14 July 2016

Flat Tops: Flat Top Mountain

White River National Forest

Routt National Forest

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6

(Day 3 of 6) There is the tiniest bit of frost around again and it does not seem to want to leave until the sun hits it. That will be a little longer than I want to wait. It sure is easy to get up before the mosquitoes when I already have my warm stuff on. The plan for today is to head up the high point of the mountain range, then suffer the indignity of shortening my trip because I just do not seem to be moving fast enough to do the whole loop.

sun hitting Derby Peak
Sunrise in the shadow of the biggest flat top of them all.

With the sun nearly upon me anyway, I head off away from the lake with its few fish and horse skeleton. (There is all too often a horse skeleton somewhere.) The trail seems good enough, but it actually leads to two routes to get to the lake. The map shows it heading south an unnecessary length before splitting and going north, but I decide to skip that bit in a moment of hope as it fades out under my feet anyway. Somehow, the other trail is much clearer and easy to catch going north.

trail through the meadow
A fine trail, but it vanishes in the meadow. If you can see it up on the hill, aim for the cairn. Once it is needed, it will be hiding behind the curve of the land.

waterfall on Derby
A waterfall coming off Derby Peak that was hidden in the shadow yesterday evening.

As usual, good trail turns bad quickly. There are creeks to cross and a little bit more. Someone has helpfully placed a piece of orange tape at just the right spot to enter the head high willow, or at least what might be the currently sanctioned spot. The willows are growing in a bog what has some tricks. I take careful steps in it and as one foot tries to land, the dirt bobs downward. I pull it back quickly. How can a little piece of land be floating? Actually, there are ways. Unfortunately, that looked like the only safe spot. As I ponder, I become aware that I am actually on a timer. My other foot is sinking slowly. I really should have ignored the trail and kept to the side of the valley to work up toward the peak. That is where I want to go anyway. I go for something next to a willow hoping it holds better than it looks. I am certain there will be no way through without a muddy mess, but somehow it works out.

a very green valley
It might have made sense to just head up the valley coming off Flat Top Mountain rather than try to keep to the trail, or it might have its own murky dangers hidden away.

After the bog, the trail is easy to pick up again climbing along the hill, until it edges beside the last clump of willows and vanishes entirely. There are faint wisps of more trail as I meander generally up the valley, but no real suggestion until nearly to the top where the cairn in the middle of the top can finally be seen. What good is a cairn that hides behind the landscape very local to it? From the cairn, there still is no indication of where to go. It seems like it is probably the high point on the way to the pass. Up on the ridge, two stringy old guys are resting a moment beside another cairn. They are right where I want to be although it certainly is not the trail. I abandon the trail and work my way up to the cairn, which will serve as a good spot to also abandon much of the overnight gear.

a pass
The pass between Bear River and Derby Creek nearby.

Stillwater Reservoir
First peek out over Bear River, dammed to make the Stillwater Reservoir.

Once up on the ridge and purged of my weightiest gear, it is a long and easy stroll upward with many trails to choose from. I could seek for the flatter are for walking and follow the edge of the cliff where the mountain rolls up and down more or I could try to stay to a continuous climb edging around the side. I go for the latter as it does look like the minor peaks have great dips behind them although this is often an illusion due to the perspective of looking upward at it. I cannot help but notice that this trailless route has more obvious trail and cairns than the official trail I started the day on. As I follow two hikers up, I look back to see another dot making its way upward. It is a lot more traveled, too, at least this morning.

Flat Top Mountain
Hike into the sun to the top of Flat Top Mountain! From here, it looks like the edge to the right is highest, but it is simply closer. The edge to the left is highest.

purple puff
There are quite a few flowers growing in the high up grasses.

gully and Derby
At the top of the gully that flows over the Edge Lake Trail.

