A devil of a hike

The view from the top along Devil's Causeway is the worth the climb

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— Mike Canterberry had his thumb out while standing south of Oak Creek on Colorado 131 last week. When he flagged down a truck the second one since Steamboat he plopped down on the seat and was pleased to hear the ride would take him all the way to Toponas.

"I'm going down to State Bridge; Dark Star is playing," he said.

Dark Star Orchestra is the Grateful Dead cover band and usually draws big crowds to listen to the players mimic an actual "Dead" performance from a particular night in the band's history. It's even rumored that Dark Star will intentionally play the same mistakes the Dead made during the original performance, to perfect the charade.

As the car neared Yampa, the peaks of the Flat Tops appeared to the west, in front of an evening sun. The car weaved through the little South Routt town, to the south side, where the peaks are even more clear. That's when the legend was brought up.

"Have you ever been to the Devil's Causeway," Mike asked? "I've heard so much about it."

Since Mike moved to Routt County in the last year or so, he said all he has heard about is the Devil's Causeway; how it's a special place; and how he should hike it.

He recounted a story he heard about the causeway. The Ute Indians, Mike explained, would cross the narrow causeway on their horses, trying to evade a military unit. The troops wouldn't dare cross the stony bridge with steep cliffs with their horses, giving the Utes a clean getaway as legend has it.

Probably since people started living in the Upper Yampa Valley, stories have been passed around about the Devil's Causeway, explained Paul Bonnifield, a historian who lives in the valley.

Some of them are true and maybe some of them not true, he said.

"It has been a place of mystery and awe," Bonnifield said. "It's a very special place."

The Devil's Causeway is a six-mile round trip from Still Water Reservoir, which is just east of Yampa at the base of the Flat Tops Wilderness area. From there, Trail 1119 winds through the Bear River Valley and switchbacks up the side of the bowl. At the top, an unmarked trail leads to the 11,600-foot summit of one the flat tops. There, the trail follows the flat summit and becomes skinnier and skinnier until cliffs are on either side of a 4-foot, rock bridge. Long ago, the path was named the Devil's Causeway.

Geographically, the Devil's Causeway is the divide where two glacial valleys meet, Bonnifield said. To the east is the Bear River Valley which is one of the origins of the Yampa River and to the west is the east fork of William's Fork.

One of the most common stories about the causeway tells of someone riding a horse across the natural bridge. One story that Bonnifield said is probably true is about Doc Marshal, who was one of the first ranchers in the Upper Yampa Valley.

"He was supposed to have crossed it with his horse on a dare; and knowing Doc and I did know Doc I bet he did it," Bonnifield said.

Jon Anarella, wilderness manager for the Yampa Ranger District, said he heard stories that the Utes blindfolded their horses and rode across. He also recently was told a picture of someone riding a horse across it was floating around.

"I think it's urban legend, but I'd be curious to see," he said.

Until the late '70s, there really wasn't a maintained trail up to the causeway, Bonnifield explained. But since the turn of 20th century, it has been a draw for some adventurous tourists.

"For a long time, no one would ever go up there, they just heard about it," Bonnifield said.

Then the Forest Service began maintaining trails in the area and promoted the causeway. Today, an estimated 5,000 people hike to the Devil's Causeway each year, making it one of the most hiked trails in Northwest Colorado, Anarella said.

He speculated the destination element of the hike is what makes it so popular. Also, the causeway is a perch to view unique mountainous landscapes and high mountain lakes that dot the ground like puddles after a rainstorm in the Flat Tops all of which formed by glaciers and volcanic activity.

"It's not your typical granite peaks that are the Rockies," Anarella said.

And despite the steep cliffs and narrow trail, Anarella or Bonnifield can't recall hearing of anyone falling off.

However, one thing to keep in mind when hiking to the Devil's Causeway is the weather. Anarella said he has seen a group of 17 get zapped by lightning near the causeway. No one was seriously hurt, "but some of them weren't feeling that good," he said.

"After all," Bonnifield said. "It's the highest part in the area."

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