Flat Tops Wilderness

My first clue  that this was not going to be a smooth trip was right at the trailhead.  I was unloading my backpack from the back of the CRV and discovered that I had forgotten to pack my Pacerpoles.  “Now, what am I going to do?”  These poles have been with me on every backpack trip for a number of years, and I’ve come to rely on them not only to enlist my upper body to help propel me up and down mountains, but also to prop up my double-poled shelter. “What would John Muir do?,” I asked myself.  He’d tell you to stop sniveling and get out there and experience the glory of  the natural world.  So I did.

A quick scan of the Internet had told me that most backpackers in the Flat Tops do the Devil’s Causeway/Chinese Wall loop.  Wishing to take the road less traveled, I had planned a different loop that would have me hiking to the saddle near Flat Top Mountain, then looping around to a series of lakes, and finally coming back by way of the plateau.

At the fork in the trail, I left the day trippers to get their thrills at the Devil’s Causeway, while I took a path across the Stillwater Reservoir that would lead me deep into the Flat Tops Wilderness. Summer was still in bloom, and insects still buzzed around the wildflowers.  I climbed steadily up toward the saddle, feeling again the pleasure of exertion with a backpack on my back.


 Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a couple fled down the mountain.

“You going to chance it?”

“I guess I will.”

The National Weather Service had predicted an 80% chance of rain for the Flat Tops, but I was ready for it.  Now I just had to get up and over the saddle and back below treeline before the storm hit. Breaking  out above the trees, I turned around to admire the play of light and shadow across the landscape.


As I approached the top, I heard a muffled mooing in the distance.  At the edge of a small pond stood a domestic cow and her calf.  They both eyed me warily.  The calf trotted closer to her mother, and they both edged away from me.  Making my way across the other side of the pond, I peered into the drainage below.  By now, I had lost the trail and decided to hike cross-country to a lake below that the map identified as Hooper Lake.  Thunder rumbled again, this time much closer.



The going was pretty easy until I got back down into the trees, and then I found myself trying to negotiate a tangled mess of downed timber.  Hail began to fall, then a cold rain.  I began to think to that I should have looked a little harder for the trail.

The rain eased as I approached Hooper Lake, and I hiked slowly alongside the lake, taking in the view.   The map showed that the trail was directly to the east, so I decided to look for it.  This time, bashing through the trees was followed by bashing through willows over my head, and I got soaked from the collected rain water.  When I found a trail, it turned out to be the trail  to Keener Lake, so I took it down to take a look. The plan for that day was to make it past Road Lake, then take a trail west up a mountainside to what I guessed would be a scenic camp at Solitary Lake below the steep rock walls of Derby Peak.  To get there by nightfall, I would have to pick up the pace. I hiked up to the main trail, then turned south, trying to make up lost time.

A small gathering of cows on the trail blocked my passage, so I had to get around them by hiking up the hillside to the left.


Hurrying down the trail, trying to dodge the cow poop,  I almost crashed into a solo hiker coming in my direction.  We were both surprised to see another human out there.

To break the ice, I asked him how close was Road Lake.

“It’s not far, but there are a lot of cows blocking the way.”

“I hear you. This feels like Dances with Cows.”

“Or maybe, Dances Around Cow Pies.”

“In my case, it’s Dances Right Into Cow Pies.

He told me he drove in from Missouri to see some wild animals, not a bunch of cows.

We joked a little more about the cows, then we headed our separate ways, he toward his camp between Hooper and Keener Lakes and me toward a confrontation with what sounded like a bigger herd.

I came over a rise in the trail and spotted Road Lake in the distance to the right.  Between here and there, spread out along the trail, and along both sides of the trail were cows.  Cows everywhere.   I tried skirting them on the hillside to the left. No dice.  There were cows farther up.  I tried sneaking through the willows on the right, at one point falling into a hidden stream.   Everywhere I popped out, there were cows, sometimes mooing and fleeing to my planned escape route, other times just standing there giving me the evil eye.

At one point, I thought  I had found the hidden passage along  a strip of willows, but a big brown cow came up and blocked the hole before I could make my move.   After a while, I decided to get strategic and survey the landscape from higher ground.  What I saw amazed me.  There were cows blocking the valley all the way to Road Lake and beyond.  It occurred to me that the rest of my trip could be just like this. This may be the reason why this is the road less traveled.  I studied the map, looking for a place to spend the night that was high enough to get water uncontaminated by cow excrement.  Bailey Lakes, accessible by a trial to the north, looked promising, and I believed I still had the energy left to get there.

On the climb to the lakes, a group of six horsemen, all dressed in camouflage and wearing cowboy hats came down the trail.  I suddenly felt very conspicuous wearing my REI pants, Golite T-shirt, and Sunday Afternoons hat.  I stepped off the trail to let them pass and said, “Howdy, how y’all doing?”


I reached the lakes in the early evening and realized that my hope of finding clean water was just a pipe dream.  Cow patties were scattered everywhere, along with horse shit.  Still, it was beautiful , and I spent time just gazing across the lakes.  Then I looked around for sticks that I could break to just the right height for my shelter.

There were few places to set up my shelter that were free of cow pies, but I found one, scraped away the horse shit, and went to bed, the aroma of the old west in my nostrils.


It rained that night, then it cleared up and became colder.  Frost covered both the inside and outside of my shelter. I awoke to the sound of mooing and watched as cows gathered around the upper lake.  I  watched the sky turn pastel shades of blue and pink and purple and saw mist rising from the lake.


