The Flat Tops Wilderness covers more than 235,000 acres of remote mountains and forests in Garfield, Rio Blanco, and Eagle Counties on Colorado’s Western Slope. Its most popular natural feature is Trappers Lake, the state’s second-largest natural lake, fed by the North Fork of the White River and set in a basin ringed by flattop mountains.
Trappers Lake is known as the “Cradle of Wilderness” because of the efforts of Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect with the US Forest Service who began advocating for protection of the area in 1919. Based on Carhart’s surveying report, the Forest Service abandoned its plans for developing the area and prohibited future development. This made Trappers Lake the nation’s first unofficial “wilderness area.” After the Wilderness Act of 1964 allowed for the creation of development-free natural areas, Trappers Lake was included in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area designated in 1975.
The main geologic feature of the Flat Tops Wilderness is its namesake—the rugged mountains whose broad, flat peaks look markedly different from the rest of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The Flat Tops’ unique shape is the result of millions of years of erosion that has stripped away ancient layers of softer sedimentary rock and exposed a hard basalt cap that reaches 1,500 feet thick in some places. Along the edges of the mountaintops, glacial activity more than 10,000 years ago scraped out stacks of sheer cliffs hundreds of feet tall.
On account of the erosion that shaped them, the Flat Tops are not as tall as most of Colorado’s other ranges, with peaks ranging from 10,000 to 12,000 feet. The tallest peak in the Flat Tops Wilderness is Flat Top Mountain, which stands at 12,361 feet.
Atop and in between the flat mountains, water pools into hundreds of high-altitude lakes and ponds. Trappers Lake is the largest of these lakes; it sits near the southern edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness in a basin at about 9,600 feet. It has a surface area of 320 acres, making it Colorado’s second-largest natural lake behind Grand Lake, and includes depths up to 180 feet. Trappers Lake formed over thousands of years after its basin was scoured by glaciers and collected runoff from surrounding mountains and streams.
The Flat Tops Wilderness hosts several different ecological zones, including alpine tundra above 10,000 feet atop the broad peaks and a mixture of subalpine and montane conifer forests from about 10,000 feet down to 6,500 feet. Wildlife around Trappers Lake include moose, elk, mule deer, black bear, and marmot. The huge insect population around the lake ensures plenty of food for birds such as the Stellar’s jay and fish such as the cutthroat trout, the Colorado state fish. Indeed, as one of the cutthroat’s few remaining natural spawning beds, Trappers Lake has been a major source of eggs and sperm for the state’s cutthroat restocking program since the early 1900s.
Forests are primarily lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and Douglas fir. A 2002 wildfire near Trappers Lake cleared some of the densest stands of these trees, creating new habitat for smaller plants such as aspen and dozens of wildflowers, including the columbine, the state flower.
For hundreds of years before white Americans came to the area, Ute people, primarily the Yampa and Parianuche bands, lived in what is now the Flat Tops Wilderness. They wintered in the lower elevations (around 5,000 feet) and followed game up to higher elevations, including Trappers Lake, in the warmer months.
Trappers Lake probably earned its modern name in the 1820s or 1830s, when beaver pelts were a widely sought-after commodity throughout the American West and numerous trapping parties crisscrossed the Rocky Mountains. Famous Colorado trapper Antoine Robidoux plied Trappers Lake for furs, and the area is reported to have been a source of furs into the 1840s.
The Utes were forced out of the Flat Tops in the 1880s following multiple treaties and violent encounters with white Americans, who coveted the area for ranching, resource extraction, and recreation.
Prospectors found valuable metals in nearly every other part of Colorado’s mountains during the late nineteenth century, but the Flat Tops have the distinction of never being the site of prominent mining activity. The closest the mountains came to a boom was in the early 1880s: a prospector named Bill Case planted silver ore taken from a Leadville mine in an abandoned shaft in the Flat Tops north of present-day Glenwood Springs. He then managed to sell his “claim” to famed Leadville mine owner Horace Tabor. Thanks to Tabor’s purchase and other publicity, the town of Carbonate—near Bill Case’s fraudulent “find”—briefly became the seat of newly formed Garfield County in 1883.
Recreation and Preservation
Trappers Lake was known to some outdoor enthusiasts even before the Utes had fully left the area. In 1886, one year before the Ute leader Colorow was forced out of the state for the final time, four men from Aspen reported “having an excellent time” at Trappers Lake, which afforded them “plenty of good fishing and hunting.”
They were not alone. That November, Leadville’s Herald Democrat opined that “Trappers’ Lake . . . should be set aside as a state park,” crediting the short article to “all who have visited the spot.” Newspaper articles throughout the late 1880s touted the lake as home to “the best fishing and hunting in Colorado.” By that point, visitors could book stays at the first cabins at the lake, built by William L. Pattinson. In 1889 there was even a push to get Trappers Lake and the Flat Tops included in the state’s first national park (the idea did not materialize, and Mesa Verde became Colorado’s first national park in 1906).
In 1918 the first Trappers Lake Lodge was built, and the next year the US Forest Service sent Arthur Carhart, a recreation engineer, to survey the area. The Forest Service planned to develop a substantial resort and allow home building, but Carhart, a devoted conservationist who was friends with Aldo Leopold, found the area too rare and beautiful to recommend development. Instead, Carhart eloquently argued for the area to be preserved, and the Forest Service declared it off limits for development in 1920.
In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act, a response to a budding conservation movement that had been lobbying for stricter protections of certain natural areas. Cooperatively managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other federal agencies, wilderness areas are characterized by their restrictions on motorized transportation, fishing, hunting, and real estate acquisition and development. Following through on the wishes of many early Coloradans, Congress officially created the Flat Tops Wilderness in 1975.
Big Fish Fire
In mid-August 2002, a lightning strike ignited the Big Fish Fire, which swept through the Trappers Lake area and burned nearly 10 percent of the Flat Tops Wilderness. The fire destroyed eight cabins and the original Trappers Lake Lodge, with the building’s stone chimney the only remaining evidence of the eighty-year-old structure. The lodge’s owner, Dan Stogsdill, began rebuilding the property, but the site was so thoroughly damaged by the fire that the Forest Service halted operations and ordered the site demolished unless it was sold. In 2005 Stogsdill sold the property to California sisters Holly King and Carol Steele.
Although it sits within a remote wilderness area, Trappers Lake remains a popular destination today for anglers, campers, and hikers. Anglers are allowed to keep brook trout but must release the cutthroat after catching. The rebuilt lodge, which sits just outside the boundaries of the wilderness area, offers kayak and paddleboard rentals, accommodations at fifteen cabins, and a general store. The Forest Service maintains about 100 campsites near the lake, as well as a robust trail network that includes the 5.3-mile Carhart Loop Trail around the lake and numerous trails to the tops of surrounding flat top peaks.
For those who want to experience the Flat Tops by car, the Colorado Department of Transportation maintains the Flat Tops Scenic Byway, an eighty-two-mile stretch of winding road that passes north of Trappers Lake and connects the towns of Yampa and Meeker.