It gets a little rockier and steeper just before the top. I chat with the two hikers as they come back down after tagging the peak, trying to encourage a visit out to Dome Peak since I expect it is so seldom visited and they surely have the time. They are a little tired from a 17 mile day hike the day before and determined to get in a long drive home before dark. They also helpfully point out exactly which peak on the horizon is Snowmass. The wide bowl full of snow turned this way helps to identify it. Once at the top, it is surprising that that peaks is not even visible off at the end of the ridge. Of course, I want to find the benchmark on this one. It looks like it will be quite a challenge as there is just a vastness of flat rockiness at the top, but heading toward the oldest stick marking the "topmost top" quickly works it out. It is next to the stick in a circle of rocks three layers high.

benchmark on Flat Top
The benchmark at the top of Flat Top Mountain is the same oversized flat disk design as the 1905 marks I have seen, but made of a different alloy. No stamping to identify it, though.

Once that little piece of book keeping is taken care of, I can get on to some serious taking in of the view.

more cliffs below a cliff
Further east along the mountain. There are a series of hard layers making a number of levels of these flat tops and it seems the secret is basalt.

valley of Derby Creek
Another look out over Derby Creek. Snowmass and Capitol Peak rise just to the right of the gap and the Maroon Bells are above the hill by that right side. My brief stomping ground for four days two years ago.

Stullwater Reservoir and surrounds
Looking far down on Stillwater Reservoir. There is plenty beyond it to see here. Lost Lakes Peaks rise at the far right.

Bear River
Trying to take it all in, or at least all of Bear River with its reservoirs.

Eventually I head back down, chatting with the other hiker coming up as I go. He is a much younger peak bagger who is interested in whether Edge Lake might have fish in it. I cannot get him interested in Dome Peak either. He is just tagging this high point before the main event of Derby Peak and then might put his fishing pole to use. He is fast and passes me again while I take in a snack and some more of the view after stuffing my pack.

the ridge line to travel
Turning back to travel back down along the ridge line.

yellow and purple and yellow
Lots of bright faces turning themselves towards the sun among the mountain flowers.

Road Lake, Bailey Lakes, Edge Lake
Edge Lake just visible over the rise of the hill, Bailey Lakes among the trees, and Road Lake in the distance.

Heading the rest of the way down, I am not too concerned with the path the rest of the people have taken. As I go, my path starts to get uncomfortably steep and cliff out. That is unexpected, but I figure I can just grab the trail on its way to the pass. Unfortunately, the cairn I got to before was not the high point of it at all. It actually climbs a bit further to another cairn on the ridge where the paths of those going to the lake and those going to the peak split. People coming up the peak probably do not even realize that they are using a trail to navigate the one slightly difficult spot on the way up.

Hooper Lake
Hooper Lake and a bunch of puddles. Keener Lake seems to hide behind a hill from this vantage point.

Making it to the pass, there is no sign for the trail junction. Easy enough to find my way down the north side anyway. I take one last look at Derby, at least for now, and head down it. It is well used and looks it. Rocky and gutted, it sometimes drops very steeply in between steep sections. There are all sorts of people coming up it, many in groups with backpacks, many day hikers. Most look much younger than the four stringy old guys I saw yesterday. Everyone with a pack is laboring hard on the uphill. It is quite intense enough going down, but then it levels off and passes a few ponds before climbing up onto the earthen dam that holds in Stillwater Reservoir.

Derby edges
Still with Derby, sort of. Looking back along the now tame trail to the plateau with the peak.

Flat Top Mountain
Looking back over a couple of the ponds to Flat Top Mountain.

Stillwater Reservoir
Stillwater Reservoir from the top of the dam.

guaging station
A gauging station below the dam for the water being allowed through. Through the trees is the parking for the trailhead here.

