Trappers Lake – Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado

A broad-tailed hummingbird feeds on a rosy paintbrush, White River National Forest, ColoradoClick on images for a larger view.

Summer’s end is fast approaching, which usually means two things in Colorado: luscious Palisade peaches are in season, and most of us are wondering whether we got into the mountains enough.

I started this summer with plenty in the way of mountain time, but they weren’t my mountains. They belonged to the Swiss, and they were ridiculously beautiful. But just recovering from the stresses of that trip meant a good three weekends in a row at home with our little family. By the time we unburied ourselves from the laundry, recharged our businesses, and spent adequate time with extended family, it was late July and I hadn’t seen the Rockies up close in months.

Goldeneye flowers blown on the shore of Trappers Lake, White River Forest, Colorado

Fortunately, I had a father-son fishing trip on the books, and so on the second weekend of August, my Dad and I strapped a pair of lake kayaks to his pickup truck and set forth to Trappers Lake — one of Colorado’s rare gems, and the birthplace of the American wilderness movement. It was here in the early 1900s that a surveyor named Arthur Carhart told his boss that Trappers Lake needed to be preserved in its wild state for the good of mankind. His boss was a resort developer. Mr. Carhart had some cojones, and thank God he did. The concept of preserved, roadless wilderness is one of the best things about America.

A full 11 years ago, I circumnavigated Trappers Lake with my backpacking buddies. To this day, it was the most ambitious backcountry adventure I’ve done — and its a sweet nostalgic memory, too. Three nights, three lakeside campsites, and more than 30 miles of schlepping. We started at Trappers Lake, ended up clear across the 200,000-acre Flat Tops Wilderness Area, and came back. Two years later, almost the entire area would burn to the ground in one of the many massive wildfires that consumed Colorado in the summer of 2002. I had yet to go back.

Visible signs of the 2002 wildfire en route to Trappers Lake, Colorado
It took much of Saturday to get to the White River Valley east of Meeker. Dad and I checked in to the Ute Lodge, a small rustic cabin resort tucked in the woods, whipped together some dinner, and then set off for the lake at sundown. The devastation of the fire was shocking, even nine years later. Empty pine trees covered the hillside like 500,000 upright matchsticks. The ground cover had returned, and returned with a vengeance. Thick green stands of grass covered the adjacent hillside, and along the road in the burn area, fireweed lived up to its name. Both of us found the scenery to be haunting yet beautiful.

Wildfire scars the landscape around the Upper White River Valley and Trappers Lake, Colorado

At the lake, a profusion of wildflowers greeted us. Columbine, rosy paintbrush, dusky beardtongue, and goldeneye surrounded the trail and wrapped around the lake’s shore. We had come to kayak and fish the lake, which was turning out to be a lot more technically difficult than we imagined. The lake sits a quarter mile from the nearest parking lot, and the two access points were far from boat ramps. One was a wilderness portal trail that banked steeply up loose rocks and curved by the willow-covered outlet and shore. The other dropped from a parking lot down through meadows, but required a long uphill haul at day’s end. With two 12-foot kayaks and fishing gear, this wasn’t shaping up to be an easy launch.

Rosy paintbrush and goldeneye bloom in profusion, Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado

We returned the next morning, and while I seized on the morning light and photographed the fields of wildflowers, Dad assembled the fishing gear and tried to figure out the day. We shore-fished for an hour, which was completely unproductive, and upon returning to the car, we came across an older gentleman who had collapsed on the trail. He was in a cold sweat, and his legs were rubber. I thought we were witnessing a heart attack. Fortunately, he was coherent, and with a little help, we coaxed him 100 yards down the slope to the parking lot where his sons met us. The altitude had completely nailed him, and we were hopeful his kids would do the right thing and drive him to lower altitude. While Dad and I are both fit and can handle the altitude, we’d seen enough. We opted for the other access point for the kayaks.

By noon we were in the water — the hike down from the lot wasn’t nearly as bad as we had imagined. Dad hooked into a cutthroat, but that would be the extent of our fishing success for the day. Trappers Lake has some of the state’s biggest native cutthroat trout, but everyone on the lake was noting that the fish were taking the day off. “It is too hot and sunny.” “The hatch isn’t on.” “They aren’t hungry.” “It’s too windy.” Whatever. It was still lovely being out on the water.

Paul Day enjoys a Sam Adams on the road to Trappers Lake, Colorado
By day’s end, however, it was beginning to get buggy. Not only are the dead, burned-up trees hard to look at after a day or so, but they’re clearly a breeding ground for mosquitos. Or maybe it was the tall grass and willows. Or maybe it was both. Either way, we lugged the kayaks back up the hill, both arms too occupied to swap at the little suckers. We strapped the boats to the pickup roof, and set off back down the winding dirt road to the Ute Lodge. We had one Samuel Adams in the cooler, and at a beautiful spot where the White River passes through beaver dams, we pulled over, threw down the tailgate, and split the beer with sunset.

After all, that’s what the trip was about: Dad, me, the two of us catching up, seizing the summer and a rare chance to get out of town together. It was the best beer of the year.

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One thought on “Trappers Lake – Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado

  1. [...] populated areas. But in 2002, monster wildfires were everywhere: Durango, Glenwood Springs, the Flat Tops, Trinidad, Cortez, and the one we all remember, the Hayman Fire, which simultaneously put the [...]

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