Trappers Lake – 10 years after the fire
September 7, 2012
TRAPPERS LAKE, Colo. – It had been a decade, nearly to the day, since wildfire ravaged one of my favorite places in western Colorado – Trappers Lake.
It was mid-August 2012 and I found myself with some unexpected time off and a last-minute reservation for a century-old guest cabin at Trappers Lake Lodge and Resort. The tiny, spartan log cabin was, in fact, the one I’d stayed in during my first visit to Trappers, back before the Big Fish Fire of 2002 altered the landscape to such a degree that five years later, I was stunned by the sight when I finally paid my first post-fire visit there.
This time, I knew what to expect. I was better prepared to embrace the altered landscape and anxious to see what had transpired 10 years after the inferno in a place dubbed the “Cradle of Wilderness.” As the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approaches, no place is more fitting to pay homage to the concept than Trappers Lake. There, in the summer of 1919, a prescient, young Forest Service engineer, Arthur H. Carhart, was assigned to make a survey of the area and plot several hundred homesites around Trappers, as well as a road ringing the lake. He completed his work, but made it known to his supervisor that he opposed improvements that would mar the natural beauty of the place.
The agency ultimately agreed Trappers Lake should remain roadless, and that the many applications for homesite permits should not be honored. It was an unprecedented step, making Trappers something of a birthplace for the wilderness idea.
Today, it’s the 5.3-mile Carhart Trail that rings the lake, and the hike is my traditional first-day outing every time I visit. Five years ago, I was in a state of shock, grieving what had been lost.
While lingering evidence of a stunning summer of wildflowers was everywhere during my fall 2007 visit, I saw startlingly few signs that the forest might recover. Mature stands of lodgepoles, along with Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir, once predominated around the lake, but the forest floor was almost devoid of saplings, except in the vicinity of trees that had been spared by the intense flames.
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This time, pockets of lodgepole, some waist high, dotted the sunny forest floor in various places. I saw new spruce and clusters of young aspen. Come autumn, I was told, flecks of gold appear around the lake as diminutive aspens suddenly claim prominence.
The other noticeable change was the number of trees that had fallen since my last visit. Millions of snags are still standing, to be sure, but the forest floor is a nearly impenetrable tangle of charred, toppled trees and I marveled at the muscle that must go into clearing the trails each spring in the more than 22,000 acres that succumbed to the momentous fires of 2002.
Lightning sparked the Big Fish Fire, which burned 17,056 acres in and near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, including the land ringing Trappers Lake. The blaze also took out part of the historic lodge near the lake’s northern tip. Nearby, the Lost Lakes Fire, also started by lightning, consumed another 5,538 acres.
The Forest Service let the Big Fish Fire burn to clear up an old, decadent forest, but it must have been a major “oops” moment for the agency when the fire jumped quickly in size, ignored the wilderness boundary and consumed the old, main lodge, built in 1918. Had I’d been consulted, I’d have urged suppression of fire in the Cradle of Wilderness, but that’s just me.
The main lodge building, actually a restaurant, has been rebuilt, and most of the rustic guest cabins were sparred. The property sits just outside of the wilderness area, making it the perfect portal for blissful days of hiking, fishing, canoeing, horseback riding and hunting. Though the lodge accommodations were full, and there’s a campground near the lake, I found myself alone or virtually so in the vast expanse of a wilderness area that’s unlike any other I’ve seen.
Even at the lake, which contains the largest population of Colorado River cutthroat trout in the state and probably the world, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic research scientist Kevin Rogers, I stood on the shore one evening without another angler in sight.
Charred, upright trees across the water softened in the fading light, like whiskers outlining the undulations of the hillsides, and the Amphitheatre, the most prominent of the rocky buttes that reflect in the glassy water, remained bathed in verdant hues where the fire did not penetrate. One of the lake’s fabled trout shattered the calm and the only cutthroat I would catch on that trip was soon squirming in my net.
The lake, within the wilderness boundary, is at about 9,600 feet in elevation, but the true Flat Tops are above the Chinese Wall, an imposing cliff band that loops around three-quarters of the lake. Three drainages offer routes to the Flat Tops from the lake, via the Wall Lake, Trappers Lake and Stillwater trails. All are worth hiking and afford the opportunity for an all-day loop across the stunning plateau.
Don’t look for fourteeners in this wilderness. Rather, rocky peaks push upward perhaps 1,000 feet from a vast expanse of subalpine meadows and alpine tundra, crisscrossed with streams and dotted with lakes. The walking is easy once on top and crisp fall days produce an amber landscape beneath impossibly blue skies at 11,000-plus feet.
Above Trapper’s Lake, the Flat Tops appear just as they always have to me, though ancient skeletal spires still point skyward – spruce and firs killed by a beetle epidemic in the 1940s.
The Flat Tops, like all wilderness, is ever evolving. I must embrace it on its terms.