Flat Tops Wilderness is the second largest U.S. Wilderness Area in Colorado. Located near the towns of Yampa and Steamboat Springs, it is 235,214 acres, with 38,870 acres in Routt National Forest and 196,344 acres in White River National Forest. The area is named for a series of flat top mountains that dominate the landscape. This is sub-alpine and alpine terrain with beautiful mountain ponds and lakes, rich evergreen forest, grassy marshes, and craggy tundra. The elevation ranges from 7,600 to 13,000 feet. There are 160 miles of trails in the designated wilderness area. This hike occurred on July 22, 2011 beginning at 8:35AM and ending about 3:30PM. Our plan was to take the North Derby Trail from the Stillwater Reservoir to the pass that separates the White River and Yampa watersheds, then down the other side on the Hooper Lake Trail to the base of Derby Peak where we would find Hooper and Keener Lakes. We would return along the same trails.
Hike Length: 8.7 miles Hike Duration: 7 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate Blaze: None, wilderness
Elevation Gain: 1800 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back
Trail Condition: Excellent, North Derby; Swampy, Hooper Lake
Starting Point: Stillwater Reservoir Parking
Trail Traffic: We only encountered one family of five hikers.
How to Get There: Follow County Road 7 west from Yampa, CO to Forest Road 900 6.4 miles. Continue on 900 to trailhead at Stillwater Reservoir parking and trailhead, 8.6 miles. There are pit toilets at the trailhead.
View North Derby and Hooper Lake Trails, Flat Tops Wilderness in a larger map
It’s always refreshing to hike in Colorado. The air is thin, crisp and clean; the sky a deep royal blue; the forests magnificent and the views breathtaking. To get to Flat Tops Wilderness, my brother and I drove through the Old West town of Yampa, and on to Forest Road 900 past the reservoirs fed by the Bear River. There are three separate, and stunningly blue reservoirs, with the trailhead parking at the third, Stillwater. Immediately we were met with what would be the theme for Phase I of this hike.
Later in the day, we concluded this was a hike of three phases:
—The mosquitos, also known as the rich spruce/fir forest and ponds
—The wind, also known as the pass, covered with awesome tundra
—The swamp, also known as the gorgeous lake and waterfall area
As soon as we got out of the car, we were swarmed with mosquitos, frankly quite unusual for Colorado and a touch disconcerting. We quickly slathered on another layer of repellent creme and started moving. The trail immediately splits, with the East Fork and Bear River Trails heading to the right, and our trail, the North Derby, going left across the dam of Stillwater Reservoir. This dam crossing offered a preview of the surrounding wilderness. We could see the snow-covered Yampa/White River Pass that would be our first destination to the south, and the ring of flat topped mountains surrounding us that give the wilderness its name.
Across the dam, there is a sign where the North Derby Trail drops down and winds its way for about 10 minutes through a series of meadows and ponds. After .8 mile there is another sign at the forest edge that marks the beginning of the Flat Tops Wilderness. From here the trail begins a steady ascent that will eventually climb about 1200 feet to the pass. The forest is beautiful, filled with spruce and fir… and mosquitos. Every time we would pause momentarily for a breather, it would only take a few seconds before there were 100 mosquitos swarming on my arms and legs. Fortunately I was wearing Smartwool merino wool, so they weren’t directly on my skin, but I got out the 30% deet stick and covered my clothes just to be sure. I have never seen mosquitos that thick, especially in Colorado. We began wishing for some wind.
When you’re hiking the North Derby Trail, be sure to turn around occasionally and check out what is behind you. As we climbed higher and higher, we soon got remarkable views of Stillwater Reservoir and the flat tops that stand above it to the north. We could see the Devils Causeway Trail winding its way up to the pass on the other side. After almost two miles we approached the final steep climb to the pass. Even in late July, the trail was still covered by a snow field. 2011 was a particularly snowy winter in Colorado, so the melting has taken weeks longer than normal. We encountered quite a bit of snow above 11,000 ft. the entire week I was visiting. We found a way through the woods around most of the snow, but we still had to climb the final 30-40 feet by very carefully digging our shoes into the snow.
