A trip to Trappers Lake in the White River National Forest two hours south of Steamboat Springs will allow hikers to explore a singular mountain range in Colorado -- The Flat Tops, home of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and the largest elk herd in the state.
A trip to Trappers Lake unavoidably involves the aftermath of wild fire. But it also brings startling beauty on the forest floor. There are still plenty of hikes in the Flat Tops that were untouched by the forest fires of 2002.
The Flat Tops formed millions of years ago when magma oozed out of cracks in the earth and covered the region. Much more recently (only thousands of years ago) glaciers cut the steep drainages that crease today's Alpine plateaus above 10,000 feet.
It was only four years ago, in the drought summer of 2002, that the Big Fish Fire burned the stands of lodgepole pines surrounding Trappers Lake right down to the shore. The environment has been unalterably transformed for the rest of our lifetimes.
Yet, the burned forest promises a dramatic color display for the balance of the summer, with yellow arnica in full blossom by mid-July and the magenta of dense patches of fireweed just beginning to show.
Hikers and horseback riders who want to experience the Flat Tops the way they were for most of the last 50 years can still find those qualities from trailheads less than three miles by road from Trappers Lake.
The trail to Mirror Lake, for example, takes off just east of Himes Peak where the fire burned hot. Except for some obscured views through the forest, there is no sign of the fires along the five-mile hike up Trail 1821 to Mirror.
Another great launching point for excursions into the Flat Tops is Stillwater Reservoir, reached via the town of Yampa.
A popular loop for day hikers who are of above average fitness visits the Mandall Lakes group. Trail 1121 takes off from a parking lot between Yamcolo Reservoir and Bear Lake, reached before the road dead ends at Stillwater.
A less aggressive hike, and one of the first to open up in spring, is the trail to Hooper and Keener lakes. Park at Stillwater and walk across the dam, then follow the North Derby Trail. Hikers in June should plan on getting their feet wet.
The Causeway will test hikers who have a fear of heights -- think of it as a rite of passage. The roundtrip hike on the Lost Lakes Trail is less than 6 miles but switches back above tree line until it reaches a narrow isthmus. The trail is just 4 to 5 feet wide with sheer drop-offs on either side.