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The Hiking and Camping Guide to Colorado's Flat Tops Wilderness

The Hiking and Camping Guide to Colorado's Flat Tops Wilderness

by Al Marlowe, Karen R. Christopherson

The Flat Tops Wilderness Area is unique, a high plateau at 11,000 feet. Its nearly flat surface is covered with woodlands and alpine meadows, pockmarked with hundreds of lakes and drained by mountain streams. The wilderness is accessed by a network of trails for hikers and horseback riders alike. A visitor could spend an entire season here and not see all of this


The Flat Tops Wilderness Area is unique, a high plateau at 11,000 feet. Its nearly flat surface is covered with woodlands and alpine meadows, pockmarked with hundreds of lakes and drained by mountain streams. The wilderness is accessed by a network of trails for hikers and horseback riders alike. A visitor could spend an entire season here and not see all of this magnificent wilderness.
This book is the only comprehensive guide to the Flat Tops Wilderness. It gives detailed directions to each trailhead and describes what you will find along the many trails. You will discover the many wonders of the Flat Tops; its geologic history from the episodes of mountain building and subsistence, and inundation by warm seas; the periods of volcanism and succeeding ice ages; and the first visitors to this remarkable land. The wildlife of the region, the flora and fauna, the weather, and seasons are all described. You will also learn common sense ways to protect wilderness environment as well as yourself on a visit to this incomparable land.


Product Details

Pruett Publishing Company
Publication date:
Pruett Series
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

