Hiking the Devil’s Causeway in northwestern Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness Area is one of those experiences in life that makes you say, “Wow!” This is one of the most notorious hikes in Colorado and remains not just one of my favorite Colorado memories, but one of my all-time favorite travel memories.
Before making the trek up the mountain, I had read that people are terrified at the top and that it’s the smallest three feet you will ever see. After standing at the edge of the Devil’s Causeway, I would have to agree—it barely seemed one foot wide and I was certain I’d plunge to my death if I tried to cross it. But it’s one travel memory that remains as vivid today as the day I hiked it back in 1990.
The hike up to Devil’s Causeway is 6 miles if you go up and back the same way, or about 10 miles if you cross the Causeway and take the loop back to the bottom. The hike, which usually rates a 7 or 8 out of 10 in difficulty level, starts at Stillwater Reservoir east of the tiny town of Yampa (south of Steamboat Springs). You take Highway 131 into Yampa, go west on County Road 7 for 7 miles, and then proceed 9 miles on Forest Service Road 900. The road dead ends into the parking area for Stillwater Reservoir trail head.
The trail begins innocently enough. It heads out on the north side of Stillwater Reservoir and cuts across wide valleys filled with wildflowers and stands of tall pine and fir trees. You take the East Fork Trail, enter the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and then pass by Little Causeway Lake. At this point, the hike becomes much more challenging, but don’t take your surroundings for granted. One of the most amazing things about this hike was the beauty around us as we climbed. Remember to stop and look around.
As you pass the Little Causeway Lake, you get your first glimpse of the rock formation known as the Chinese Wall. Over the next mile, you ascend the mountain using a series of switchbacks. As you work your way up the mountain, you climb about a thousand feet and eventually arrive at the narrow strip of land called The Devil’s Causeway.
The Rocky Passage
The Devil’s Causeway is terrifying. I am not exaggerating and I will not apologize for not having crossed that strip of rocky land. As you stand at the edge of the Causeway, you’re 11,800 feet above sea level. The air is thin and I could feel my heart pounding, as much out of fear as from the altitude. The stats on the Causeway change, probably depending on the terror level of the person reporting back. Some say it’s 3 feet wide, but other reports mention 2 feet or 4 feet. I’ve found references that it spans 50 feet, but others claim it is 100 feet across the Causeway. No matter, this 3- or 4-foot-wide strip of rocky land crosses the top of the ridge with cliffs plunging hundreds of feet on each side (again, some say it’s 400 feet while others say it’s 1000 feet; either way, it looks like a long way down when you’re standing on the edge looking down).
Many people (myself included) have every intention of crossing the Causeway, but take photos and turn around to go back down the mountain. Others end up crawling on all fours to get to the other side. There are some things in my life I wish I’d done after the fact, but this isn’t one of them. It was an amazing hike, but I make no apologize for not crossing it. I was more than happy to wave at my husband and his brother and our kids from my perch a few feet away from the edge.
Here’s an amazing video that was recorded by someone crossing the Devil’s Causeway. While photos don’t do it justice, this video is pretty amazing. Hold onto your seats.
If You Go
The trail up to The Devil’s Causeway is usually accessible from late June until early September, although it can vary each year depending on snowfall during the winter. The year we hiked it in mid-July, there was still snow on the ground in places. The path up the mountainside, once you get to the switchbacks, is steep and rugged. There are places where the footing is quite unstable and you need to make sure you have great hiking boots, plenty of water and a trail map before you head out.
Despite how terrifying this narrow passageway might be, it is completely passable. My son, who was about 6 the time, made the hike and even crossed the causeway with his cousin who was about 8 at the time. It really is mind over matter if you decide to cross—just don’t look down.
You should be aware that afternoon thunderstorms are common here in summer. Do not cross the Causeway during a storm or high winds. There is ample room to cross, but it feels much more narrow when you are standing there, looking down hundreds of feet into the valley below. Standing there at the top of the world, looking down at the Valley and across at the endless mountains in the wilderness area, I realized how very small I am in this incredible world in which we live. These experiences are why I travel and continue to explore the unknown. Click here to read about more of my top travel experiences.