There was a coating of frost on everything.



I walked to the upper lake and watched reflections play upon the water as the night became day again.


Still, I’d had enough of this cowboys’ paradise and planned to bail out of there.  After breakfast, I packed up and hiked back down the Bailey Lakes trail. There was a shortcut trail to the main trail, and I followed it until I found it blocked by…,you guessed it… cows.

Back on the main trail, I was making pretty good time toward the trailhead when I turned the corner and came upon a gang of cows.  A bull was busy mounting a cow.  They all turned around to look at me.  The bull got down and didn’t seem too happy.  Actually, none of them seemed too happy to see me there.  A cow and her calf trotted to the middle of the trail and turned around to face me.  None of them were fleeing.  The bull just stood and stared, the cow that he had been mounting by his side.

 This was going to be a tricky one.  The only way I could see through was a short push through the willows and then a steep climb up the hillside to my right, hoping that the bull wouldn’t charge me, or that I wouldn’t scare the cows into fleeing up the hill with me.

Keeping my eye on the bull, I made my move.  He just stood there staring at me. But a group of cows panicked, and ran up the hill alongside me.  The hill got steeper, but I climber higher.  The cows just stood there watching .  At some point, I felt that I had climbed high enough that I could possibly traverse the slope without spooking them.  I took a step out, then another.  The cows started a mini-stampede, fortunately, down the hill toward the rest of the herd.  I kept crossing the slope up high, and waited until the cows were almost out of sight before I descended back to the trail.

The day started warming up, then clouds rolled in again, killing enough contrast that I was able to resume photographing the landscape.




The trail petered out as I got closer to the saddle,  but the lack of trees made it easy to pick my way toward the top.  The silhouette of a man wearing a big backpack appeared on the horizon.  He appeared to be watching me making my slow progress up the mountain.  Assuming it was the man from Missouri , I had to chuckle.  Apparently, he had his fill of cows as well.


At the saddle, another herd spread out over the tundra.  Beyond them, I could see that the man had dropped his pack and was walking the ridge toward the summit of Flat Top mountain.  He turned around and waved.  It was the man from Missouri.  I couldn’t make out the expression on his face, but I imagined that he was laughing at the absurdity of a wilderness filled with cattle.



Back at the trailhead, I had a decision to make.  On the one hand, I was totally done with living with cows and cow poop.  On the other, I spend a lot of time when in town thinking about getiing back out to the wilderness, and here I was just parked a few steps away.  After a few handfuls of gorp, and a half-liter of clean municipal water, I was feeling better about things.   Checking the map, I noticed that the Devil’s Causeway, a three-foot-wide section of broken rock with sheer drop-offs on either side, was only a few miles up another trail leading from the same trailhead.  Even better, there was a small lake called Little Causeway Lake just before you started the steep climb to the causeway.  If I stayed at the lake, I could wait for all the day hikers to leave, and have the whole causeway to myself in the evening light.

Back on the trail, it was a completely different experience.  There were no cows or cow pies on this trail.  A man came down the trail with  a small boy following behind.

“How was the causeway?”

“It was quite something.  It was awesome.”

“Did you cross it?”

“No, but we walked right up to the edge.  I’m too risk-averse to do something like that.  My son keeps asking me how much money they would have to give me to cross it.  We settled on ten million dollars.”

I look at the kid, who is grinning slyly.

In parting, the man urged me to be careful.

In my informal poll of returning hikers, it seemed that the non-crossers outnumbered the crossers at least two to one.  I would have to see it for myself.

At Little Causeway Lake, I notice that the ground sloped steeply to the lake on three sides, but I found flat ground deep among downed timber on the fourth.   It started to rain again.  Quicky, I found sticks for my shelter, broke them off at the right height, set up my shelter,and tossed my bedding inside.  The rain eased in the evening, and I set off for the Devil’s Causeway.


It was a stiff climb to the top, and I was tired when I arrived.  I approached warily…


….then took a look at the steep drop offs on both sides…


…and took another few steps forward.


Looking down the sides again, vertigo took hold and I thought  “Not even for ten million dollars.”   In the fading light of the evening, I turned around and walked back to camp.




The End

4 thoughts on “Flat Tops Wilderness

  1. Wow, your pictures and narrative never disappoint. I have two loops mapped out in the Flattops wilderness, one of which follows part of your route to Road Lake from Stillwater. Based on your report and another on BPL, it sounds like I should re-map my route to stay to the west of Derby Peak and avoid the cows and boggy areas to the east. That’s very unfortunate that cows are allowed free range in a designated wilderness.

    • Hey Randy, thanks for the kind words. Your reasoning sound good to me. I certainly won’t be going that way again. Staying at Hooper or Keener Lake wouldn’t be bad, but it deteriorates quickly after that. My understanding is that grazing was grandfathered in as part of the original 1964 wilderness act. Too bad. Maybe they can teach the cows leave no trace principles. 😉

  2. Absolutely stunning pictures and great narrative, too. I’ve camped at Stillwater and done some limited hiking in that area. Love the frost close-up shots and some of those blurry / arty ones too. Love that area…in fact, have two novels (and third on the way) based in The Flat Tops. Not writing to promote those just to say ‘terrific shots.’ Too bad about the cows. Best, Mark http://www.writermarkstevens.com

    • Thanks, Mark. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The photos you mention are some of my personal favorites in this group as well. I know you’re not promoting, but I went to Amazon to check out your novels and got hooked at the first paragraph I read. Allison Coil is definitely a character I have to get to know.

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