The trail less traveled

Hiking to Hooper and Keener lakes


— An hour and 20 minutes south of Steamboat Springs is a mountain range that is very different from the Park Range, which dominates views to the east and north from downtown.

Although they top out higher than the peaks in the Park Range, the mountaintops in the Flat Tops are formed by high alpine plateaus; they are flat on top.

The 400,000-acre White River Plateau, in South Routt County, was formed 30 million years ago. The plateau rises to 12,000 feet and was formed by a dome of sedimentary rock. During a volcanic period that lasted nearly 12 million years, the uplifted plateau was covered in layers of igneous rock.

Glaciers and streams have cut through the igneous rock in places, leaving steep valleys. In other places, the lava rock has resisted erosion, leaving the high plateaus in place.

The county roads stretching from Yampa in South Routt, across the plateau to Meeker in Rio Blanco County, are designated one of Colorado's 21 "Scenic and Historic Byways."

For Steamboat hikers, Yampa represents the most convenient gateway to the Flat Tops via Colorado 131. Drive south from Steamboat, then turn right off Colo. 131 into downtown Yampa and proceed past the Antlers Bar and Grill to County Road 7. Continue into the Routt National Forest beyond Yamcolo and Bear reservoirs to the parking lot at Stillwater Reservoir.

Many hikers who park at Stillwater are destined for the Mandall lakes on Forest Trail 1121, Trail 1119 to the Devil's Causeway or up and over the plateau to Trappers Lake on Trail 1120. But a lesser-used route is Trail 1122 to Hooper and Keener lakes.

Begin the 2.5-mile hike in by walking across Stillwater Dam to the trail register. The walk begins with a short climb before traversing a meadow and climbing earnestly up switchbacks.

The trail climbs to a high pass to the south of Flat Top Mountain.

Typically, the last hundred feet in elevation gain would still be covered by snow in early July. But that is not the case this year.

The pretty lakes will be on your right as you hike downhill beneath the escarpment of the Flat Tops.

The explosion of summer wildflowers seems to be compressed this year. Hikers this week are encountering everything form the huge "Green Gentian" to "Elephantella," which is typically found in wet, marshy areas.

With signs of monsoon season upon us, a quality rain jacket is a must. Hikers must always use good judgment regarding electrical storms when hiking through the exposed plateaus of the Flat Tops.

Start your hike early in the day, and enjoy the moderately strenuous walking but easy route finding on the way to Hooper and Keener lakes.


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