Prairie in the Sky – The Flat Tops Wilderness

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.

This is exactly what I was hoping to get from the Flat Tops Wilderness – beautiful prairie with a few trees and peaks as accents. This photo is from our last night before we packed out.

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.

Our first day hike, shortly after arriving, was up the Big Fish Lake trail, which started right at our campsite. We spent a couple days getting acclimated to the elevation before starting our backpacking trip.
Here’s the end of our first hike, with a nice moonrise over the wildflowers to guide us back to camp.
Daniel brought along one of his homemade guitars and did a little music composing at our campsite, while wearing a head net to keep mosquitoes away.
Quaking aspen and sunflowers near our campsite. Note the morning sun hasn’t hit yet. It didn’t get to us until almost an hour and a half after sunrise. How do people live like this?

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.

Himes Peak Trail was our favorite of the day hikes. I didn’t photograph it well because I was enjoying the hike so much, but it passed through gorgeous regrowth from the 2002 Big Fish wildfire.

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.

The Wall Lake Trail heads up to the gap on the horizon. This photo doesn’t do justice to the steepness of that trail, though, especially toward the end.

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.

View of South Little Marvine Peak and Twin Lakes, with rain clouds overhead.
Trapper’s Peak and clouds reflected in one of the many lakes near our first campsite.
South Little Marvine Peak after sunset, with heavy clouds above.

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.

This photo from the small plateau near Twin Lakes pretty much encapsulates our entire Flat Tops Wilderness experience. If you look closely, you can see the mosquitoes swarming around me as I took the photo of lakes, grassland, and scattered peaks. If you zoom in, you can also see our orange tent near the center right of the image.
Twin Lakes and South Little Marvine Peak made a great background for many of my photos that morning. I just kept finding new subjects to put in the foreground. Here, I used some rock and a little fleabane (I think?) plant.
Dusky penstemon (Penstemon whippleanus) was one of my favorite flowers we saw on the trip. I’m sure its childhood friends never made fun of its Latin name.

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.

Here’s Daniel taking a panoramic shot of the surrounding wilderness area from high on Trapper’s Peak.
Old-man-of-the-mountain (Hymenoxys grandiflora) has long been my favorite alpine wildflower, and not just because its large sunflower-y head is photogenic. Well, ok, it’s mostly that. Trapper’s Peak had a lot of it, and many other wildflowers, up high. In the distance, you can see Big Marvine Peak, which we might climb next time.

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.

Afternoon clouds reflected in one of many lakes.
The same lake and clouds, with Trapper’s Peak more prominent in the background.

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.

Here’s the last photo I took as we hiked out, looking back toward the descent we’d made from the top. This is Anderson Lake, a small lake above Trapper’s Lake. The big plateau of the Wilderness Area is in the background and you can see the downed trees from the 2002 wildfire that allowed us to have an open view of the surrounding scenery as we hiked back to the trailhead.
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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

12 thoughts on “Prairie in the Sky – The Flat Tops Wilderness

  1. I hope whoever manages this is able to conduct burns on a regular enough schedule to keep the landscape open like this! Beautiful and unusual in the overgrown state of Colorado.

  2. It is a gorgeous remote area. Very different from some Colorado treks. Rod was there in the 50’s fishing with his father on horseback. He tells of catching a gunnysack full of fish and hauling them out!! Must be why so few now!! Rod and I went back a couple years ago and hiked. Never really hiked in a burn area before. So glad you got to see the glory of the wildflowers. Most importantly to share the experience with your son.

  3. What is the explanation for the uniform direction of the downed tree trunks shown in the photos of the Himes Peak Trail and the Anderson Lake? The areas seem quite large, and the unidirectional downed tree trunks look rather like images taken at the Mount Saint Helens and Tunguska disasters.

  4. Pingback: Photos of the Week – July 22, 2022 | The Prairie Ecologist

  5. Great pictures. But the one of the mosquitoes is almost scary. Those things look like they are the size of birds!

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