Y’know how they say, “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” When we topped the pass, we got that wind we had wished would blow the mosquitos away. Boy, did we! With that, Phase II of the hike began. The pass is 11,200 ft. and you can climb further, another 200 feet, to get an awesome view of Hooper Lake and Derby Peak. That’s the photo at the top of this post. On top of that mountain I bet the wind was blowing at least 35 mph with higher gusts. But there weren’t any mosquitos. The national forest changes from White River to Routt at the pass, and the watershed changes as well. The ground is the amazing alpine tundra so prevalent in the Colorado high country. We hit peak summer wildflower season and the mountains put on quite a show. I found myself several times during the week singing to myself, “The hills are alive, with The Sound of Music!” Yep, I know. I’m a geek.
After several pictures, the wind got the best of us and we went down to the pass level for a snack. It was still pretty windy, so we found some barricade behind a willow thicket to check the map before proceeding onward to the lakes. Since it is wilderness, there are no signs, but the trail changes from North Derby to Hooper Lake at the pass. There is a beautiful view to the south of the Sawatch and Gore ranges in the far distance, and the grassy meadows down below the pass. As the trail dropped a couple hundred feet we got relief from the wind, and thank goodness, no mosquitoes on the south side of the pass. Then a couple more hundred feet lower we noticed it. We had begun Phase III of this hike.
Suddenly the lush mountain meadow was a marshland. Squish, squish, squish with each succeeding step. Again, the late snow melt was making itself apparent. The further into the meadow we went, the deeper the swampy conditions became. So we decided it best to get off trail and head for higher ground. We knew the lakes were at the base of Derby Peak, so we stayed in the rocks and trees as we headed that general direction. Our plan worked fine, as we arrived at Hooper Lake 15 minutes later with dry feet. We were treated to a very nice surprise as the waterfall that plummets 200 feet from the flat top into Keener Lake was still roaring away. Again, because of the late snow melt, the waterfall that is normally gone by late June was hanging around another month just for us to enjoy.
There was plenty of downed timber surrounding Hooper Lake, so we pulled up a couple seats and enjoyed our lunch in this captivating scene. The lake was mirroring the snow on the mountains above and the spruce that surrounded the lake filled me with a luscious scent. We were all alone. We hadn’t seen another soul since the trailhead, and all those folks were heading to the Devil’s Causeway on the other side of the wilderness. About the only thing that could have made this tranquil experience more enriched would have been wildlife.
After lunch we continued south another 1/2 mile through the rocks and forest toward Keener Lake. This time we weren’t quite as lucky as we got stymied by some downed trees. After bushwhacking a bit, we found our way to the original trail and continued to the next sight. There is a spur trail that goes about 1/4 mile to Keener Lake. We encountered another swamp on our way there, this one quite significant. It was roll up the pant legs time. I was extremely pleased the GoreTex
® liner in my shoes kept my socks almost completely dry. Amazing stuff. The view of the waterfall from Keener Lake was even more impressive. Keener is the larger of the two lakes, and a bit more out in the open. We took the trail about a third of the way around the southwest side of the lake, pausing to look at the little fish swimming in the crystal clear water. There were mountains to the west and north, forest to the east and south.
There are two more lakes along the Hooper Lake trail, Edge and Bailey. We debated going to Edge Lake, but it would be about another two mile round trip and it was approaching 2:00PM and time for the afternoon thunderstorms to possibly appear. So we opted to take our time on the way back to the reservoir and simply enjoy the scenery again. We stuck more to the trail through the marsh on the way back and managed to stay mostly dry. We did encounter field after field of amazing wildflowers including alpine avens, buttercups, paint brush, blue bells and lupine. As we began the 400 foot climb back up to the pass, we met the first and only other hikers we saw on this trail. It was a middle-aged couple and their three teenage kids, who were every bit as enthralled with the surroundings as we were.
It was dicey going back down the snow field on the north side of the pass, but we both made it without falling and sliding a hundred feet down the hill. Much to our relief, the mosquitos were not out in the afternoon in the forest like they had been in the morning. At one of the steep stretches down through the forest, we stopped to do a little trail maintenance. There was a 30′ log lodged across the trail quite precariously that was an accident waiting to happen. So we scrambled up the hillside and rolled the log safely out of everyone’s way. The rest of the hike was great conversation about what a delightful day this had been. I get out to Colorado every couple years, but frequently travel to other states while I’m there. The next time I am hiking in Colorado I will absolutely consider some of the other trails in Flat Tops Wilderness. Beautiful!