Flat Tops
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

home page
 Need more information?

Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
  • loads of hiking tips
  • book store price:  $22.95
    buy it here for only


    click to order

    Distance: 9.5 miles
       (plus 67 miles by shuttle car)

    Walking time: 6 hours
    : 1730 ft. gain, 1130 ft. loss
       Scotts Lake Trailhead (start): 9680 ft
       Flat Top Mountain: 11,410 ft.
       Stillwater Trailhead: 10,280 ft.

    Trail: Well marked and easy to follow.

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The trail is covered with snow from mid-November through June.

    Vicinity: Near Steamboat Springs, Meeker, and Yampa

    Flat TopsFlat Tops


    home page

    Links to other sites: 

    Ordering books & Maps

    Comments about this site or our book:


    The unusual flat-topped mountains of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area provide a unique opportunity to hike in an alpine-tundra ecological environment without a great deal of tiring elevation gain. Most high-altitude hikes in Colorado are in very rugged terrain with little level ground. But in the Flat Tops once you have climbed above timberline there is very little up and down on the trails. A hike on the top of the Flat Tops is more of a pleasant stroll through fields of high alpine wildflowers, with panoramas of a vast treeless tundra, more like what one would expect to find in northern Canada.

    The reason that the mountains are so flat can be traced to a period of prolonged volcanic activity that occurred in Colorado about 35 million years ago. During that time the underlying sedimentary rock was covered with a thick layer of hard basaltic lava. Later, when the land began to rise and erode the basalt acted like a capstone, protecting the softer rock beneath. Today we see flat topped mountains in the places that were covered by the ancient lava flows, while the surrounding valleys and canyons are sculpted from the softer underlying sedimentary layers.

    The best time to hike on the Flat Tops is in early July, while there are still patches of snow above timberline. While the snow is melting there are hundreds of tiny streams and rivulets on the mountains, feeding diminutive alpine lakes and nourishing a panoply of alpine wildflowers. The growing season is very short at these elevations, so the tiny flowers must complete their life cycle and bear seeds very quickly. Most species burst into bloom almost immediately after the snow cover is gone, causing the tundra to explode in a profusion of July color. Be warned, however, that mosquitoes are a problem at this time of year, so if you are hiking in July be sure to take along some insect repellent.

    From the Scotts Lake Trailhead the trail proceeds in a southerly direction, along the east side of Scotts Lake for 0.2 mile before intersecting another trail that parallels the northern shore of Trappers Lake. Here you must turn left. After another ten minutes of walking you will meet the Stillwater Trail, where you must bear to the right, again following the shore of Trappers Lake. The Stillwater Trail then continues south for another 0.5 mile, passing two picturesque log cabins, and just beyond the cabins there is another junction where you must turn left away from the lake.

    Before leaving Trappers Lake I should mention the name of another American who first visited the lake in 1919. Arthur Carhart was only 27 years old at the time. Fresh from college with a degree in landscape architecture, he was hired by the Forest Service to survey a road and plot homesites around Trappers Lake. After seeing the lake Carhart returned to his supervisor with a recommendation that the lake remain undeveloped and set aside as an area for wilderness recreation. This was a very unorthodox idea at that time, but to his amazement, Carhartís recommendation was accepted. Trappers Lake is an extraordinarily scenic lake, and our generation owes Arthur Carhart a great deal for his efforts to preserve it as it was when he first saw it. Today he is often called the "Father of the Wilderness Concept" because he was one of the first to recognize the importance of leaving some of our public lands undeveloped.

    After leaving Trappers Lake the trail proceeds almost due east into a dense forest of lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. Within ten minutes you will pass by the shore of tiny Coffin Lake and, after 0.9 mile, Little Trappers Lake. Before Coffin Lake you may see a bypass trail going off to the right. Donít take it or you will miss the lake. As the trail approaches Little Trappers Lake it follows the north shore of the unnamed creek flowing out of the lake. The creek is very pretty, and noisy, as it tumbles down a series of cascades near the trail.

    Beyond Little Trappers Lake the trail soon begins a long steady uphill climb to get to the top of the Flat Tops. Over the next 1.7 miles you will have to gain 1,000 feet of elevation before the trail levels out again. But the climb is an interesting one. Watch the size of the trees diminish as you gain altitude. The Engelmann spruce go from over 100 feet to five feet high before they disappear completely at about 11,000 feet.

    Once you reach the top of the Flat Tops the trees are replaced by a tundra of flowers and grasses. Thousands on individual dots of color litter the ground. Individually, each flower is a masterpiece of design. Some are shaped like little yellow teacups, some look like miniature purple elephant heads, complete with ears and trunks, and some look so much like bells you can almost hear them chiming in the wind. Together the alpine flowers produce delightful blends of blue, purple, white, green, and especially yellow across the rolling highland. Elsewhere, much of the Flat Tops tundra has been destroyed by grazing sheep, but for some reason the land along this trail has been exempted from the grazing. It remains pristine.

    3.9 miles after leaving Trappers Lake the trail arrives at a junction where an old weathered sign marks the beginning of the Chinese Wall Trail. Continue straight ahead at this point, staying on the Stillwater Trail. Then, 0.3 mile later, you will see yet another sign marking the beginning of the West Mountain Trail on your right. Again, continue straight.

    The West Mountain Trail marks the highest point on this hike (11,412 feet), and a short way beyond that point the Stillwater Trail begins its descent to Stillwater Reservoir. The trail makes the descent in four distinct stages. First it drops about 200 feet into a small basin on the eastern side of the mountain. Then after a brief respite it drops another 200 feet into a slightly larger and flatter basin. Next it looses another 400 feet of elevation before leveling out once again on the shore of Mosquito Lake. Finally, 0.2 mile beyond Mosquito Lake, the trail begins its final 300 feet of gradual descent to the Stillwater Trailhead. The last four miles of the trail follow the western side of Stillwater Creek and Stillwater Reservoir.

    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Flat Tops area
    we recommend:
    Flat Tops NE, Trappers Lake (Trails Illustrated, map #122)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

    [top of page]

    [table of contents]

    [home page]

    [ordering information] 

    © Rincon Publishing Company, all rights reserved