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Five Days, Five Nights in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Approximately a 65 mile loop.
On a Wednesday towards the end of a four-hour meeting at work, I stared out the window of the overcast sky as it began to open up to slivers of blue. My attention began to wander away from the present and the prospect of spending the next five days submerged in Wilderness.
*Unfortunately my camera had been acting up a bit and I came away a little disappointed in the quality of some of the photos.*
I departed the lonesome Turret Creek trailhead around 5:30 p.m. near Sweetwater Reservoir with high hopes that I’d be walking into the woods without too much of a monsoon season soaking. From this trailhead there are three different established paths that will bring you into the high islands that is the Flat Tops.
On my way in, just outside the Wilderness boundary I crossed the paths of two men on horseback. I think they were just as surprised to see me, as I them. Thunder burped and rainclouds moved towards me.
I got my butt kicked by rain, wind and the slip and slop of the mud on the steep trail up to my intended camp of Johnny Meyers Lake. Overlooking the Turret Creek Valley I saw lightning and heard load, but sporadic thunder. The wind turned it up a notch and my hands were freezing. The solution: hands in pants as I continued to walk upward.
Eventually the sun came out around the time I arrived at Johnny Meyers “Lake”. All I saw was a bog filled depression.
The following morning drying out my gear with the small amount of sun I was blessed with.
I accomplished approximately 4.2 miles and the low of the evening was only 41 degrees (Wednesday).
The Turret Creek Meadows.
I continued the gentle climb up the Turret Creek valley and aimed for Shingle Peak.
A clearly defined trail which is protected by willows.
The sky continues to stay overcast. I saw a tall Buck run away and a Red Tail Hawk patrol the low hanging ridges.
At 11,200 feet and my trail junction, I look from where I came.
The Christmas tree.
I'm now on the W Mountain Trail and some single track here, there and everywhere. I begin to see why this is the supposed home to the largest Elk heard in North America as I see sign everywhere. What you can see in the photo above is what I am following; map and compass in hand.
Trappers Lake valley begins to open up to my west and Parvin Lake can be seen below.
The vast and open. A trail marker.
I can see a sheep herd off in the distance first and then their noise. Immediately after I begin to notice their tracks and the scat.
With my limited knowledge of the area and the monsoon season in full swing, I was unsure as to how much mileage I could accomplish. The Chinese Wall trail had been great, but it was time to dip down a little lower and perhaps settle for the remainder of the evening. I choose to target Deer Lake which sits on a nice shelf at 11,130 feet.
The rain of course came, this time around 3:00 p.m. as Deer Lake came into view. Rather than set up camp, I found some natural shelter beneath the passing shower. I walked the Lake and took my time to find a place to pitch my Tarptent. The best piece of ground I found was exactly where I had sat for about an hour out of the rain.
The view from the east side of Deer Lake is fantastic. Down below I spot a Moose eating near the wetlands of the Derby Creek drainage.
Deer Lake turns out to be a dead lake as I can neither see or attract any fish with my lures. I took a long look at my map this evening and started to form the loop I would complete for the trip. This whole bench is amazing for scenery and I spend a good time looking off the ledge.
I put in approximately 12.5 miles and the low temperature of the evening was 36 degrees with partly cloudy skies at night (Thursday).
Friday morning as I was about to arise from the tent, I heard stomps; a cow Moose had wandered on by and left just as quick as she came in. From Deer Lake I packed up camp and hiked south to the Island Lake Trail. During this stretch I stopped and chatted with a group of three backpackers. Prior to that I had not seen nor spoken to anyone in roughly 32 hours.
Near the trail junction of Island Lake and Deer Lake.
Island Lake. I couldn't help but wonder how the fishing is.
I see way more horse, deer and elk track here than that of human.
Today the rain would begin around 11:00 a.m. The rain gear had been busted out early. The trail in the above photo looks kind compared to what I was in store for the rest of the day. The Island Lake trail gets, we'll say, "less and less appealing" the farther east you go.
Around noon the heavy rains moved in, then the hail, then the lightning and the boisterous thunder soon afterwards. I huddled low and recall the volume of the thunder making me jump!
Upon reaching the meadows of the Island Lake trail, the single-track turns to double, triple and quadruple. It splits off into random directions for I am now in cattle grazing country. The rain drizzle goes into the late afternoon and I get turned around several times before finding the true and reliable trail. The trudge through mud and cow crap is demoralizing and the air stays cool.
My link to the Hooper Lake trail is a welcomed one. Still off in the distance I see more and more cattle. I've never seen so many within Wilderness area boundaries and I begin to wonder if the allotment for cattle grazing operations here are above the norm as apart of the agreement for turning it into a wilderness area back in the 70's. Their range here is huge.
Making my way north and getting first tracks. Looking back on it, it's amazing to think that this was my biggest mileage day.
The best views of the day were looking up to Derby Peak as I rounded it for a large part of the day.
Keener Lake and my night three camp.
Approximately 20 miles covered today and the overnight low was 35 degrees (Friday).
Early morning rays on Derby Peak Saturday.
I took my time in camp this morning enjoying the sun and the view. Despite the fact that I woke to clouds in the sky, this morning had probably been the clearest so far and my mood improved because of it.
Atop the pass looking on towards Stillwater Reservoir.
I decided to cut the trail and go off the beaten path to link up with the Bear River trail from here.
I walked right into a scattered lincoln log set.
The appropriately named Flat Top Mountain straight ahead.
The Stillwater Lake region was by far the busiest section of the trip. Nearly all the groups of backpackers, day hikers, horseback riders and trail runners I came across, I had a good conversation with.
I had hit the northern most section of my loop and it was time to return to the high mesa scene. I choose to go as far as Surprise Lake on an unmaintained trail. For the reasons stated above, I eventually lost the true trail and began to ponder. I found it tough to match physical features to a map with 50 foot contour intervals with speckled ponds of water everywhere which were not detailed on my map.
Surprise Lake and quite the surprise to share the lake with 3 other gentlemen for the evening. It felt good to finally hit my camp early and do some well deserved fishing.
The rain clouds decided to burst around 5:30 p.m. this time and the moisture that was left over on a 37 degree evening felt as though it were colder. Only 11 miles completed this day (Saturday).
Sunday morning. Not a cloud in the sky to start the day. Back to the primitive trail to link up with an area I had been before: W Mountain Trail. First I had some willows to walk through (see above).
Standing above the Trapper Lake valley.
On to some new terrain: Trappers Lake Trail going south and encountering a few stray sheep. Fortunately I escaped any dogs.
An easy going trail and a little solitude.
Shingle Peak and the headwaters of the South Fork White River. For miles after this point I heard coyotes barking and howling from the deep valley to the west.
First elk herd of the trip. I counted 23 cows.
I originally thought I would camp here, but decided against it upon arrival due to my suspicion of their being no fish. I hiked to an even bigger un-named lake to the West but the story was the same; time to backtrack.
At this point I decided to hike closer to my trailhead and dive right into the Sweetwater Creek drainage. The trail here has some excellent views and the grouse here love letting you get as close as possible before letting you know they're amongst you.
Monsoon rain came in shortly after 3:00 p.m. today which came to fruition right after I chose the final night of camp.
14 miles came and went quick this day. Despite the cloudless night, the low temperature only hit 40 degrees (Sunday).
Sweetwater Reservoir and my ride back to civilization the next morning.
A quick jaunt back to the original starting point took around 4 miles Monday morning. It felt good to end dry and to see the Sawatch range again