11.5 Miles is Enough: Hiking the Devil's Causeway
FLAT TOPS WILDERNESS AREA, COLORADO—I’ve only been to Iceland once, but I feel like I’ve been to Iceland twice. It’s the middle of August, and there are still patches of snow dotting the landscape, largely in ravines and crevasses shielded from summer’s 14+ hours of sunlight. The Flat Tops Wilderness is only an hour’s drive from Steamboat—casual enough to have my morning coffee and listen to Morning Edition along the way—but it feels like you’re in another world. I felt like I was in Iceland.
The mountains here were carved by glaciers millions of years ago, leaving a unique landscape that would look more at home somewhere in the Alaska Range. Kettle lakes—sediment-filled holes in the ground, formed by the same retreating glaciers—dot the landscape, and are largely only seen from the top of the Devil’s Causeway, the loop I was out to conquer.
It’s roughly a 3-mile hike up to the lip of the Causeway, a ridgeline traversing the top of the windy, flat-topped mountain face known as the Chinese Wall. The going is tough…the average elevation in the Wilderness Area is 10,000 feet, rising to almost 12,000 by the time you’ve reached the “summit”. Summit is a loose term, applied here because there is no other term for the top of a mountain, but the “summit” is more of a causeway, narrowing to as little as 3 feet at certain points...hence the name. Devil's Causeway.
Acclimatization is key for climbing the Causeway, but if you make it to the top it affords you a magnificent view of the valley below and the mountains beyond. On a day like this, it also gives you a clear view of the storm clouds gathering in the distance. The Flat Tops are known for their fickle weather, thunderstorms included.
I’m following a rough trail map—the path is well-trod, but for whatever reason the trail I need to follow—1803—is not listed on the map. I’ve been tracking my progress the whole way, and by my estimation, I should have come across the Chinese Wall trail by this point, but the one I’m on just keeps going and going instead. I’m quite confident that if I keep going, I’ll be able to make a big loop back to the trailhead, but that takes time—and good weather.
I’m sweating. I chose to wear a t-shirt, which is made of cotton…this is no bueno. Hiking makes you sweat, especially if you’re wearing a backpack; when the backpack comes off, the wind hits you, and you get cold. It doesn’t matter how strong the sun is shining. I want to take my backpack off so that I can shoot some photos, but the wind is a good incentive to leave it on for the time being and to keep moving forward. I tend to get caught up taking pictures when I'm out in the middle of nowhere, but today it's a good thing I'm leaving my bag on. The weather is looking iffy.
Cresting another ridge, I see the trail ahead of me wind on and on, a dirt path snaking its way through burnt grass and steep drop-offs. I half expect a Rider of Rohan to appear on the horizon at any moment, questioning my presence in his Kingdom. However there was another, more imminent threat: the wind was picking up, and the darks clouds to the south looked like they were coming closer. Wetting my finger and sticking it into the wind, I confirmed this was the case. It looked like a storm, and it looked like it was coming towards me.
At that moment I decided to turn around. Here I am, on a narrow ridgeline, a thousand feet above the ground, a few hundred feet above the tree line…and it’s time to go. Any hint of a thunderstorm, and I’m out of there. All I could hear was Paul (my roommate’s) sage advice from the night before: any cloud that’s making its way to the Flat Tops might have electricity in it. If I was accompanied? I’d forge ahead, and complete the loop. If there were clear skies? Forge ahead. But I’m alone, and there’s weather coming in. It’s time to be safe, turn around, and break for camp, because this is not a place that you want to get stuck in a lightning storm. 11.5 miles is enough for one day—and I still got some pretty good photos.