Acrophobia? Then you may want to stay home for this one, or at least don’t go all the way. That was my choice when my life-long fear of heights (that I thought I had conquered) kicked in. Devils Causeway, the destination for this hike on East Fork Trail in Flat Tops Wilderness, is an extremely narrow backbone atop a rocky ridge named the Chinese Wall that drops precipitously 800 feet on each side. That would be your first bounce, then you would roll another 700 feet before coming to a rest. The good news is the trail to get there is quite beautiful with magnificent views of the surrounding Routt and White River National Forests. Get acclimated to high altitude before tackling this hike as you will be above 10,000 feet the entire way. Our hike occurred on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 from 8:15am to about 2:25pm. Our plan was to take East Fork Trail to the pass below the Chinese Wall, then climb the final pitch to Devils Causeway. We would return on the same trail.
Hike Length: 6.5 miles Hike Duration: 6 hours
Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None
Start Elevation: 10,298 feet Elevation Gain: 1,640 feet
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous climbing and rocky terrain.
Trail Condition: Mostly good, some rock scrambling.
Starting Point: Flat Tops Wilderness trailheads at Stillwater Reservoir.
Trail Traffic: We encountered four other hikers.
How to Get There: Follow County Road 7 west from Yampa, CO to Forest Road 900 (Bear River Road) 6.4 miles. Continue on 900 8.6 miles to the parking and trailhead at Stillwater Reservoir. There are pit toilets at the trailhead.
This isn’t the first time my brother and I have been to Flat Tops Wilderness. A couple years ago we started at the same trailhead, but instead went to North Derby and Hooper Lake. The drive up into the wilderness from Yampa past the three reservoirs into the Flat Tops area was again quite scenic, although the water level in the reservoirs was 8-10 feet lower than our last visit. This is a beautiful area for camping and fishing, not to mention all the great hiking trails.
For this hike we started on the joint Bear River Trail/East Fork Trail that follows the north side of Stillwater Reservoir for about three quarters of a mile. We reached a junction where Bear River Trail continues west along the reservoir, and East Fork Trail turns north toward the wilderness. That was our choice.
Another quarter mile later, East Fork Trail enters the Flat Tops Wilderness boundary and passes a scenic mountain meadow that sits at the base of the Chinese Wall. The wall is a mile-long mesa that rises 1,500 feet above the valley. On the eastern end was our destination, the Devils Causeway. From this vantage point, the climb looks quite imposing.
For the next half mile East Fork Trail passes through a lodgepole pine and fir forest that will awaken your senses with the delightful aroma of evergreen. On this crisp October morning the air was very fresh. At the end of the forest, we reached Little Causeway Lake, another reservoir filled with cool mountain water much smaller than the others along Bear River Road.
From this point along the lake the climbing begins in earnest. The trail winds through a talus field, the crumbly remains of the breakdown of the cliff above and to the east. The lake remains on the left, and after climbing above the level of the pines that surround the lake, the view is quite splendid. All through the talus you can see the Causeway Pass straight ahead that is just below the Chinese Wall.
When we reached the end of the talus we entered a grand high mountain meadow shaped like a bowl and surrounded by cliffs to the east, north and west. It is a nice place to pause for a snack and survey the setting. Behind is the first glimpse of Flat Top Mountain and the pass we went through a couple years earlier on our way to North Derby and Hooper Lake. You can see the pathway to Causeway Pass… a series of long switchbacks that climb the steep bowl.
Climbing is never my favorite part of hiking, but I realize it’s a must if you want to view the scenery. So I sucked it up as we charged into the switchbacks, figuring I would be stopping frequently for breathers. 30 minutes later, it turned out not to be as strenuous as I imagined. While the pitch of the bowl is very steep, the designers of the switchback trails did a very nice job of minimizing the exertion.
So about two hours after we started, we reached Causeway Pass and got slammed with a wall of wind. No surprise. You have to figure this is a place that is always windy. It is very exposed, and surrounded by taller, flat mesas that help to swirl the wind through the pass. That wind was the first thing that made me nervous about the final pitch up the Chinese Wall.
The view north from the pass is stunning. The north side of the Chinese Wall mesa curves around forming a gull-winged-shape. The valley below is mixed forest and meadows and lakes, the closest being Lost Lake. That is the photo at the top of this post. You may click it for a larger image. The pass has patches of willow that added to the color of the scene on this mid-autumn day.
Looking back the way we had climbed, we could see the entire pathway. Flat Top Mountain is in the distance with Stillwater Reservoir below. Little Causeway Lake looked even smaller from this height above it. The bowl beneath the pass looks a long way down, and we noticed a couple of hikers coming up the talus field behind us.
