Headwaters of the White River | The Flat Tops Wilderness of the White River Plateau
Independence Day Weekend | Friday – Saturday, July 3-4, 2020
After spending the last couple of weekends on the river it was finally time to start heading up into Colorado’s high country for the short summer season! This weekend Diane and I decided to head up to visit the headwaters of the White River in the Flat Tops Wilderness, where I hoped we could find a little solitude over this popular and busy holiday weekend. Although I’ve gone on a few day hikes into the Flat Tops Wilderness before, this would actually be our first backpacking trip into Colorado’s third largest wilderness area (after the Weminuche Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness), and I was looking forward to it! I was hoping I might be able to summit at least one peak while we were in the area, too.
For those not familiar, the Flat Tops Wilderness is actually the birthplace of wilderness in the United States.
In the summer of 1919, the Forest Service dispatched Arthur Carhart, a young landscape architect, to survey Trappers Lake in western Colorado’s Flat Tops—a remote and rugged corner of the state spiked with volcanic cliffs and lush forests. Carhart’s assignment: Plan a new road that would circle the lake and provide access for 100 homes and a marina. After taking in the pristine setting, Carhart couldn’t do it. He returned to his bosses with an entirely different concept. He called for the road to end before the lake and said its shores and woods should be preserved from development. “There are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made,” he wrote in a 1919 memo for a forest supervisor, “and…which of a right should be the property of all people.” The plea won over the Forest Service; it made Trappers Lake off-limits to new roads and logging and mining.
The strict protection for Trappers Lake served as a template for what became known as “wilderness.” Carhart’s vision set in motion a four decade–long political battle to officially preserve many of the country’s natural areas that culminated in the creation of the Wilderness Act [in 1964]. “Carhart changed the course of how we manage national forests and other public lands,” says Ken Coffin, district ranger for the White River National Forest’s Blanco District, which includes Trappers Lake.
-Courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
Since we were planning on spending our first night at Wall Lake, which wasn’t a very long hike from the trailhead, we didn’t need to get too early of a start on Friday morning, so we left home after sunrise and made our way through Rifle and Meeker to Trappers Lake. We checked to make sure we had everything in our packs that we would need at the trailhead and then started hiking up the Wall Lake Trail.
We started our hike through the dead forest along the Wall Lake Trail. This area was extensively burned in the Big Fish Fire of 2002 which covered about 17,273 acres and was fueled by the beetle-killed trees surrounding Trappers Lake.
We passed by Anderson Lake as the edge of the large plateau was lit up.
Continuing on along the trail…
The lines in the wood of this burned tree reminded me of looking at a topographic map.
Diane stops for a quick rest as we climbed the trail to the top of the mesa. It was about a 1,300 foot climb from the trailhead to the top of the large plateau.
A view from the edge over the North Fork of the White River when we reached the top.
Trappers Peak (12,002) comes into view as we made our way over to Wall Lake.
There were nice clouds in the sky this afternoon.
We reached the blue waters of Wall Lake, which is the beginning of the North Fork of the White River, and then followed the shore around to the southeast until we found a pretty great campsite.
After we got our tent set up and sat along the shore of the lake for a little bit, soon the wind started to pick up and it got cloudy and overcast out. Although it never really rained, the wind was strong for a while, so we got in the tent and took a little nap until it blew over. When the sun finally started to come out again and the wind stopped, I walked back over to the lake and was surprised to see how many bugs were buzzing around everywhere! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many before!
By this time the afternoon storms had passed and it was time for me to start hiking to the summit of nearby Trappers Peak. Diane wasn’t feeling up to it this afternoon, so I headed off on my own to bag my first peak of the season!
Following the shore around the lake to the other side.
The trail climbed above the west side of Wall Lake to a great overlook.
Here’s a good look at ‘The Wall’
After getting off the main trail I had to do a little bushwacking and tree hopping until I found a steep and loose game trail that took me up to the saddle on the south side of Trappers Peak.
Looking back over the rocky terrain of the south ridge that I followed to the summit.
As I climbed higher, Trappers Lake came into view beyond Wall Lake.
Nice clouds over the flat-ish landscape of the Flat Tops.
The higher I climbed, the better the views!
Soon I reached the large rocky flat top of Trappers Peak and followed the edge to the big summit cairn on top.
Looking down on Wall Lake from the summit of Trappers Peak.
The summit cairn kind of reminded me of the large cairn on the way to Culebra Peak.
Did I mention the view from the summit was pretty amazing?
Looking the other direction towards Shingle Peak (11,996).
Here’s a zoomed in view of Shingle Peak.
The Elk Mountains were visible on the distant horizon, including Mount Sopris, Capitol Peak and Maroon Peak. It looks like it was still raining in that direction.
The mosquitoes were pretty terrible during my hike back to camp, but at least I was able to catch a nice sunstar over our tent before sunset.
The evening light was looking nice from our campsite, so I braved the mosquitoes and walked over to the lake to watch the sunset.
Wall Lake Sunset
After the sun disappeared below the horizon we noticed the bright Buck Moon was rising and reflecting on the lake.
Some faint color lingered in the clouds for a while.
When the color in the sky was completely gone we got back into the tent and went right to bed. It had been a nice first day in the Flat Tops and we were pretty tired.
On Saturday morning I woke up before sunrise and stuck my head out of the tent to see if I wanted to get up and photograph sunrise. I noticed there were some clouds in the sky that looked promising, so I put on my shoes and jacket and walked over to the shore to wait for the sun to come up.
As the clouds started to light up, I thought to myself that it was a good choice to get up for sunrise this morning!
Wall Lake Reflection
Trappers Peak at sunrise.
Wall Lake Morning Reflection
Our original plan for today was to continue on to another lake and maybe hike to the summit of another peak along the way, but with all the mosquitoes out and neither of us feeling all that great this morning, and we decided to cut our trip a day short and head back down via a shorter loop instead. So we packed up camp and followed the remainder of the Wall Lake Trail to the Trappers Lake Trail which we took back down off the plateau.
Leaving Wall Lake as we continued on the trail.
The nice clouds stuck around for most of the morning.
Diane hiking ahead of me.
Trees & Clouds
After crossing over a small divide we were then hiking through the headwaters of the South Fork of the White River. Here’s a little bend in the South Fork.
This little tarn is the beginning of the South Fork of the White White River. It was nice to visit the start of both forks of the White River on this loop.
Diane starts the descent to Trappers Lake along Fraser Creek.
Here you can see both Parvin Lake and Trapper Lake below.
Trappers Lake Trail
Spotlight on the edge of the plateau as we followed the Carhart Trail around Trappers Lake to the trailhead.
As we neared the end of the hike, a fast-moving thunderstorm moved over the area which dropped some rain and graupel on us, kicked up some strong winds and created a few close lightning strikes. It didn’t stick around too long, and soon we were in the dead forest near the end of the Carhart Trail again.
Although we ended up cutting this trip short by a day, we still had a great time and saw some amazing scenery! It definitely made me remember why I love exploring the Flat Tops Wilderness and that I really need to do it more often! Next time maybe we can try the second half of the loop we skipped this time!