The Flat Tops Wilderness has been widely celebrated as the "cradle of American wilderness areas" this month as the nation observes the 40th anniversary of the wilderness Act of 1964. But it isn't necessary to mount a wilderness expedition to admire the mountain range south of Steamboat Springs that straddles Routt, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties.
U.S. Forest Service officials say automobile touring is among the most popular ways people enjoy the national forests, and September is the ideal month to enjoy the Flat Tops Scenic Byway, stretching from the town of Yampa in the east, all the way to Meeker in the west.
As the fall colors build in the mountains surrounding Steamboat, Routt County Road 38 up Buffalo Pass will see increasingly heavy traffic. Leaf-hounds who are willing to drive a little longer can enjoy the luxury of driving along at a sedate pace without the need to swallow someone else's dust. The Flat Tops Scenic byway offers all of the dramatic views that Buffalo Pass does, without the crowds.
From Steamboat Springs, motorists could begin the day by driving west on U.S. Highway 40 to Craig, then south on Colorado Highway 13 to Meeker to begin the journey up the White River. However, most people in the area choose to begin by driving south on Colorado Highway 131 to the village of Phippsburg or the town of Yampa, where the Flat Tops Scenic
Byway begins. That choice leaves open the possibility of cutting the drive short for an earlier return to
The entire length of the Scenic Byway is 82 miles, 40 miles of that on good gravel roads.
The most direct route from Steamboat to the trail is to drive just beyond Phippsburg and take a right turn up Hunt Creek on C.R. 15. After several miles, watch for a right turn onto C.R. 132 (soon to become Forest Road 16), which quickly leads motorists into Rio Blanco County and the climb up Dunckley Pass. Some will point out that you also can reach C.R. 132 by driving up Oak Creek Canyon out of the town of Oak Creek. But we think it's faster to drive beyond Oak Creek to Phippsburg.
To get the full effect of the Flat Tops Scenic Byway, it's necessary to travel south another 10 miles on Colo. 131 to Yampa. Just at the entrance to town, turn right on Routt C.R. 17, which doubles back toward C.R. 15 and C.R. 132.
The drive from Yampa is worth the extra distance for the views of historic homesteader buildings, as well as a view of the Flat Tops themselves.
Perhaps five miles into the drive up C.R. 132, not long after crossing Trout Creek, motorists will notice a wide turnout. It's worth pausing a few minutes here, not just to let the dog out, but to look back across the valley. Sharp-eyed travelers who walk about 20 paces into the widely spaced trees will be able to recognize Mount Werner from an unusual perspective. This view looks head-on at the High Noon Ski Trail, a view you aren't likely to find anywhere else.
Dunckley Pass is named after brothers John, Thomas, Robert, George and Richard Dunckley, all of whom homesteaded in the area in the late 19th century. The "Historical Guide to Routt County" reports that at one time, there were three country schoolhouses in the Dunckley School District No. 14. Today, there are few signs of human habitation.
From the summit, the moderately graded road twists like a serpent down to the floor of the Williams Fork Valley. Don't drive too fast or you'll go right past the hamlet of Pyramid, named after an 11,600-foot peak to the south. The site was once known for a freight wagon stop jocularly known as the "Brown Palace." Not far away, the first post office in the valley was established, and a character named Edward Dubeau delivered mail twice a week, on horseback in summer and by snowshoe in the winter.
Quickly, the road leaves the valley and climbs to the summit of Ripple Creek Pass where the most spectacular views of aspen can be found. Don't pass up the lane to the scenic lookout at the summit for its world class views of the Flat Tops and landmarks such as Marvine Peak.
The summit also can be a great place to linger on a September evening and listen for bugling bull elk.
Some sightseers will turn around and return to Steamboat from Ripple Creek Pass. The other options are to descend the far side of the pass (about three miles). From the bottom, it is about 10 miles to Trappers Lake, where burned snags of the 2002 Big Fish Fire have transformed the landscape. Alternatively, a right turn on Forest Road 8 leads down the beautiful White River Valley to Meeker.