
Suddenly, the trail crested the Flat Tops. This section of the Flat Tops is fairly narrow; it’s a very short walk over to the other cliff edge and look down at the view. And what a view! Causeway Lake can be seen, along with several other lakes, in the valley below. The cliffs rise, tall and awesome, along the edge of the valley, with the Lost Lakes Peaks at the far end. Also, Pyramid Peak is visible as a cone-shaped mountain on the right side of the valley.
Turn left here; the Causeway is about 0.2 miles (0.3 km) up the hill, or about 3 miles (4.8 km) from the parking area. If you continued to follow Trail #1119 (turning right), you’d end up descending off of the Flat Tops, then down to Causeway Lake.
There is supposedly no real trail up to the Causeway or over to Trail #1803 (the Chinese Wall Trail); however, there is a very well-defined social trail (better defined than Trail #1803) that ascends to the top of the Causeway, 11,825 ft. (3,604 m) above sea level, and then descends to the Causeway proper. The views from just before and on the Causeway are spectacular – probably the best views you’ll see on the entire hike, although I also love the Flat Tops views about the time the social trail runs into Trail #1803.
We walked out onto the Causeway with some fear and trepidation. We’d all crossed once before, but now we knew enough to be scared – and this is a seriously scary business! Several of us also wanted to stop in the middle this time – I know, crazy of us – to look at the view, take pictures, and so on. I was one of them; check out my video of it below!
After we were all safely across (and I won’t say we didn’t have some heart palpitations half way across!), we continued along the well-defined “social” trail through the low bushes. After we’d left the bushes behind and entered a land filled with grasses and small rocks, we crested a small hill with a large cairn on the top of it. Here we decided to strike off, right, across the Flat Tops. Or that’s what we thought we were doing. Actually, from this place Trail #1803 (Chinese Wall Trail) goes right and straight – but you can only see the straight trail since this is the “Causeway Loop” that a fair number of people do every week during the summer. So, we were actually following a trail we didn’t know existed. We saw some cairns, but they were so erratically spaced that we didn’t pay much attention to them.
The walk across the Flat Tops without a trail was breathtaking. All around you is grassy expanse; occasionally you can see the cliffs near Trapper’s Peak to the left. You really feel like you’re on top of the world – maybe alone in the world. You might meet people at the Causeway, or afterward on the “Causeway Loop”, but not here. This is a place much less touched by humans. There are more pictures of this section at the bottom of this post (under the GPS and “Getting There” headings).
We walked for quite a bit – probably about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) – then sat down to get our bearings, reapply sunscreen, etc. As we were sitting there, a whole herd of little white dots began to appear over the next rise. We knew that sheep were raised on the Flat Tops, and we’d even seen the tents and carts of the sheepherders (and one sheepherder riding a horse along a road), but we’d never seen the sheepherders in action. Not far behind the sheep was the Basque shepherd on a beautiful horse and his dog. (Dogs were introduced into sheepherding as a compromise between the environmentalists – who wanted to reintroduce animals like wolves back into their native habitats – and the sheepherders – who understandably didn’t want a threat to their livelihood of sheep. The dogs keep the wolves at bay and protect the sheep.) The sheep milled around for a bit, then settled down to eating grass. The sheepherder directed the dog to direct the sheep; the hand signals and voice commands were fascinating. Everyone seemed to know exactly what they were doing and it worked like clockwork.
After the dog finished herding the sheep, he began barking at us. He wasn’t threatening, but we figured we needed to turn around sometime, so we’d go away and let him have his peace and quiet. We took a bit of a different trail back to the main “Causeway Loop” trail, passing through several dips and rocky areas before refinding the flatter grassy area. Again, it was beautiful; I felt like I was walking through “Christina’s World” (the Andrew Wyeth painting). We found the main trail about 3 miles (4.8 km) after we’d left it, and turned right.
After this, following the trail was easy as it wound its way across the Flat Tops for the next 1.2 miles (1.9 km). The views were still beautiful, with increasing views to the right of Trappers Peak, Amphitheatre Peak, Himes Peak, Big Marvine Peak, and other mountains and cliffs. 8.3 miles (13.3 km) from the parking lot, we arrived at the Trail #1803 / Trail #1814 Junction; turn left. (Turning right would take you over to Trappers Lake.) Only 0.3 miles later (0.4 km), there are two more trail junctions (with trails #1120 and #1817); continue on Trail #1814 (generally straight). The trail now has a different view, with Flat Top Mountain, cliffs galore, and even Sillwater and Bear Lake Reservoirs. It’s still nice, but it seems that the thunderstorms are piling up just as we reach this point…so I’ve never seen it in the sunshine (though it would be stunning with sunshine on it!). The trail descends quickly in a short set of long switchbacks, and before you know it, you’re down – off of the Flat Tops – and back into the valleys.
The trail winds through the valley, past several small ponds and lakes and through several meadows and forests. It’s 3.5 miles (5.6 km) from the last trail junction to the next trail junction, which is the end of the lollipop loop. This is a longish section, but it isn’t too bad because it’s downhill or flat most of the way. Bugs can be bad along this section in season, though – you might want to have any stops before you get into the valley if it’s early in the season (before August).
