If Trappers Lake doesn’t quite qualify as the middle of nowhere, it certainly counts as the end of the road.
Garfield County Road 155 takes off from the midpoint of Flat Tops Trail scenic byway, 41 miles over gravel and asphalt to either Meeker or Yampa. From there, it’s another 9 miles on rough dirt to the foot of the natural dam that holds back the lake, and a short stroll at 9,600 feet to the view itself.
Some folks who make the trip are disappointed.
The campgrounds on the west side of the lake are tucked into some of the remaining of live conifers, as is the Trappers Lake Lodge, perched on a hill near the cataract outflow that becomes the north fork of the White River.
Elsewhere, only charred trunks remain. Much of the lake’s 4 miles of shoreline hosts willow and fireweed instead of pine and spruce, while the slopes that ring the lake are still mostly bare 12 years after flames swept through the land Roderick Nash dubbed “The Cradle of Wilderness.”
Despite the devastation, and perhaps partially because of it, Trappers Lake holds an undeniable magic. It is a perfect microcosm of the struggles and triumphs of undeveloped land in the years leading up to the Wilderness Act — signed Sept. 3, 1964, by President Lyndon Johnson — and the 50 years since.
The end of the road
An unsung hero in the annals of conservation, Arthur Carhart made his mark in the critical period after the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916 and before U.S. Forest Service L-20 regulations for primitive areas were enacted in 1929.
The winds were already changing when Carhart — 27 years old, fresh from World War I, and bearing a degree in landscape design and city planning — landed a job as Forest Service recreation engineer for the Rocky Mountain District. While the Park Service catered to recreation, the Forest Service had traditionally focused on natural resources.
Leases for vacation homes proved lucrative, however, and in the summer of 1919, Carhart was assigned to conduct a survey of Trappers Lake and lay out a plan for a loop road, a marina and around 100 cabins.
He worked diligently, but something about the place touched Carhart. Some say it was a conversation with a couple of big game hunters camped out on the Flat Tops, others suggest an encounter with a Ute spirit, but most believe it was simply the rugged beauty of the spot that swayed him.
When he returned to Denver with the plans, he urged his superior, C.J. Stahl, to disregard them. Trappers Lake, Carhart asserted, was too great a recreational resource to turn over to a select wealthy few.
“It was kind of a radical call to make at the time,” observed Ken Coffin, district ranger for the Blanco Ranger District. “Back then the Forest Service was about cutting trees and building roads and summer homes.”
But it worked. Stahl took Carhart’s advice, the money set aside for the project was redirected and Trappers Lake was left pristine.
Cradle of Wilderness
Aldo Leopold, Stahl’s counterpart in District 3, was also impressed. In December 1919, following a discussion between the three of them, Carhart drafted a memorandum for Leopold that laid out his views on conservation and their agency’s role.
“The Forest Service, it seems to me, is obligated to make the greatest return from the total forests to the people of the nation that is possible. This, the Service has endeavored to do in the case of timber utilization, grazing, watershed protection and other activities. There is, however, a great wealth of recreational facilities and scenic values with the Forests, which have not be so utilized,” he wrote.
He acknowledged that it was difficult to quantify the value of a scenic resource, but fell back on his education to emphasize the need.
“Landscape architects have continuously contended that there are scenic values and recreational areas of unusual beauty serving great public need, which were never intended for private holdings. This has been recognized in some of the more congested areas of the country, and immense sums of money have been paid by municipalities, counties and states, to secure the shoreline on lakes or rivers, which have passed from under the control of the general public and were held by individuals,” he continued. “There is a limit to the number of lands of shoreline on the lakes; there is a limit to the number of lakes in existence; there is a limit to the mountainous areas of the world, and in each one of these situations there are portions of such natural scenic beauty which are God made, and the beauties of which of a right should be the property of all people.”
Carhart advocated not only for the preservation of Trappers Lake, but for rugged and scenic areas throughout the country. While he acknowledged that such a course would draw criticism and controversy, he asserted that it was the best path for the common good.
“The question of how best to do this is perhaps the real question, rather than shall it be done,” he concluded.
Arthur Carhart left the Forest Service after just four years.
When the agency established the Flat Tops Primitive Area in 1932, he was back working as a landscape architect. Over the next 10 years, 14.2 million acres were set aside as primitive. Far from satisfied, Carhart continued to advocate for wilderness. A proponent of recreation, he was up in arms when the facilities at Trappers Lake were neglected as well as when new development threatened the area.
He wrote prolifically, putting the eloquence displayed in the 1919 memorandum to use in fiction and non-fiction alike. His books “Timber in Your Life” and “Water — Or Your Life” were particularly influential.
Carhart, an only child, never had kids of his own, but sent his books back to his family in the Midwest.
Bill Carhart, a distant cousin, described Arthur as “a fellow who lived a very interesting life.”
“I wished I’d have known then what I know now,” he said.
Bill grew up with the outdoor lifestyle and worked for the Creed Ranger district in college. He began understand Arthur’s passion, and has since visited Trappers Lake several times.
“I wonder how much of what he became was a result of his work out there at Trappers Lake,” he said. “Arthur felt that any public land was part of everyone’s heritage. and that being able to use those areas could make you a better person.”
