Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway - Colorado Scenic Drives


The Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway is located in northwest Colorado just three hours from Denver and two hours from Grand Junction, Colorado. You can reach the east end from Yampa and the west end from Meeker.

Traveling the Byway

The following guidelines will help make your trip both safe and enjoyable. Allow at least 2 1/2 hours driving time, not including stops, to travel the byway. Gas and other provisions are available only in Meeker, Buford and Yampa, so plan ahead.

Approximately 40 miles of the 82-mile drive are unpaved, but are accessible by normal touring cars. The main route holds up well in the rain, but the side roads become soft and slippery during wet periods and are not recommended for two-wheel drive vehicles. Please drive at the posted speed limits and be on the lookout for wildlife, livestock or other vehicles around every bend.

Cattle and sheep are driven to and from summer pasture along the byway. Do not hesitate to travel cautiously through herds of livestock when encountered.

The Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway receives from 2 to 10 feet of snow in the winter and is not maintained for automobile use. However, the trail does make an excellent WINTER SCENIC BYWAY and is open to snowmobile and cross-country ski use.


An elevation change from 6,200 feet to over 10,000 feet causes distinct differences in climate between the valley floors and the mountainous areas. Summer afternoon temperatures range from the low 70's to the low 90's, while nights are cool and range from the 30's to the upper 50's. Summer days normally begin with sunshine, but thunderstorms often form by late afternoon. These usually last for a short time and skies clear quickly for a fresh and cool afternoon.

Human History

This was the land that Indian people began inhabiting more than 10,000 years ago. However, little is known of the Ute people prior to the year 1650. After the whiteman arrived, the Ute used horses for travel from their winter camps to high mountain meadows in the summer where hunting and fishing were good and the lush vegetation provided grains and roots for food.

The Yampa River, the town of Yampa and the Utes (yampatika band of the Ute) all derive their name from the Yampa plant, which was a staple of their diet.

"Civilized Agriculture" Nathan C. Meeker
Nathan Meeker, a Government Indian Agent, arrived in the White River valley in 1878 with visions of developing a rich agricultural business. He saw the Indians as a threat and vowed to plow up their lands and convert the Indians to farmers--and 'civilize' the Ute.

This conflict lead to the killing of Meeker and ten government employees, and is known as the Meeker Massacre. This massacre resulted in the eventual removal of the Utes from their homeland to reservations. This was the last major Indian uprising in Colorado.

"Land of Many Uses" Theodore Roosevelt
During the late 1800's and early 1900's, many settlers arrived in northwestern Colorado. Along with settlers, were those who came strictly to make money, sometimes resulting in overuse of the land's rich natural resources. As a result, federal laws were passed to set aside 'Forest Reserves' to protect and manage the land. The White River National Forest and the Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway are part of the 2nd Forest Reserve in the United States.

While hunting in the area, President Theodore Roosevelt learned of the adverse public sentiment toward the 'locking up' of the land. In 1897, the Organic Act was passed which mandated that the government provide timber, clean water and opportunity for other commodity production for the benefit of the public. This lead to the creation of the U.S. Forest Service.

"Cradle of Wilderness" Arthur Carhart
Trappers Lake is known as the "Cradle of Wilderness" due to the efforts of Arthur H.Carhart. In 1919, his recommendations stopped further construction of roads and homes around the lake. The concept to protect areas such as Trappers Lake from development was the start of the wilderness movement. This ultimately led to the Wilderness Act in 1964, which established wilderness areas around the country.

Natural History

The magnificent Flat Tops were formed millions of years ago when molten lava springs broke free and flowed out across the land. The earth heaved upward toward the skies. The mountains came into being where no mountains had existed before.

Then the time of perpetual winter came when the mountains were covered with glaciers. As the ice melted and pushed downward, it gouged out deep valleys and amphitheaters creating small jewel-like lakes in the folds of the mountains. Today, the geologic history of the Flat Tops remains in full view.

Forest fires in the nineteenth century opened thousands of acres to the colonization of aspen forests. The beauty and peacefulness of an aspen grove in the summer is unsurpassed, and the golden slopes that come with fall are a sight that is truly breath-taking.

As you climb from the brilliant green or fall gold of the aspen groves, you enter the dark timber of the Flat Tops. The grayish cast is created by dead standing trees, which is the result of an Engelmann Spruce beetle epidemic in the 1940's. These trees, or 'snags', provide important wildlife habitat, yet can present a hazard to people. Always be on the lookout for falling snags while hiking or camping in these areas.

The tops of the 11,000+ feet, high-elevation plateaus are occupied by fragile alpine tundra. The view from the top is well worth the hike.

Watchable Wildlife

To optimize your chances to view wildlife, be very quiet and avoid sudden movements. Binoculars are very helpful, and early morning or evening are the best times to spot wildlife. A field guide to the area's birds and mammals will also increase your enjoyment of the byway's wildlife. Please take care not to disturb them.

As you travel from the valley bottoms up to the high mountains, the type of vegetation changes, providing habitat for a variety of animals.

Riparian: These are areas along streams and lakes, usually covered with willows, alders or cottonwood trees. Although riparian areas comprise only about 1% of the area in the western United States, they may provide habitat for 80% of the animals.

