Flat Tops Scenic By Way
Fuel up in Glenwood Springs for this 250-mile (402-km) drive that will take the better part of a day, but what a day it will be! Except for a chance encounter with a few cowboys and sheepherders, this is the road less traveled.
It’s remote and unpaved, a combination of gravel and dirt, with a high mountain pass thrown in for good measure. The Flat Tops Wilderness Scenic Byway is closed in winter and only open during “good” weather, but be prepared for mud in springtime or after heavy summer rainfall. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of some of the local residents – herds of elk, mule deer and Colorado big horn sheep. From late June through July, the wildflowers are at their most magnificent and include clusters of blue-hued Columbines, Colorado’s state flower.
To get started, travel east on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, itself an iconic Colorado drive. Take Exit 157 for Colorado 131 North toward Wolcott and Steamboat Springs. At Yampa follow the Colorado Scenic Byway signs for a drive touted to be one of the most gorgeous in the state.
HIGHLIGHTS & LANDMARKS
Yampa began as a hunting camp in the 1880s. As time went on, a booming lumber industry became the primary economic driver. These days, ranching and agriculture are the mainstays. Yampa is the east portal to the Flat Tops Trail Scenic and Historic Byway, a “working” byway, where cowboys and sheepherders manage herds and flocks, often from horseback. Don’t be surprised to encounter a real life western scene as you embark upon your Flat Tops Wilderness scenic drive.
At the turn of the 19th century, the community was a major hub for the Denver Northwestern & Pacific Railway, and later in 1913, David Moffat’s Denver & Salt Lake Railroad. It now serves the Union Pacific Railroad. If you have time, visit the Phippsburg Community Park, which features a railroad display and a vintage Denver & Rio Grande caboose.
This Colorado mountain pass ticks in at an elevation of 10,343 feet/3,153 m above sea level. Plan a stop here to appreciate the views and take a few pictures of the White River Valley and the Flat Tops Wilderness.
Make an 8-mile detour off the byway at Forest Road 205 and you’ll arrive at Trappers Lake, an alpine gem and the birthplace of the wilderness movement. Thanks to Arthur Carhart, a surveyor in 1919, who was inspired by the area’s beauty and took steps to preserve it from development, Trappers Lake is known as the Cradle of Wilderness and is home to native cutthroat trout. Even though the Big Fish Fire swept through the area in 2002, burning more than 22,000 acres, the altered landscape is still magnificent to behold.
The stunning scenery near Buford, Colorado includes dramatic geologic formations, cliffs and plateaus formed by ancient basalt lava flows. Above the plateau are beautiful sub-alpine meadows and alpine tundra.
The final stop on the Flat Tops Wilderness Scenic Byway, Meeker is a ranching and energy town, famous for the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship event, held there every year in September. Historically, it is the location of the Meeker Massacre which took place there in 1879, and became the catalyst for the implementation of the Colorado Ute Removal Act.