Count Yourself Lucky
By Dan Greeson
Murray Selleck hikes in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area with his dog Bentley. Photo courtesy Murray Selleck.
By Murray Selleck
Earlier in the morning, I had loaded the camp box that holds our tent, sleeping bags, stove and camping essentials into the truck so all we needed was food to complete our escape.
Heading down Colorado 131 through the towns of Oak Creek, Phippsburg and Yampa, then up County Road 7 towards the Flat Tops Wilderness, the heat of the day fades and the coolness feels good.
The road climbs higher and some of the nastiest washboard you’ll ever encounter tries to twist the truck from one side of the road to other. Take it slow – try to speed over the top of it and the washboard will have its way with your vehicle.
Onward and upward, hay fields and sagebrush meadows turn into quaking aspen groves and thick stands of spruce. Everything feels and looks better as a snowy Flat Top Mountain shows its impressive 12,354-foot front. Campsites appear along the lower sections of the road and we’re not surprised to see them empty. There’s plenty of snow around and we’re going up as far as the snowline will allow.
Around a few hairpin turns, past the lower Yamcolo Reservoir, past the Upper Stillwater Reservoir, and still no one is around but us. It feels surreal considering that on a typical summer’s day, campers have found spots up and down this road long before Friday evening comes along.
Higher yet and snowdrifts encroach on the truck, but the road is four-wheel-drive passable and we make it through to Stillwater. The Cold Springs Campground is deserted and we set up out of the way, with a view of Flat Top Mountain right across from us and the upper Bear River meandering far below us.
Way out across North Park towards the Medicine Bow and Never Summer mountain ranges, massive thunderheads boil up tens of thousands of feet into the sky.
Camp is made in dimming daylight and alpenglow fills the upper valley. Thunderheads reflect the sun-setting shades of red, purple and gold. Alpenglow – Earth’s aura. We know we are in the right spot at the right time.
Twilight and dawn are two of the best things about camping. Day-users typically arrive too late and leave too early to see the golden hours. Campers and backpackers count themselves lucky to bear witness.
The breeze shifts from a warm updraft to a cold downdraft that sends us looking for down jackets to snuggle our chins into and jam our hands deep into warm pockets. Tonight will be cold.
Birdsong lessens from a chorus to one or two competing soloists, until even they fall silent. Sounds vary. A soft-padded critter goes on its way. A nighthawk’s speeding swoop nearby. Coyotes down valley.
And, the stars. Slowly, almost one at a time, they appear until we can’t keep count and the night sky twinkles in light millions of years old. There are so many stars that when one of us is brave enough to leave the warmth of the campfire, there’s plenty of light to keep every step sure-footed.
To the east, lightning pops up through those miles-high thunderheads, exposing each contour and billow of cloud. Lightning flashes practically every second and we know a wicked storm is making its way over the front range and out to the plains.
Slowly the full moon crests from behind those same lightning-spewing clouds, and our senses almost can’t take any more. Can this honestly be for real? Are we the only ones seeing this? It’s easy to believe we are and in the quiet, with a warm crackling fire, we are nothing except grateful.
Come morning, our desire for warm sunshine has to be tempered with patience. Thick frost coats everything around us. The morning cold seems to choke down the heat from our tiny stove in our struggle to make coffee. Cobwebs clear as I rub sleep from my eyes and the beauty of the Flat Tops registers anew.
The Flat Tops Wilderness Area may not have the classic Colorado saw-toothed peaks that many people expect, so it’s often overlooked. What the area may lack in preconceived notions of mountain beauty, it makes up for in its namesake tabletop plateaus, hundreds of named and unnamed lakes, and thick forests.
In the height of summer, the vast space absorbs people, making them feel like they’re the only ones around. If you experience this, count yourself lucky.