The Wilderness Act possesses a sort of poetry that Arthur Carhart must have appreciated.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” it reads in part.
Although far from airtight, the restrictions put in place 50 years ago Wednesday, are a stark contrast to the policies of the Forest Service of 1919 and represent a level of protection well above a National Forest.
In December 1975, Congress set aside 235,230 acres of White River and Route National Forests as the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. A thin strip of the White River National Forest along the road in was left out, but Trappers Lake itself lies wholly within the wilderness.
Although mansions are creeping into the rest of the White River valley, Trappers Lake will never be subject to private homes or ski resorts.
Arthur Carhart lived just long enough to see the final phase of protection.
“I sometimes wonder how I had the nerve as a young punk to get my superiors turned around on some of these things,” he said shortly before the act was passed. “I feel real good about how it all turned out.”
He died in 1978.
Smoke on the water
“It looks as if all of Colorado is burning today,” then-Gov. Bill Owens said in June 2002 as the Hayman Fire raged on the Front Range and the Coal Seam Fire flickered on the hills above Glenwood Springs. When the Big Fish and Lost Lakes fires torched more than 20,000 acres around Trappers Lake in August, the state was so burned out on fires that hardly anyone heard about it.
The main lodge, which had be reconstructed after a 1918 fire, burned to the ground. Had the boathouse not been moved after the wilderness designation, it likely would have suffered the same fate.
RM Investments set to work rebuilding the lodge right away, but when Carol Steele and Holly King visited a few years later it was still a burn zone. They bought it anyway, and soon found they weren’t the only ones with hope for the area.
Floyd “Red” Gulliford, who fell in love with Trappers Lake when he was 4 years old and owned the lodge throughout most of the 1970s, helped the pair with outfitting when they were getting started and continues to make the drive up from Grand Junction every year.
The Forest Service recently planted thousands of saplings around the lodge and along the road, but adopts a hands-off approach to the wilderness area itself.
“It’s doing what you’d expect a burned area to do 12 years after a fire,” said Ken Coffin, Blanco District ranger. “It’s part of how this ecosystem works.”
“The forest has regenerated itself many times,” King agreed. “It’ll all come back.”
Most visitors seem to agree. Some grumble about the burned trees, but others appreciate the clearer view of the lake and the mountains behind.
You can hear dead trees falling when the wind kicks up, but wildlife abounds and young trees are already pushing up in many areas. In 50 years, aspen groves and pine stands will mix with meadows, and the vista will be every bit as beautiful as Carhart found it.
Garfield County, which most folks in the area rarely think about except at tax time, recently improved the road, making it accessible in two-wheel drive when it’s dry.
Visitors come to fish the native cutthroat trout – catch and release, of course – hike to one of the many smaller lakes in the rolling terrain, or just take it all in.
“It is the most heavily visited area in the Blanco Ranger District,” noted Coffin. “It’s a special place in this District and this National Forest.”
The Trappers Lake Lodge and Resort, open Memorial Day through the end of second rifle season, saw increased traffic this summer. The beds in their cabins are a comfortable alternative to camping, but when they switch off the generator at 9:30 p.m., the stars are as clear and bright as anywhere in Colorado.
Guests, campers or day trippers alike can stop at the lodge for a bite to eat. You can spare yourself the portage to the dock by renting a boat from the lodge. Carts aren’t allowed, so Steele and King carry them in and out by hand every year.
“It’s a different world up here. It’s not for the person looking for a manicure and a massage,” said King. “We come across more and more people who go out there completely unprepared. I wish people could use more common sense when they head off into the mountains.”
“We live in the wilderness,” agreed Steele. “If you can’t deal with mice, pica, marmots, bats, mountain lions, bears, foxes, deer, elk, moose and eagles, don’t come.”
Arthur Carhart may not be a household name even with Forest Service, but for many people, his stand at Trappers Lake is seminal.
In August, the Forest Service held a discussion on wilderness at the lake, with everyone from Bill Carhart to Tom Wolf, a former of neighbor of Carhart’s and the author of his biography, making the trip to participate. Coffin anticipates a video of the event will be posted on YouTube sometime this week.
He spoke to the impact Carhart made on him and his fellow rangers.
“He was a guy that had an idea and he moved it forward. As a Forest Service employee, you have to look back at that and admire that,” he said. “Of 193 million acres across the country, it’s not all managed the same way. There’s a little something out there for everybody, and I think you can thank Arthur Carhart for some of that.”
Ralph Swain, who holds C.J. Stahl’s former position of Wilderness Program Manager for Region 2, agreed.
“Can we truly live up to Congress’s intent and statutory direction to leave these areas untrammeled? It’s a huge challenge, but we are proud of those — like Leopold, Carhart and Marshall — who came before us. [Wilderness Act author Howard] Zahniser got it right when he said our job is to be guardians of these areas and their wilderness character, and not gardeners,” he said. “Trappers remains awe-inspiring, even today. You cannot replicate that geological formation, nor the vast, wild vista that lays before you at Trappers Lake. Yes, there is development (roads, cabins and campgrounds) nearby, however, it is still an area where one can ‘unplug’ — get lost — and find themselves.”