South Fork Trail 1827
UTM 13 0293317 E, 4415598 N
Lat/Lon 39º 51’ 53.15 N, 107º 31’ 59.57” W
An easy hike. The trail climbs only 1400 feet in 13 miles as it follows the South Fork of the White River, emerging from the deep canyon at a place named The Meadows. It can be hiked in either direction at The Meadows.
From Eagle County Road 301 2 miles north of I-70, Forest Road 600 takes you to The Meadows, and Budges Resort a mile to the west. North of this parking area the trail connects with Trail 1838, Trail 1830, and Trail 2259. Anglers will want to take lightweight waders to fish the river. Several pleasant campsites are found along the trail.
Trail 1828, Trail 1829, The Meadows, Trail 1838, Trail 1830, Trail 2259, Trail 1816
5, 7, 13.7, 23.25 miles
7602 at the trailhead, 9000 at The Meadows, 10903 at Trail 1816
Directions to trailhead
From County Road 17, go south on County Road 10 to South Fork Campground, 10 miles, the end of the road. Park in the designated area south of the campground near the trailhead.
Flat Tops SW, Flat Tops NE
[Insert photo Tr 1827-1]
[The trail follows the South Fork of the White River for about 14 miles to The Meadows. Good fishing all the way.]
The trail begins at the entrance of a deep, narrow canyon carved in massive limestone. It follows the course of the South Fork of the White River, leading you upstream and exiting the gorge at The Meadows, 13 miles up the river.
After leaving the trailhead, you walk beside one of the most beautiful streams in the state. Following the runoff, the water is clear, flowing over a bed of black and red basalt, and white limestone boulders. The stream is broad, having numerous deep holes, hiding places for trout. If you approach the water carefully, you'll also see rainbow and cutthroat that occasionally rise to inhale a tasty-looking insect from the surface. A few feet from the parking area is a wooden bridge crossing the river. The path on the other side leads to Spring Cave, a hole in the limestone extending a hundred feet or so into the rock wall. It's about a mile up the trail and worth the detour.
About three miles from the campground, the river narrows, being squeezed by the canyon walls, as it plunges over a short series of cascades. Be sure to take your camera for this scenic spot.
Above the cascades, the canyon opens a bit and the stream channel broadens. Another two miles of easy walking takes you to Lost Solar Creek and Trail 1828. The land and cabins here are private, the ownership dating back years prior to creation of the wilderness. The area is marked. Through this section, you must stay on the trail to avoid trespassing.
A mile upstream from Lost Solar Park, the trail wanders through timber at the bottom of the deep gorge. Another mile takes you to Park Creek and Trail 1829, which follows the creek up to the plateau.
Above Park Creek, the canyon walls become steeper, nearly vertical in appearance. Here, the trail wanders a short distance from the river, far enough that you'll miss an especially scenic narrow section. This one is about eight miles from the trailhead. Here, the stream has cut a trough through the resistant granite. It's an angler's frustration. The long narrow pool formed is deep; too deep to wade. Steep granite walls make the water unreachable from either side. A pool created by a logjam at the upper end and a deep plunge at the outlet makes either approach difficult. The pool is photogenic, though.
In this narrow portion of the canyon, the river meanders, runs through shallow riffles, and plunges over boulders. Deep pools form at bends, creating trout holding water. A little further upstream, the gradient increases and willows growing along either bank make it difficult to approach the water; very frustrating if you're an angler. A little further upstream is a small falls, not very high but large enough to be noted on topo maps. Above the falls, the gradient flattens and the trail climbs less steeply. Near the falls is a wooden gate across the trail in what seems an unlikely place. Just be sure to close it after passing.
[Insert photo S Fork Camp 2]
[Backpackers will find plenty of places to camp. Be sure to stay at least 100 feet from the water.]
The final three miles of the trail is an easy walk past lush meadows and vertical limestone walls. The climb is only 120 feet in that distance. Aspen groves shade the bench above the river. You pass through several more gates along the way. Across from the White River Resort, near the end of your hike, is a fenced enclosure in which the resort sometimes keeps horses. Be sure to close the gates so the horses don't wander.
Also across from the resort, the trail weaves through a patch of willows that grow along an unnamed trickle coming off the plateau from the north. The tiny stream has sufficient flow to flood the trail here but by clinging to the edge of the path and the brush, you can keep your feet dry.
From here, it's less than a half-mile to The Meadows. A wooden footbridge takes you across the river to a parking lot west of The Meadows.
Camping along the river is a pleasant experience and there are many sites along the trail. The sound of the water is relaxing, soothing. Pick your site with care, though. High ground is suggested as heavy rains upstream can raise the water level quickly. Also, remember the 100-foot distance from water to your camp. The only exception to open camping is the area at Lost Solar Creek, which is private land.
After passing Nichols Creek and Doe Creek, the trail turns east continuing to follow the South Fork out of the canyon onto the Flat Tops plateau, ending at the Trappers Lake Trail 1816 near Shingle Peak. The section of trail above Doe Creek is not maintained and hikers can expect additional challenges due to deadfall and swampy areas.
Access to the river along the first mile, near The Meadows, is a challenge. From the trail, the willows growing along the White don't look bad. They're almost impenetrable, though. Deer like to hide in the thickets. The dense cover provides concealment and browse for them close to water.
Above the river, the canyon walls rise, gently at first, then nearly vertically. The lower slopes are open, covered with high grasses and low brush here and there. The ground is hummocky in places along the river, the result of unstable conditions created when the glaciers left behind piles of rubble in the valley. You'll also find ponds scattered along the river. Approach them quietly and you may catch a glance at a mama teal and her babies, hatched in the early summer.
Water is abundant along this trail. There are springs along the west bank a couple of miles upstream from the Doe Creek trail junction. On the east bank, several tiny streams come rushing down the steep sides to join the White.
Lost Solar Trail 1828
UTM 13 028988 E, 4415187 N
Lat/Lon 39º 51’ 45.27” N, 107º 27’ 23.23 W
The canyon the trail follows shows the contrasting geology of the Flat Tops. The canyon was formed by faulting and erosion rather than by glaciers. It's a long, but not too steep of a climb except in a few places.
Lost Solar Park, Trail 1830
7 miles
7904 at Trail 1827, 10750 at Trail 1830
Directions to trail
From the South Fork CG, take Trail 1827 along the South Fork of the White River upstream 5 miles to the trail. You can also reach this trail from The Meadows, and Trail 1830 on the plateau.
Flat Tops NE
The steep-sided walls are a prominent feature found in the South Fork of the White River canyon. From the bottom, access to the plateau appears off-limits to hikers. Fortunately, incisions have been made in the rugged landscape, the result of fracturing and erosion of the rock. During the construction of the Flat Tops faulting broke the rock. Natural processes of weathering enlarged these fractures, creating V-shaped canyons, in contrast to the U-shaped valley of the South Fork, formed by moving layers of ice. Lost Solar Creek is one of the drainages formed by faulting of the rock. The resultant valley offers the hiker relatively easy access to the top.
The trail begins at the confluence of Lost Solar Creek and the South Fork, among a group of cabins. The land here is private so stay on the trail. It follows the creek along the bottom of the deep V-shaped canyon. Because of the steep sides, there are few suitable campsites until you are 5 miles up the trail from the South Fork. Here at the confluence of Lost Solar and a small, unnamed creek that heads in the small canyon to the north, the ground is flat enough for camping.
The grade is gentle most of the way up as the path traverses the left side of the canyon. Past the confluence of Lost Solar and the unnamed stream, the trail climbs again, a bit more steeply this time. It finally emerges from the canyon in sight of Timber Mountain and Lost Solar Park. Here you connect with Trail 1830.
Campsites are limited along this trail but once you are on the flat, you will find meadows where you'll want to set up your tent. The small clearing above the third unnamed creek, which joins Lost Solar Creek from the north, has spots large enough for a backpack tent.

Meet the Author

Al Marlowe, freelance writer and photographer for outdoor recreation publications, is a member of the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers and Photographers. He has been published in American Angler; American Survival Guide; Arkansas Outdoors; Backpacker; Bird Dog News; Colorado Dept. of Natural Resources; Colorado Outdoors; National Wildlife Federation; Rocky Mountain Game & Fish; Rocky Mountain Streamside; and Western Outdoors.
Karen Rae Christopherson (ColoradoFishing.net) has traveled extensively throughout the US and world with her fly rod in tow.

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