At the Bear River East Fork Trail Junction, turn right – it’s only 0.7 miles (1.1 km) from here back along Stillwater Reservoir to the parking area. Because we’d taken the 3 mile (4.8 km) loop off of the main trail, we ended up having a 12.5 mile (20.1 km) hike – but it was well worth it to see the beauty away from the main trail!
Round Trip Trail Length: About 9.5 miles (15.2 km) without the detour off the main trail; 12.5 miles (20.1 km) if you head over toward the Lost Lakes Peaks on Trail #1803.
Lowest Point: 10,315 ft. (3,144 m)
Highest Point: 11,826 ft. (3,604 m)
Net Elevation Gain: 1,511 ft. (460 m)
Facilities: Primitive restroom at trailhead. Campground just down the road from the trailhead – and since it’s about the only camping opportunities in the area if you car camp, this is a great way to get an early start!
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
Key GPS Coordinates
Causeway trailhead: 40.02736N / -107.12354W (40° 1′ 38.496″ / -107° 7′ 24.744″) (10,315ft.; 3,144 m)
Trail #1120 (Bear River Trail) / Trail #1119 (East Fork Trail) Junction: 40.02315N / -107.13468W (40° 1′ 23.34″ / -107° 8′ 4.848″) (10,388ft.; 3,166 m)
Flat Tops Wilderness Boundary: 40.02464N / -107.13900W (40° 1′ 28.7034″ / -107° 8′ 20.3994″) (10,560ft.; 3,218 m)
Trail #1119/Trail #1803 (Chinese Wall Trail) “Junction” (ascend the Flat Tops): 40.03836N / -107.14941W (40° 2′ 18.0954″ / -107° 8′ 57.876″) (11,596ft.; 3,534 m)
Highest Point, overlooking the Causeway: 40.03661N / -107.15044W (40° 2′ 11.796″ / -107° 9′ 1.584″) (11,826ft.; 3,604 m)
Causeway: 40.03507N / -107.15237W (40° 2′ 6.2514″ / -107° 9′ 8.532″) (11,792ft.; 3,594 m)
Left the trail (“social” trail meats Trail #1803): 40.02762N / -107.16404W (40° 1′ 39.4314″ / -107° 9′ 50.5434″) (11,686ft.; 3,561 m)
Reenter Trail: 40.01412N / -107.17464W (40° 0′ 50.8314″ / -107° 10′ 28.7034″) (11,569ft.; 3,526 m)
Trail #1803/Trail#1814 (Little Trappers Trail) Junction: 39.99770N / -107.17384W (39° 59′ 51.72″ / -107° 10′ 25.8234″) (11,330ft.; 3,453 m)
Trail #1814/Trail #1817 Junction: 39.99960N / -107.16942W (39° 59′ 58.56″ / -107° 10′ 9.912″) (11,418ft.; 3,480 m)
The gpx file for the Causeway Loop can be downloaded – please note that this and the GPS Coordinates are for reference only and should not be used as a sole resource when hiking this trail.
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(Note: I do my best to ensure that all downloads, the webpage, etc. are virus-free and accurate; however, I cannot be held responsible for any damage that might result, including but not limited to loss of data, damages to hardware, harm to users, from use of files, information, etc. from this website. Thanks!)
Getting to The Causeway Parking Area
From CO-131 near the town of Yampa, CO, take the south-most road (Rcr 7 / Moffat Ave) west into Yampa. You’ll pass a small park before the real main street begins – complete with shops and light posts on the wide dirt street. I wish I’d taken a picture, because it’s really cool and rustic! Turn left on the far side of town to head south on Moffat Ave / County Road 7, following the signs for Stillwater Reservoir. Drive 2.2 miles (3.5 km), then take a slight right to stay on County Road 7. In the next 8.5 miles (13.6 km), the road will changes names from County Road 7 to Rcr7 to Forest Service Road 900 to County Hwy 159. You won’t know this, although the quality of the road does change with the names. After driving 10.8 miles (17.3 km) from Yampa, stay right to continue on County Hwy 159; the road will quickly take a right to circle the Yamcolo Reservoir. You’ll actually be driving right beneath the dam that creates the reservoir, which I always found a little nerve-wracking (but still pretty cool). The road will end, 6 miles (9.6 km) later, at the Stillwater Reservoir Trailhead; the Bear River Trail begins beyond the primitive restrooms beside the sign boards. All of the roads after CO-131 are dirt, but they are usually well-graded and suitable for low-clearance vehicles (as long as you don’t mind a little washboard).
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Sun Oct 22
Sunny skies. High near 55F. SSE winds shifting to WNW at 10 to 15 mph.
Mon Oct 23
A few passing clouds, otherwise generally sunny. High 52F. Winds NW at 10 to 20 mph.
Tue Oct 24
Partly cloudy skies. High 54F. Winds NW at 5 to 10 mph.
Wed Oct 25
Mainly sunny. High 62F. Winds SW at 5 to 10 mph.
Thu Oct 26
Chance of Rain
Partly cloudy skies during the morning hours will give way to occasional showers in the afternoon. High 42F. Winds WNW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 50%.