A trip to Trappers Lake in the White River National Forest two hours south of Steamboat Springs unavoidably involves the aftermath of wildfire. But it also brings startling beauty from the forest floor, and ample opportunities to hike in forests untouched by flames remain throughout the area.
The Flat Tops mountains formed millions of years ago when magma oozed out of cracks in the earth and covered the region. Much more recently (only thousands of years ago), glaciers cut the steep drainages that crease today's Alpine plateaus above 10,000 feet.
It was only three years ago, in the drought summer of 2002, that the Big Fish Fire burned the stands of lodgepole pines surrounding Trappers Lake. The environment there has been transformed for the remainder of our lifetimes.
Yet the burned forest promises a dramatic color display for the balance of the summer, with yellow arnica already in full blossom and the magenta of dense patches of fireweed just beginning to show.
Hikers and horseback riders who want to experience the Flat Tops the way they were for most of the past 50 years still can find those qualities from trailheads less than three miles by road from Trappers Lake.
The trail to Mirror Lake, for example, takes off just east of Himes Peak, where the fire burned hot. Except for some obscured views through the forest, there is no sign of the fire along the five-mile hike up Trail 1821 to Mirror Lake.
The first mile of the trail traverses an easement within the privately owned Rio Blanco Cattle Company ranch. That includes a section of the trail that crosses the tempting White River. Numerous signs remind hikers not to leave the trail -- to do so would be trespassing. Hikers also are obligated to close two different gates behind them where the trail enters and exits the private ranch.
The majority of the trail is rocky and climbs steadily, gaining 1,100 feet of vertical elevation. Hikers would be wise to wear stout hiking shoes or boots.
The lake sits just above 10,000 feet and is a beautiful aquamarine color. It covers about 5 acres and is 54 feet deep.
The shoreline of the lake is surrounded by steep terrain, and there are very few camping sites within close proximity of the lake. Wilderness regulations forbid camping within 200 feet of lakes and streams. So, it's better to look for a camping site below the lake.
When the brook trout in Mirror Lake aren't biting at midday, anglers can retreat down the trail about a mile to the much smaller Shamrock Lake. There, 10-inch trout seem to be hungry all day long. Brookies rarely are fussy about fly patterns -- it's hard to go wrong with Adams dry fly patteerns in small sizes 16 to 20.
Visitors to Mirror Lake would be missing out on a grand sight if they didn't make the short drive to Trappers and walk the gentle Carhart Trail, which winds around the lake. It's a wildflower display ignited by the devastating fires of 2002.