Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness Area- An In-Depth Look
Encompassing a breathtaking 235,214 acres, the Flat Tops is the second largest swath of roadless wilderness in Colorado. Accessible only by foot or on horseback, the area provides unrivaled opportunities for solitude and escape. Whether hiking, riding horseback, fly-fishing or big game hunting, those who visit the Flat Tops are almost always drawn back for more.
Even those familiar with Colorado landscapes are surprised when they visit the Flat Tops for the first time. Its terrain is as unique as it is beautiful, unlike any other Rocky Mountain experience.
As its name suggests, immense plateaus are the dominating feature of the area. Foreboding cliffs guard the edges of the wilderness. Beyond the frame of these escarpments, visitors to the interior of the Flat Tops are greeted by sprawling forests of aspen and conifer. The tops of plateaus are gently rolling, allowing forests to mingle with large open parks and meadows.
But between the easy terrain of the plateaus, deep incisions cut the land and drop steeply away to the tumbling creeks below. Hundreds of miles of trout streams entice anglers and the combination of meadows, timber and steep terrain provide a paradise for elk and mule deer hunters.
The highest reaches of the flat tops are its rounded volcanic peaks and the expansive tundra that roll beneath their feet. Over 100 lakes are scattered about the interior of the wilderness, many of them unnamed, providing trout fishermen with even more thrilling opportunities.
The wildlife inhabiting the Flat Tops is as varied as its topography. From valley bottoms to lofty peaks, hundreds of species thrive within the protected confines of the wilderness.
One of the area’s most numerous inhabitants is the Rocky Mountain elk. The elk here in the Flat Tops are part of the larger White River herd, the largest in Colorado and subsequently in North America.
Elk can be found from the open tundra to the lowest river bottoms, depending on the time of year and weather. Elk are primarily grazers, meaning grass is their first choice in food sources. When grass is harder to find, they will browse from low growing shrubs and even aspen trees.
Mule deer are another common big game species found in the flat tops. Deer can also range from timberline to river bottoms, but will usually migrate downhill faster than the elk when the snow begins to fall. Deer are primarily browsers, which means they prefer shrubs and leaves to grass. Because of this, deer will often be found in areas of heavy oak brush, currant or other low-growing deciduous plants.
Above timberline and up to the rocky peaks, big horn sheep can be found throughout the Flat Tops wilderness. These stately mammals with their heavy curled horns avoid predators by relying on their eyesight in wide-open places and their agility to escape over treacherous terrain. Big horn sheep are the state animal of Colorado.
The Flat Tops’ most fearsome predator is the mountain lion. Though rarely seen, mountain lions patrol the wilderness for mule deer and other prey. It is estimated that an adult lion can kill up to one mule deer a week. These animals are notoriously shy of humans however, and to see one can be a lucky opportunity.
While often thought of as predators, black bears are actually just opportunistic omnivores. They’ll eat just about anything they can find. Black bears are numerous in the Flat Tops area but because of their tendency toward nocturnal activity, they are not often seen.
Small mammals inhabiting the wilderness include marmots and pika, which hikers can often spot in rocky slopes near tree line. Weasels, ermine and pine marten can also be found in the woods, but are mostly nocturnal and shy of humans.
Finally, the rivers and lakes of the Flat Tops are home to a number of different fish species. Most notably, Colorado’s native cutthroat trout can be found throughout the area. These beautifully colored trout grow to healthy sizes and provide anglers with endless entertainment. Brook trout are also common in the area.
As a designated wilderness area, the Flat Tops is closed to all motor vehicles and any mechanized forms of transportation, such as mountain bikes. This leaves the entire area free to explore on foot and on horseback in unmatched solitude. It is truly a wilderness experience.
Hikers and backpackers have an array of options and places to explore, with well over a hundred miles of trails. The area is expansive however, and travel on foot usually limits visitors to the outer edges of the area.
One of the easiest ways to explore the interior of the wilderness is on horseback. The ultimate wilderness ATVs, horses and mules can take visitors to places that would otherwise be extremely difficult to reach. Horses and mules also allow visitors to carry comfortable camps into the heart of the wilderness where guests can fish, hunt, photograph or simply enjoy the alpine scenery without another soul around.
Fishing is a very popular activity in the area. The remote nature of the Flat Tops’ waterways and lakes means they see very little fishing pressure. Fish here do not often see an artificial fly and are eager to strike. From little brook trout in small streams and beaver ponds, to hefty cutthroat, there are opportunities to fit a wide range of fishing preferences.
It goes without saying that the Flat Tops Wilderness is also a hunter’s paradise. Home to one of the largest elk herds on the planet and trophy mule deer, hunters looking for a true, western big game hunting experience, will find exactly what they’re looking for in the Flat Tops.
Perhaps the best way for hunters to access the area is on horseback. The sheer size of this wilderness leaves much of the interior unpressured and here, hunters will find excellent populations of game.
As a federally protected wilderness, the Flat Tops is a gem in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Whether visiting with your camera, fishing rod or hunting equipment, there are opportunities for any type of outdoor enthusiast. The area is most easily accessed from Interstate 70 in western Colorado.
Ryan McSparran is a Colorado-based writer, focusing on a variety of outdoor sports and recreation topics, including fishing, hunting and wilderness adventure.