  • Wilson's warbler
  • Beaver
  • Yellow warbler
  • Lincoln's sparrow
  • Willow flycatchers
Sagebrush-Grassland : A majority of the lower elevations are comprised of big sagebrush, rabbitbrush, snakeweed, Thurber fescue and Idaho fescue.
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Richardson's ground
  • Sage Grouse
  • squirrel
  • Coyote
  • Western rattlesnake
  • White-tailed jackrabbit
Serviceberry-Chokecherry-Oakbrush : As you climb higher in elevation you will see more shrubs. In late August, berries picked from serviceberry and chokecherry make delicious jelly!
  • Mule deer
  • Black-billed magpies
  • Mourning dove
  • Warblers
Lodgepole Pine-Aspen : As you continue up in elevation, thick coniferous and deciduous forests are common. This zone provides prime habitat for many animals.
  • Mule deer
  • Elk
  • Mountain Bluebird
  • Blue grouse
Subalpine Fir-Engelmann Spruce-Aspen : High-elevation forests, or the subalpine zone, provides habitat and hiding cover for a variety of wildlife.
  • Black bear
  • Snowshoe hares
  • Marmot
  • Chickadees
  • Nuthatches
  • Various woodpeckers

Points of Interest

  1. Town of Meeker Enjoy one of Western Colorado's finest communities. Visit the historic museum and hotel; and during fourth of July plan on attending the annual Range Call Celebration.

  2. Fishing Opportunities Enjoy the private/Trout Unlimited/CDOW fishing access along the White River

  3. White River Indian Agency Overlook Learn about the original White River Indian Agency location (Meeker was not killed at this site).

  4. Ute Trail One of the many trails used by the Ute when hunting and travelling in the area. This trail is considered to be one of the main routes from the White River Valley to the Dotsero area.

  5. Oak Ridge Burn Learn about the benefits of controlled burns for wildlife.

  6. Lake Avery State Recreation Area This State recreation area provides excellent trout fishing, camping and picnicking at either Big Beaver reservoir or Lake Avery.

  7. South Fork Take a 10 mile side trip to learn about the re-introduction of Big Horn Sheep in the South Fork Canyon and enjoy the adventure at Spring Cave.

  8. Buford Visit the Buford store and gas station (last services until you reach Yampa!)

  9. Lost Creek Ranger Station and Workcenter Here you enter the White River National Forest. This is the original location of the Sleepy Cat Ranger District. Currently this workcenter is used as summer crew housing for the Blanco District, out of Meeker.

  10. North Fork Wildlife Burn Learn about the use of fire to improve wildlife habitat.

  11. Snell Creek Corrals This trailhead provides corrals which were constructed in cooperation with Rio Blanco County and the livestock permittee and are available for use by the public when not being used by the permittee.

  12. Trappers Lake "Cradle of Wilderness" The scenic beauty of this area inspired Arthur Carhart to recommend setting it aside in its natural form rather than develop the area for summer recreation residences. This area is often referred to as the birthplace of the wilderness concept.

  13. Ripple Creek Pullouts Stop at these scenic points to learn about the role and effects of natural and prescribed fire, the effects of insects on overmature forests, of ecosystem management and about aspen clones.

  14. Ripple Creek Overlook Get our camera ready! Tremendous roadside views into the Flat Tops Wilderness provide 'postcard' photo opportunities. Stop and read about the development of the wilderness philosophy, learn about watchable wildlife, and understand the geological development of the area.

  15. Ripple Creek Pass At an elevation of 10,343 feet you can enjoy crisp, fresh mountain air. Here you will pass from the White River National Forest to the Routt National Forest.

  16. Vaughn Lake Fish for brown or rainbow trout, picnic or camp at this Division of Wildlife reservoir.

  17. Pyramid Ranger Station was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a Forest Service work-center. The ranger station continues to be a 'hub' for Forest Service work crews during the summer months.

  18. The Town of Pyramid Stop at the Pyramid Store.

  19. Dunckley Pass Overlook is one of the viewing highlights along the byway. At 9,763 feet, you can see Pyramid Peak at 11,5 2 feet across the Bunker Basin valley. Plan to stop here to enjoy the incredible views, stretch your legs and take some great pictures.

  20. Sheriff Reservoir Located 3 miles from the main road, enjoy primitive camping at this great fishing lake. A Trailhead to the Flat Tops Wilderness is located here.

  21. Chapman Reservoir Located 1 mile off the main road, this is a nice choice for camping and fishing. The roads past the reservoir were built to salvage dead spruce timber killed in the 1940's by the Spruce beetle. Salvage operations continue today as the logs are popular for log home construction. Many of the conifer stands along the byway have been salvage logged over the past 50 years.

  22. Rattlesnake Butte Look for Golden eagles and Red-tailed hawks riding the air currents above the rugged cliffs. This butte is located on private ground, please respect this.

  23. Crosho Lake is 5 miles off the main road and provides excellent fishing and primitive camping opopportunities. The nearby Allen Basin Reservoir offers walk-in fishing with lures and flys only.

  24. Byrd Homestead is located on private land and was the first recorded homestead in the Yampa Valley.

  25. Royal Hotel Visitor Center is located in the heart of Yampa. It provides visitors information about the byway and the many attractions and activities available in the Yampa Valley. Stop in and pick up a brochure and enjoy a quick break with a "Walking tour of Yampa."

  26. Bear River Recreation Area is located just 7 miles southwest of Yampa and is a great way to end or begin your trip on the Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway!

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 17 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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