Then, there is the final pitch up to the Devils Causeway. I would estimate about 300 feet of elevation gain in a quarter mile. There is an extreme drop off on each side. On this day it was snow and ice covered. Combine that with the wind and an extremely steep grade, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of continuing. My brother tried to settle my nerves, suggesting it would be a shame to come all this way to stop short.
So I gave it a try. We took it very slow. The snow was quite slippery… occasionally we would take one step forward and slide two steps back. That is what concerned me the most. I kept imagining myself slipping and beginning a slide that wouldn’t end until I was an unrecognizable heep 1,500 feet below.
The higher we got the more jittery I became. My breathing was more like panting. All of my muscles were tense. I felt the dizziness of vertigo beginning to onset. We reached a point about two-thirds of the way up the pitch where I simply could go no further. I plopped down in the snow and told my brother I would wait for him right there, to take as long as he wanted up top.
It’s amazing how our phobias can completely control us. I could see the top from where I was, but my mind wouldn’t let my body continue. Had it been summer, I probably would have made it, but all I could envision was sliding off the mountain on the snow field. So I sat there. I took some pictures, but every time I looked up I got that queasy feeling that comes from acrophobia.
Instead I focused on the snow-covered ground in front of me. To my amazement I saw a small spider crawling across the snow… and then a fly… and then another fly. What in the world were these insects doing at 11,600 feet? A lone raven hovered in the wind above the pass. As long as I looked at the ground, or the sky, I was okay.
I waited patiently, about 25 minutes, while my brother explored the Devils Causeway. The pictures below of the views from the top were taken by him. Thanks to him for allowing me to share them with you. The picture captioned “looking down from the top” has tiny me in the center of the shot hunkered down in my snow seat.
As soon as he hollered at me from above that he was back, we both began our descent. I took a deep breath and carefully planted my boots in the snow, making sure I had solid footing before taking the next step. The sense of relief that washed over me when I reached the pass again and felt I was on solid ground was incredible. My muscles relaxed, my breathing returned to normal, and I whispered a little thank you to whoever was listening.
About the time we returned to the pass from above, the hikers we had seen behind us reached the pass. A young couple, we chatted for a moment, then they set out on the final pitch through the snow. We watched as she just zoomed right up, but he looked more trepidatious, like me. He paused several times to survey his surroundings before finally proceeding. To his credit, he too eventually made it to the top.
We grabbed a bite to eat and began the descent back into the south-side bowl. We could see another pair of hikers approaching and our paths crossed about half way down the switchbacks. Later, when we reached the talus field, we could see this 2nd couple actually crossing the Devils Causeway. There’s a photo of them below. Ah, the courage of youth.
The air had warmed considerably since the morning and made for near perfect hiking weather. We took our time, enjoying the scenery on the way down. We could see the wind whipping across Little Causeway Lake creating that shimmering effect as it raced across the surface.
With the afternoon light, the meadow at the wilderness boundary had an awesome golden glow. The marshy little ponds reflected the azure blue sky. Our eyes followed the rim of the Chinese Wall as it curved from west to south thinking it might be a nice future hike to approach from the other end.
When we reached the junction with Bear River Trail, I said let’s go out this way a bit and see what the west end of Stillwater Reservoir looks like. That’s also how you get to the other end of the Chinese Wall. The trail along the reservoir was mellow, and the willows were glimmering a bright yellow in the sunshine.
We setup the tripod, took some self-portrait photos, and enjoyed the lake-side scene.
To summarize, I have thoroughly enjoyed both of my visits to Flat Tops Wilderness. It is unique country with a little something for everyone. There are plenty of lakes to enjoy, high mountain meadows, both willow and evergreen forest, and vistas as far as the horizon. The geology of the flat tops on the mountains is quite fascinating.
Now, having said that, do you want to do this hike? If you have the slightest fear of heights, this one might be tough for you. Perhaps consider just going as far as Causeway Pass because the view on the north side is magnificent. If acrophobia doesn’t bother you, then be one of the brave who crosses the Devils Causeway. It will be a rewarding experience.
I would be remiss if didn’t give a tip of the cap to Penny’s Diner in Yampa. After we finished our hike, we were kinda hungry, so we stopped at Penny’s in this tiny old-west town. I ordered a jalapeno burger and have to say it is the best hamburger I have had in the last 25 years. My brother’s grilled chicken salad was also scrumptious. So if you go hiking in Flat Tops Wilderness, I highly recommend stopping at Penny’s Diner either before or after. They are open 24 hours.