Photo by Matt Stensland
Steamboat Springs resident Marty Gilligan hikes along a cliff in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area toward the top of Flat Top Mountain. At 12,354 feet, it’s the highest peak in Northwest Colorado.
How to get there
Follow County Road 7 west from Yampa 6.4 miles to Forest Service Road 900. Continue on FSR 900 for 8.6 miles to the parking area at Stillwater Reservoir.
Flat Tops Wilderness Area The Devil’s Causeway is a classic local hike, but those looking for a new adventure might want to take a left at the fork next time.
At 12,354 feet, Flat Top Mountain dominates the landscape in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and is the highest peak in Northwest Colorado, said John Anarella, recreation program manager for the Yampa Ranger District. By comparison, the summit of Mount Zirkel is 12,180 feet.
The Devil’s Causeway gets most of the attention in the Flat Tops and is visited by 3,000 to 4,000 people each year, Anarella said. He estimated only a couple hundred people climb Flat Top Mountain.
“If you’re comfortable hiking the Causeway, this is a little further and a little more challenging,” Anarella said.
People looking for solitude likely will find it. During a July 18 hike, no other people were seen and no other groups had checked in at the North Derby Trailhead. It had been three weeks since anyone had signed the log at the summit, which is a four-mile hike. It will take four to six hours to complete the entire eight-mile, out-and-back hike.
To access the trail, follow County Road 7 west from Yampa 6.4 miles to Forest Service Road 900. Continue on FSR 900 for 8.6 miles to the parking area at Stillwater Reservoir. Along the road are scenic $5 campsites with fire grates and picnic tables. Three campgrounds also are in the area with fees starting at $10.
From the parking lot, follow the main trail and take a left at the fork. This will take you around the reservoir and down to the information board. According to the Yampa Ranger District website, the wilderness area starts 0.8 miles from the parking lot at 10,445 feet. After hiking through the spruce and fir forest, the trail pops up on the saddle at 11,200 feet. The saddle divides the the Yampa River and White River watersheds as well as the Routt and White River national forests.
At this point, you have hiked 1.9 miles and realize that the tops of the mountains in the Flat Tops are indeed flat. Sort of. It’s another 2.1 miles to the summit with a gain of 1,154 feet over high-alpine tundra.
The trail continues to the south, but to summit Flat Top Mountain, take a left and head east. The trail begins to dissipate and stacks of rocks called cairns occasionally are placed along the cliff to keep you on course. The summit is visible but deceivingly far away.
“That climb is kind of like the dream where you’re walking and you’re not getting anywhere,” Anarella said.
To keep a trail from forming and to limit the impact, Anarella asks that people not walk single file.
Once you leave the saddle, you are extremely exposed and should pay attention to threatening clouds. The Flat Tops is notorious for storms that develop quickly, and recently it has been storming almost every afternoon. To be safe, Anarella advises hiking before noon or while the area is under high pressure.
It gets rocky toward the top, and the summit is marked by a large cairn with an attached tube containing the register and pencil.
Sleeping Giant, Steamboat Ski Area and Hahn’s Peak are visible to the north. Rocky Mountain National Park is visible to the south. And on clear days, you can see the ski runs at Vail.
“You see a lot of 14ers from up there,” Anarella said.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com