Getting across the dam, I turn up the other trail at this trailhead. I still need to get to somewhere to camp. There are plenty more day hikers along the way and a fisherman by the water. Mosquitoes are getting bad again and one day hiker yelps out, "Ew, you can hear them!" as she passes through a particularly thick cloud of the things. Both trails have a lovely kiosk with maps and a register just before the wilderness boundary. They even have some small maps to take with you although they are really too skeletal to be useful anywhere away from the common day hiking areas. The one is also at the decision point for me. Must I cut off the loop to get back by my deadline? If I cut it off, I will actually get out a day early, and that is almost as unacceptable as getting out late. Not only that, but I expect I will get to the planned campsite for the cutoff a bit earlier than I really want to stop. Sitting down with my much more detailed map, I plot. It is tight, but I can do it, especially since I have that extra night of food. Today, I must get at least to Round Lake, just over six miles along and one pass with just over 1600 feet gain. It is already 3PM by the time the plotting completes, but that should be enough time to do the hiking with picture taking by 7PM. In turn, that leaves enough time for settling into a camp, getting water and supper together, then tucking in under the quilt as the sun sinks. It is a much better solution, and so I start to climb toward the Devils Causeway.

Flat Tops Wilderness sign in Routt National Forest
Reentering the wilderness. The wilderness has not changed but the forest has.

Little Causeway Lake
Looking down on Little Causeway Lake.

I have been watching the clouds and comparing them to the last two days and they seem to be building to something. One day hiker assures me I have nothing to worry about. She is a local (over in Steamboat like half the people here according to the register) and pays attention to the mountain report and there is nothing expected for a week and even then the chances are slight. I take this as a little comfort, but continue to watch those clouds as they continue to build. Some of them seem to be getting very wispy at the bottom. They are desperately trying to rain over Derby Creek, but by the time it gets down to 10k or so where the mountain report probably gets interested, it has dried out again.

Flat Top Mountain
Flat Top Mountain with the clouds desperately trying to rain behind it.

I reach the top for another round of all new scenery. Behind me is one last group of day hiking boys who are hiking fast in between extreme lallygagging. They head up the Devils Causeway, which looks like part of a nice loop of about ten miles. They should have just enough time to complete it, if that is what they are doing. The map indicates there is no official trail across the top, but the well worn track at both ends suggests there definitely is. I turn to drop down instead. Again, there are steep bits.

Devils Causeway
The Devils Causeway and the edge of the plateau on to Lost Lakes Peaks with Causeway Lake below. The clouds here are desperately trying to rain, too.

waterfall in the shadowed cliffs
Of a few, one waterfall is not quite yet lost in the shadows of the cliffs.

After the steep climb down, the trail is still drifting downward, but now among the trees. The mosquitoes are bad again here. There are a couple groups of backpackers hiking out, but otherwise there seems to be no one back this far.

Causeway Lake
Causeway Lake up close and personal.

Eventually the downward drift finishes and the trail rolls and climbs just a little. The trees thin in a couple rocky spots and there are views out around the valley. One section on the far side seems to be a distinct color from the rest, but as I get closer, I realize it is an old burn. It is distinctly grey from standing dead trees bleaching in the weather. It looks like the fire was very complete in its destruction leaving no green spots among the sticks.

hillside grey with old standing dead fire victims
Across the valley, there is a large swath of fire victims standing dead after a bit of weathering. They turn the area grey.

There is a pond, and then I can see a little lake through the trees. It seems too small for a named lake, but then the sign for the nearby junction shows up. I expect there will be campsites here since junctions often serve as handy landmarks for planning, especially if they have a water source. Sure enough, there are a few easy to find, and a little more looking yields a few more a little further off the trail. I pick one and settle in. Tonight, I will definitely deploy my two yards of no-see-um netting to keep the mosquitoes off.

Round Lake
Arrival at Round Lake, a little lake backed by some tiny hills. Camping spots are here and here.

There really is just enough time for the camp chores before the sun goes down and my supper is cooked a little better for the extra time it takes to set up the netting. I have been tending to cook it up and then when the flame goes out, set up the rest of camp while the residual heat finishes the cooking, then eat. It is working well as a routine.

Continue reading: day 4

©2016 Valerie Norton
Posted 11 August 2016

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