Flat Tops Trail Scenic Byway
Discover the remote wilderness of northwestern Colorado
|Mileage||80 miles (128 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||3 hours|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||Spring, Summer, and Fall|
|Roadways||Country Road 8|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, pharmacies, etc.||Meeker, CO▼, Oak Creek, CO▼, Phippsburg, CO▼, and Yampa, CO▼|
3.4 average from 18 votes
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Explore the remote wilderness of northwestern Colorado. This off-the-beaten-path adventure begins in Yampa and travels to Meeker through the White River National Forest. Following small forest service roads, once trails of the Ute people, discover vast expanses of green rolling hills, rocky mountains, sparkling glacial lakes, and river valleys. The Flat Tops Wilderness is the second-largest wilderness area in Colorado, encompassing over 235,000 acres. There is little development along the byway, save for some ranching, mining, and logging activity.
Only 30 miles of the road is paved, the remaining section is well-maintained gravel. The center section of the byway is closed mid-November to mid-June. During this time you can travel from Yampa to Dunckley Pass, or from Meeker to Lost Canyon, to access well-groomed trails for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice-fishing and dog-sledding. Please check road conditions before heading out.
We describe the drive from Yampa to Meeker, but it can be driven in the opposite direction. Either way, be sure you have a full tank of gas before heading out as there are no gas stations along the byway.
Outdoor recreation reigns supreme. Whether you’re into fishing or boating on the many lakes, streams, and creeks, hiking, biking, hunting, horseback riding or heading to the back-country for camping or ATV and dirt bike riding, the Flat Tops Wilderness provides a bounty of opportunities. Stop at the Yampa Ranger District (I2) for maps and information on how to make the most of your experience here. Note that higher elevation means less oxygen and that can make outdoor activity more difficult. There are many outfitters in Yampa and Meeker with guided adventures of every type.
Interested in trout hatcheries? Take a self-guided tour of the Finger Rock Rearing Unit (A1) which raises over 600,000 rainbow and brown trout. Bring quarters for the fish food dispenser.
The drive leaves Yampa towards County Road 8, a winding, curvy mountain road that undulates gently through the landscape. Keep an eye out for wandering cattle, sheep, or horses.
Dunckley Pass (V2) sits at an elevation of 9,763-feet. Stop at the Dunckley Pass Overlook Picnic Site for stunning panoramic views. The Dunkley Pass Trail leaves from here, and winter, this area is a favorite for snow sports.
Vaughn Lake (W2) is highly regarded for fishing, beautiful vistas, and has a small campground. The surrounding meadows and aspen woodland are home to birds including dusky grouse, Northern goshawk, and purple martins. The Dunckley Pass/Vaughn Lake area is one of nine stops along the Colorado Birding Trail in the Flat Tops. Other wildlife found here are elk, mule deer, mountain lion, beaver, and bald eagles in winter.
From a vantage point of 10,000-feet, the view from Ripple Creek Pass Lookout (V1) is breathtaking, especially in fall when the golden aspen gleam in contrast with blue skies and green meadows. The 18-mile Chinese Wall Trail leaves from here popular for hiking and horseback riding. It eventually joins the Devil’s Causeway Trail.
At the Ripple Creek Lodge we highly recommend a side trip on CR-8A Trappers Lake Road to Trappers Lake. At Trappers Lake (W1) along with a multitude of nearby campgrounds is Trappers Lake Lodge and Resort. Enjoy fishing, hiking, and the backdrop of the photogenic Amphitheater Peak.
Fish for rainbow trout, Colorado River cutthroat trout, and brook trout at Stillwater Reservoir (W3). From here are multiple trailheads including the East Fork Trail which leads to the infamous Devil’s Causeway. The causeway is a land bridge about 3 feet wide, with steep cliffs on either side. This thrilling hike takes caution, but you will be well rewarded with jaw-dropping views, including that of Flat Top Mountain, the highest peak in the Flat Tops. Please don’t hike in bad weather, or if you’re afraid of heights. Alternatively, you can drive to the trailhead from Yampa on Forest Road 900.
The drive continues back on the byway towards Meeker. There’s fishing and camping at Lake Avery, adjacent in Big Beaver Reservoir.
The drive ends in the small town of Meeker, where you’ll find a range of restaurants and accommodations. Stroll the charming downtown and discover over 30 historic homes, churches, banks, and other buildings. A self-guided walking tour map is available at the White River Museum or online. Learn more about the region at the Meeker Chamber of Commerce (I1).
The White River Museum (M1) is housed in the Officer’s Quarters of the old Meeker U.S. Calvary Garrison. Two log cabins originally built in 1880 hold a collection of photographs, farming artifacts, antique telephones, a kerosene lamp collection, a stagecoach, and fashion from the 1800’s through the 1950’s, as well as Ute artifacts including Chief Colorow’s peace pipe. Admission is free, donations accepted.
The Ute lived peacefully in the White River Valley until 1879. Tensions heightened in 1878, when White River Indian Agent Nathan Meeker demanded that the Utes change from a nomadic lifestyle to agriculture-based. That along with the plowing of a Ute horse racing track resulted in the the Battle of Milk Creek, which ultimately heralded the beginning of the Ute War, and was the catalyst for the Colorado Ute Removal Act. Visit Milk Creek Battlefield Park (H2) which commemorates all those who lost their lives. The Utes had also attacked the Indian Agency and killed all male employees, and Meeker himself. A monument now stands at the Meeker Massacre Site (A2). After the battle, Utes were taken to Utah.
Special events and festivals dot every season. In June, join the fun at the Meekerpalooza Arts and Music Festival. The July 4 weekend is Range Call celebration, the oldest annual rodeo in Colorado which began in 1938. Enjoy a rodeo, parade, live music, a barn dance, a reenactment of the famous 1896 Meeker Bank Robbery, fireworks and much more. Every September, Meeker is host to the Sheepdog Championship Trials. The sheepdogs are border collies bred specifically for their agility and ability to gather and maneuver the sheep. The event spans 5 days. Along with sheepdog challenges, learn about border collie handling and training, enjoy cooking, art, Navajo weaving and saddle-making demonstrations, live music and more.
The 57-acre Philip and Dorcas Jensen Memorial Park (A3) and Sanderson Hills Park offer miles of biking and hiking trails for every skill level. The China Wall Trail, not to be confused with the Chinese Wall trail, connects with Ute Park.