Flat Tops adventures can be flat-out fun … | PostIndependent.com

Flat Tops adventures can be flat-out fun …

Take a Buford Road drive, or go rugged on Transfer Trail

Camping off the New Castle-Buford Road.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent
At a glance …

Where is the Flat Tops? Pretty much all of the national forest land north of Glenwood Springs, New Castle and the Silt-Rifle area.
How do you get there? The best routes are the New Castle-Buford Road, Coffee Pot Road and, for heavy duty four-wheel-drive vehicles only, Transfer Trail.
What can you do there? Hiking, biking, camping, four-wheeling, fishing, canoe/kayaking/paddle boarding, general sight-seeing.
Popular destinations: Triangle Park, Meadow Lake, Haypress Lake, Baxter Peak, Windy Point, Deep Creek Overlook.

There’s nothing particularly flat about the Flat Tops, the high-elevation plateau that juts up to the north of Glenwood Springs and encompasses hundreds of thousands of acres of wild land that gave birth to the very notion of wilderness in the early 20th century.

The larger Flat Tops area stretches from Rifle and Meeker on the west end to the Gore Range in the east, and to the north nearly to Steamboat Springs and Craig. 

It is home to the 235,214-acre Flat Tops Wilderness — one of the first such designations to be made under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

But there’s much more to the Flat Tops than wilderness alone.

The deep canyons, high-mountain lakes, lush valleys, dense forests, snow-lined peaks and awesome panoramic views found in the Flat Tops are what inspired U.S. Forest Service landscape architect Arthur Carhart to recommend in 1919 that the area be preserved in its natural state.

Much of the area is easily accessible by most types of vehicles along the New Castle to Buford Road (Forest Road 245). 

For those with high-clearance, four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), Transfer Trail just north of Glenwood Springs is a popular route into the Flat Tops.

And, to the east, on the other side of Glenwood Canyon and a little ways up the Colorado River Road, is the Coffee Pot Road (Forest Road 600) access. It, too, is passable to a point by most types of vehicles.

Buford Road 

As for some of the primary recreational opportunities to be found in the Flat Tops, Rifle Ranger District recreation specialist Zach Coombs suggests a drive up the New Castle to Buford Road as your launching-off point.

Meadow Lake is located 35 miles north of New Castle via the Buford-New Castle Road in a popular area for fishing, hunting and OHV riding. The campground also provides an easy staging area for accessing numerous nonmotorized trails in the southwest Flat Tops.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“The West Elk trailhead, locally known as the gravel pit trail, has mountain biking, hiking and is popular with horseback riders,” Coombs said. 

Some of the routes are shorter out-and-back or loop trails, and some are longer, so navigational skills and good maps are recommended before setting out.

The Cherry Creek Trail, for example, is about 5 miles, mostly downhill, possibly to a waiting car on the other end if planned out, or as a down and back hike or ride.

The nearby Mansfield Trail is about 12 miles long, with spur access to the Last Chance Trail and connections back to the main road.

“It all depends on a person’s comfort level,” Coombs said.

Farther up the main road headed north is a series of right-hand turnoffs that provide access to Meadow Lake, a popular fishing and camping destination. Be aware that some of these roads are off-road vehicle access only.

“There’s a lot of dispersed camping along the main road,” as well as off of some of the side roads, if one knows where to look, Coombs said.

Numerous side routes carry travelers a little ways to the east, and west in the vicinity of Triangle Park toward Little Box Campground and the Lower Three Forks Trailhead north of Rifle.

The road continues all the way to the small town of Buford in Rio Blanco County, and out on the Meeker side of the Flat Tops along the White River via Rio Blanco County Road 8.

Be advised that there will be active logging along the Buford-New Castle Road throughout the summer, so look out for large log-hauling trucks. 

Transfer Trail

The rocky ascent up into the Flat Tops directly north of Glenwood Springs via Forest Road 602 is definitely 4WD or dirt bike access only, and appropriate tires are a must.

Transfer Trail just north of Glenwood Springs is a designated Garfield County Historic Right of Way.
Christopher Mullen / Post Independent |

Even then, venturing into the backcountry by that means depends on the comfort level — and most importantly the skill level — of the driver, Coombs advises.

The area can also be accessed on foot, bike or by horseback, but be aware that you will be sharing the road with motor vehicles.

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the weather.

“A little bit of rain can make that area really slippery,” Coombs said. “But it is really all about skill level, and a person’s comfort level with primitive roads.”

Among the popular destinations via Transfer Trail are Blue Lake, Yellow Lake, Haypress Lake, Baxter Peak and the Windy Point overlook.

“People need to be real careful there,” Coombs said of the latter point of interest overlooking No Name Creek. “People have made bad choices there, and it didn’t end well.”

Camping is also available at Haypress Lake, with numerous dispersed camping spots along the way. 

Coffee Pot Road

There’s a good shake-your-head-and-laugh story about a Greyhound bus driver making his way up Coffee Pot Road and deep into the Flat Tops with a load of passengers last summer when Interstate 70 was closed through Glenwood Canyon due to flooding.

The view overlooking Deep Creek in the Flat Tops off Coffee Pot Road.
Staff Photo |

Not the best decision.

But for the average sight-seer looking for a little diversion, it’s a good route from which to catch a brief glimpse of the Flat Tops splendor.

There are several potential stop-offs on the lower end of the road.

Among them is the Deep Creek overlook, with a few hiking trails along the way up to Deep Creek Campground, Deep Lake and Heart Lake.

Beyond there, though, the road turns more primitive, and 4WD capability is strongly recommended.

With a capable vehicle, it’s possible to continue on to Adams Lake, the Blair Mountain and Patterson Creek areas, connecting back onto Transfer Trail.

Along the way there’s also the town of Carbonate, which is an actual incorporated town, but with no current residents. It was the original Garfield County seat, when the Flat Tops was the primary passage into Glenwood Springs and points further west.

On the far northeast side of the Flat Tops is the Yampa access, located off Colorado Highway 131, which leads to the popular Devils Causeway area, Simon Lake and other destinations.

Sweetwater Lake

Up the River Road past Coffee Pot is the turnoff to Sweetwater Lake, the newest addition to the White River National Forest. The Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Eagle Valley Land Trust are now working to manage the Sweetwater Lake area, potentially as a new state park.

On the water at Sweetwater Lake on the southeastern side of the Flat Tops area.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

The 488 acres of land around the lake were privately owned until summer 2021, when it was purchased through the federal Land and Conservation Fund as part of the Great Outdoors Act.

In the meantime, until a management plan is in place, Sweetwater Lake is open to the public, but with some limitations, White River National Forest spokesman David Boyd said. 

“We want to make sure people understand that we don’t have much for facilities there yet,” he said. “And there are some areas that are closed for things like the eagle nest and for safety.”

Visitors can find the latest about Sweetwater, including a map with closures and basic guidelines and rules, at http://www.evlt.org.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.

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