One of Colorado’s most beautiful autumn drives is the Flat Tops Trail, a scenic byway that twists and turns through the rugged mountains between the small towns of Yampa and Meeker. The undisputed highlight of this route is Trappers Lake, a 300-acre alpine lake reached via an eight-mile spur road that branches off just east of where the byway joins the White River.

Although it is relatively unknown, even in Colorado, this sapphire-blue lake has been called “the Cradle of Wilderness” due to the crucial role it played in sparking America’s wilderness movement. This was largely due to the vision and perseverance of Arthur Carhart, a U.S. Forest Service official who in 1919 was assigned to survey the area for the creation of a new resort.

But Carhart became so enamored of the gorgeous lake and its postcard-perfect panoramas that he began to lobby his superiors to preserve the area in its natural state so that it could remain wild forever, according to a 2012 article in the Denver Post. Although it took years for this unorthodox idea to catch on, Carhart persevered, and his efforts finally paid off in 1932, when the Forest Service formally recognized the Flat Tops Primitive Area.

Carhart eventually teamed up with Aldo Leopold, a famous conservationist, and together the two laid the groundwork for the Wilderness Act of 1964, the landmark legislation by which Congress legally defined wilderness and ultimately preserved more than 9 million acres of federal land. Just over a decade later, Trappers Lake and the surrounding area were formally designated the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.

Today, despite a large fire that scorched much of the valley in 2002, Trappers Lake remains a very special place that’s relatively unknown, even to many Coloradans. Best of all, because the lake is located just inside the wilderness boundary, no motorized boats are allowed on its waters, creating a peaceful setting from which to enjoy the abundant sunshine and panoramic views of the surrounding forest and towering volcanic cliffs. It’s an ideal place to savor a picnic, fish for feisty native cutthroat trout, paddle around the lake—or simply sit back and enjoy that serene sense of wilderness.

Visit: Trappers Lake is located in the Flat Tops Wilderness, located in White River National Forest. You can camp at one of five nearby Forest Service campgrounds or stay in a rustic cabin at the Trappers Lake Lodge and Resort, which also rents out non-motorized boats.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at