Ok, look. I know vacation photos and descriptions are a great way to put an audience to sleep, so feel free to just skim quickly through this. On the other hand, I’m guessing many of you have similar perspectives to me when it comes to what we want from vacation destinations. Because of that, I thought some description of our trip location and experience might be helpful to you. Plus, I spent a whole week on vacation, so I don’t have a lot else to talk about right now.
As a prairie guy, when I travel to the mountains, I’m always drawn to alpine and subalpine meadows. Those high elevation prairies are spectacular, in part, because their short growing season forces everything to happen at once – all the flowers and animals have to squeeze a year’s worth of growth, flowering, breeding, and feeding into a small period of time. Of course, because they’re on mountain tops, those meadows are also surrounded by awe-inspiring views.
Besides the prairie vegetation, I also like getting up into high elevation sites because it gets me above tree line, where I can see around me. I get quickly bored walking along shady trails where I can’t see beyond a tree or two in any direction. In addition, being surrounded by tall mountains and trees means thunderstorms can sneak up on me. I like seeing thunderstorms when they’re still many miles away, so I can make plans accordingly. Finally, as a photographer, I find mountains frustrating because they block sunrises and sunsets, along with the beautiful light created by the sun at those times of day.
All that explanation and griping is to say that I was excited to travel to a new site last week because it looked and sounded like the perfect option for a prairie ecologist’s mountain vacation. My son Daniel graduated from high school this year and is soon heading to college, so we decided to take a backpacking trip before he left. I got to choose the location and came up with the Flat Tops Wilderness in northwest Colorado, which is basically a huge plateau at about 11,000 feet of elevation. The descriptions I found online were that it was full of lakes, small patches of trees, and scattered peaks – all tied together by relatively flat grassy terrain. Perfect!
We drove about 11 hours last Monday (July 11), arriving at the Himes Peak Campground near Trapper’s Lake in time to set up our tent and do some evening hiking. Our first evening and the next day were spent doing short hikes to help our flatlander bodies acclimate to the elevation. We camped at about 8,700 feet and hiked between that elevation and 11,000 feet, hoping our bodies would make lots of new red blood cells. Two days wasn’t nearly enough time to fully acclimatize, but we were impatient to pack up to the plateau, so we made it work.
We hiked both the Big Fish Lake and Skinny Fish Lake trails, which were fun hikes and had great wildflowers and views. Our favorite, though, was the Himes Peak Trail, which was right above Trapper’s Lake, and passed through the regrowth from the 2002 Big Fish wildfire. That wildfire essentially converted what must have been pretty dense woodland into a beautiful open landscape surrounded by peaks on all sides. Wildflowers have filled in around the remaining downed trees and a few copses of early coniferous regrowth. It was a fantastic hike, but I don’t feel like I captured it well with my camera because I was too busy enjoying it.
On Wednesday morning, we hoisted our backpacks and headed up to the big plateau that had first drawn my attention to this place. It was only a couple miles of hiking the Wall Lake Trail to get to the top, but there were several steep stretches that wore us down quickly, especially under the glare of a hot sun. The last quarter mile was especially arduous. I’m sure it was mostly the elevation and our inadequate acclimatization that made me wheeze so loudly.
Once we hit the plateau, however, we got to enjoy what I’d hoped would be the benefits of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. The terrain was relatively flat, with gentle undulations as we trekked across it. There were numerous little lakes and a few larger lakes, along with patches of coniferous trees and some rocky outcrops. Here and there, we could see larger peaks erupting from the plateau, including Trapper’s Peak, which we planned to climb the following day.
We hiked a few more miles and then set up camp near Twin Lakes. There was another plateau (on top of the main plateau) that rose about 400 feet above the plains and we enjoyed a phenomenal view after we scrambled to the top of it. The mosquitoes were, um, challenging, but head nets and insect repellant kept them from actually biting. They swarmed around our heads all trip, though. We used the ‘ambulatory dining’ technique to eat our supper while constantly walking around to stay ahead of the clouds of insects.
When the sun rose the next morning, I saw it! I didn’t have to wait a couple hours for it to clear nearby peaks because we were already at 11,000 feet and above most of the mountain ridges that had blocked the sun at our lower elevation campsite. The sun had to squeeze between some clouds leftover from overnight rains, but it was there, nevertheless. While Daniel slept in a little, I climbed back up the smaller plateau to get some photos of the surrounding landscape in that early morning light. It was wonderful.
After breakfast, we hiked a couple miles over to Trapper’s Peak (it was easy hiking) and climbed almost to the top. We could have scrambled up the last 500 feet of boulders, but both decided we were happy to instead hang out at the highest extent of wildflowers. There was no need to ‘conquer the peak’ from our perspective. I photographed flowers and bugs for a while and Daniel searched for, and found, both marmots and pikas. Then we headed back down and wandered back to our campsite.
Much of the flatter parts of the Flat Tops Wilderness had evidence of sheep grazing, though we never saw the actual sheep or the guard dogs we’d been warned about. I don’t know how much impact those sheep have had on the flora because I didn’t have a non-sheep-grazed control to compare to, but I’m guessing those forb-loving animals have probably negatively affected plant diversity to some extent. We definitely saw more larger-flowered species of plants when we climbed up ridges, but I don’t know if that was because of soil and site conditions or less intense sheep grazing. Either way, there were plenty of wildflowers to enjoy.
Before our last night out, we backpacked over and set up camp near the top of the initial trail we’d taken up to the big plateau on our first day. We wanted to be able to wake up, break camp, and hike back down in time to drive all the way home to Nebraska. And we did.
I hope to go back to the Flat Tops in the future. We saw very few people, which made my introverted heart happy. Once we climbed up to the top, we had free reign to wander anywhere we wanted, and that wandering was pretty easy because of the relatively flat terrain. The lakes and calm winds combined to make the mosquitoes pretty nasty, but we were prepared for that and made it work.
Those mosquitoes couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for this beautiful landscape. I got my sunrises and sunsets, could see thunderstorms from far enough away to plan around them, and still had the chance to climb up high for views of the surrounding plains. There’s a lot more of this place to explore and I’m looking forward to returning multiple times.