When fear pays off

Not heading back across Devil's Causeway offers great surprises to hikers

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There I was, crouched, shaking and clutching a sharp rock in front of me with one hand while grasping the hand of a my much bolder companion with the other.

As seasoned area hikers might guess, I was on the Devil's Causeway, a short, narrow wall of volcanic rock linking two plateaus in the Flat Tops Wilderness.

The dramatic feature, carved millions of years ago by glaciers, is the focal point of a popular three-mile hike following trail 1119 or the East Fork Trail from Stillwater Reservoir.

About 75 feet long, the causeway opens at about 10 feet wide, its jagged surface rising and falling as it tapers to about half that width before joining the other side.

I hadn't planned to cross the infamous ledge, which sits at 11,600 feet, but with several of my companions on the other side, I gradually coaxed myself across the wall, cautiously placing one foot in front of the other, my peripheral vision catching a harrowing glimpse of the 1,500-foot drop offs on either side.

Finally reaching the other side and almost scared to tears, I wasn't about to test my acrophobia again by trekking back across the causeway.

I already was headed forward across the plateau when the question arose whether we might return the way we came or proceed over the inviting alpine tundra, swathed in green grasses and delicate wildflowers.

Of the 5,000 to 7,000 people who typically hike up to the causeway every year, only about 10 percent continue on the trail, which traverses across the plateau before heading down and linking with the East Fork Trail near the reservoir, wilderness manager John Anarella said.

From the causeway, the loop takes hikers 7.5 miles back to the parking area at the reservoir. The hike is 4.5 miles and about three hours longer than if hikers backtrack from the causeway to their cars.

Walking across the plateau for about three miles, hikers following the rutted loop trail have ample opportunity to enjoy 360-degree views of the Flat Tops and striking valleys, as well as the fragile tundra vegetation and dainty flowers coloring the landscape.

Visibly eroded in some areas, this ecosystem is in danger, particularly around the causeway, because of increased traffic on the popular trail, Anarella said.

The short seasons and sensitive soils make restoring the area difficult, so it's important that people stick to the trails and take breaks on rocks.

Hikers also should take care to keep their canine pals under control. Complaints about dogs chasing wildlife and owners not picking up dog waste may lead to a leash requirement for the area, Anarella said.

About one mile past the causeway, the trail merges with the Chinese Wall Trail 1803, which is easily missed. Continuing to the southwest, the trail's erosion makes it easy to follow except for a few places where it appears to peter out, though numerous rock cairns help keep visitors on track.

Despite spectacular views from the plateau, reaching the intersection of trails 1803 and 1814, which heads east and toward the reservoir, is somewhat of a relief, particularly if large and potentially threatening clouds are looming overhead.

For this reason, it's best to set out on the hike early, before thunderstorms roll in. Once on the plateau, there are few, if any, places to take cover from lightning.

Trail1 814 soon turns into Trail 1120, the Bear River Trail, which will lead hikers past patches of snow and gradually into trees and forest.

Though most trails in the area are fairly straightforward, it's important to have a Forest Service map on hand to clarify intersections and prevent heading in the wrong direction.

A plethora of wispy wildflowers soon return to the landscape. Particularly enchanting in late July was the Indian paintbrush, which ranged from its typical orange-red color in the sun, to light pink and magenta in the shade. Most of the columbine blooms were expired, though some peeked out in partially shaded areas near trees.

Depending on the time of summer, hikers also may come across quaint mountain ponds and giant mushrooms flourishing in the mountain soil. Proceeding down the plateau, a tall waterfall to the south is visible from the trail.

The hike down to Mosquito lake and the meandering Bear River is mostly gradual and not nearly as steep or exposed as the upper portions of the East Fork Trail leading up to the causeway.

After miles of hardly seeing a soul, hikers will come across backpackers heading into Mosquito Lake. The trail will gently dip and climb through meadows as it runs along the reservoir.

There are flattened logs on several of the creek crossings, though some creeks without the logs may be more difficult to maneuver across in early summer.

Eventually, the Bear River Trail meets the East Fork Trail, taking hikers back to the Stillwater reservoir parking area, where they may revel in their feelings of accomplishment, as well as the relief of peeling hiking boots off of their tender feet.

To reach the parking area from Steamboat Springs, take Colorado Highway 131 about 25 miles south to Yampa. Driving through town, take a right on Routt County Road 7, which turns into Forest Service Road 900. Proceed about 17 miles past Yamcola Reservoir and Bear Lake to Stillwater Reservoir.

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