Remote. Rugged. Rewarding.
I had just parked my tiny coupe at the end of a long, gravel road in the middle of the Flat Tops Wilderness. It had been a bumpy ride to the trailhead from Yampa, Colorado, but I made it.
Massive plateaus stretched into the sky creating a horizon-esque ridge-line that wrapped around me.
I was at the start of the Devil’s Causeway Loop trail with plans to travel in the clockwise direction. In short, it’s a 10-mile route that gains close to 2,000 feet in elevation.
The real draw of this remote trek is the namesake terrain feature – The Devil’s Causeway – a narrow, exposed land bridge as slender as three feet wide at certain rocky spots. It also happens to be located at roughly 11,800 feet above sea-level.
Flanked by sheer cliffs of 60-80 feet that end directly above steep talus slopes of several hundred more feet, the route is precarious enough to be fitting of its devilish name. While accidents on the route are uncommon, many that track it down feel compelled to turn back without crossing.
The route starts in a lush valley that’s full of life. Birds are chirping. Flowers are in bloom. Snow melt still drips down from the hillside revealing emerald green slopes while filling tiny likely-seasonal pools. The scene is what pops in your head with the familiar line: “over the river and through the woods.” It’s a natural setting so idealistic that it demands appreciation.
Following the first segment of the dirt trail, hikers quickly lose sight of the makeshift parking lot around an early bend and it’s impossible to ignore the remote nature of the Flat Tops Wilderness after that.
The route gradually leads hikers toward the uniform ridge-line that inches closer from above on a trail that’s steeper in sections, but not steep enough to be a deterrent to most.
Eventually, treeline is hit, and shortly after, the ridge-line of a large plateau is reached. Be warned that snowfields tend to accumulate below this ridge, making the route difficult to follow if no tracks are visible – one reason why it’s important to be familiar with the general path of the route beforehand.
This final push leads to the second most rewarding part of this hike – the reveal of a massive plateau.
Upon reaching this point and clamoring over the ridge, it suddenly feels as if you’re standing in the middle of a grassy field that stretches for eternity. This sensation only amplifies as continuing along the trail pulls you further away from the cliffed edge behind you. It’s silent. It’s still. It’s serene.
On a cloudy day, the vast sky seems to push down on you from above, feeling much closer than it really is. There’s no movement in any direction, after all, the wind-scraped plateaus offer no option of vertical growth. Aside from tiny blades of grass whipping in unison and the occasional high-altitude rodent, there’s not much going on up there – and that’s being said in the most positive light possible.
This portion of the hike feels a bit strange. It’s out of the ordinary. Even if you’ve explored high altitude tundras before, they probably haven’t been this flat. They probably haven’t felt this final. Being on top of a plateau in the Flat Tops Wilderness can have you feeling like you’ve somehow stumbled onto the top of the world. It can feel as if you’ve found an edge of the earth.
The route continues across this plateau for some time, a narrow, ever-fading path beaten down by inconsistent use over the decades.
Of course, this portion of the hike is where truly dangerous risks can start to rear their head. Big afternoon storms tend to roll in fast, often filled with deadly lightning, perpetual hail, and ground-ripping winds.
After wandering across the plateau’s tundra for an hour or so, the cliffs start to move into a flanking position alongside the trail. And when the cliffs get closer, it means the Devil’s Causeway is lurking nearby.
The first thing that can be noticed about this land feature during the approach is how the green of the plateau seems to simply fall away around it, giving way to a jagged, rocky path, with sheer drop-offs and seemingly questionable stability.
Upon getting closer, it can be realized how uneven and narrow the path gets. While there’s still enough room on the Devil’s Causeway to walk it with little risk, a small trip could mean death.
Crossing the Devil’s Causeway isn’t inherently difficult. If you’re able to walk across rough, uneven terrain, you’ll physically be fine to complete this portion of the hike. Mentally, it may be a different question.
When I reached the Causeway, there were a number of people that had made the shorter trek up the other side of the loop that I was on. With the narrow land bridge between them and me, a majority of these people weren’t crossing. They were taking pictures and turning around without walking within 10 feet of the surrounding ledges.
While I’d venture to say that most people would be able to overcome their hesitancy upon starting this intense portion of the route, if you struggle from a fear of heights or risk-taking, this portion of the hike might not be for you. Like I said, a fall would probably mean certain death.
As I crossed the land bridge, I noticed a few things that I wasn’t expecting. First, it was a lot more uneven than it appeared in some pictures – so uneven that there were definitely portions when hand-use felt natural.
Second, there was ice. Even though it was a weekend around the 4th of July, some of the rocks on the land bridge still had slick spots. That’s definitely something worth noting, as this means that bringing a traction tool would probably be a good idea. Third, the land bridge was mildly breezy as I crossed. I lucked out. Some accounts of Causeway crossings indicate extremely high wind, likely thanks to the flat nature of the surrounding terrain and the Causeway’s position on a ridgeline. This wind likely whips at gusts capable of pulling one from their footing, ripping one off of the bridge and onto the rocks many feet below.
After crossing the bridge, it’s mostly smooth sailing back to the parking lot. There’s immediately a steep section of loose and potentially muddy terrain, but after that it’s more of the picturesque “over the river and through the woods” setting again until you’re back at the trailhead.
A one-of-a-kind hike that appeals to the adventurous side of the soul, the Devil’s Causeway loop is a rewarding trek through some of Colorado’s most pristine wilderness terrain. If you’re looking for a day-trip adventure, you’ll find it here.
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