I know you all are anxiously awaiting the final installment in the European chronicles, but I’m too excited about this adventure to postpone telling you about it! If you really can’t wait, you check out all of Jason’s photos from our trip here. They should hold you over for a while!
So the story starts a while ago when I committed to running the finish line aid station for the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race and pacing a friend for 26 miles of the Leadville 100 Trail Run. Apparently I never looked at the Leadville website and just assumed I knew when the races were. I only realized my mistake when I was talking to my coworker who was also running Leadville and he informed me that the 100 mile run was August 22 not August 15! That meant that my plan to run the Four Pass Loop in Aspen on August 22 wouldn’t work. After some reshuffling, Jason decided he would volunteer with me at the 100 mile mountain bike race (August 15 not August 8th!) and then we would run the Four Pass Loop on Sunday. The Four Pass Loop is a demanding adventure requiring somewhere around 27 miles of running and 9000+ feet of elevation gain over four 12,000+ foot passes in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. Needless to say you need to be well rested to run it well!
After a full day of standing on our feet and running around supporting the mountain bikers as they finished the race, we were both pooped. We picked up pizza on the way home and were only slightly concerned when we fell asleep to thunderous rain outside. When my alarm sounded at 4am it was still raining! After a quick look at weather.gov, we realized that it was also raining in Aspen and the weather forecast called for 70% chance of thunderstorms all day. Not a good forecast when you’re running above treeline! Very bummed (but secretly a little relieved) we went back to sleep and woke up a couple hours later to very wet ground and cloudy skies. Since the Four Pass Loop wasn’t happening, we decided to try to find something else.
Jason brought up the idea of Devil’s Causeway outside of Steamboat Springs. A quick weather check showed that the rain storms were mostly south of I-70 and that the weather would be clear in the Steamboat Springs area. We did a little research (which involved reading one blog post from someone who never actually made it over the causeway), decided to leave Moose at home since he’s scared to death of heights (but he made his displeasure known and even tried to sneak into the car!), packed up the car and got breakfast on the way. About an hour and a half later we were at the trailhead, ready to start our adventure!
The trail starts out along the banks of Stillwater Reservoir in Flat Tops Wilderness, and is gently rolling enough that a fresh pair of legs could easily eat up the 0.8 miles to the trail split. Our legs were not fresh though, so we walked (or hiked since we were on trail). After registering ourselves in the trail registry, we headed up the East Fork Trail, which alternated between easy and flat and harder and not flat. I wouldn’t say steep, because that part would come later, but it definitely was not just a walk in the woods in spots. After reaching treeline the trail follows a couple of switchbacks up to a pass, again not hard but definitely not easy. After the pass the hard part begins! The trail climbs about 450 ft in only 0.2 miles. That’s the only steep part on the whole trail but it made you appreciate the less steep sections!
After climbing up the steep section of trail, the trail slowly descends towards the Devil’s Causeway, a 0.2 mile section of the trail that follows along what’s left of a spine connecting two flat top mountains. In one section, the trail is only about 3 feet wide and is flanked on either side by 60-80 ft cliffs! To call it airy would be an understatement. If you are at all afraid of heights or exposure then I recommend you plan on either not crossing the causeway or planning on doing the whole loop (instead of an out-and-back) because it can be quite intimidating. I’ve talked to people who had to crawl across on their hands and knees and then refused to go back over it again. Be prepared for the exposure. Luckily I have a small fear of heights but am able to overcome it so I crossed back and forth a couple times to make sure Jason “got the shot”. After we decided that we were going to do the whole loop, I mentioned to him that some of the rocks were a little loose when I stepped on them. He was very glad he had already decided to do the whole loop when I told him that!
After the causeway the trail follows the very softly rolling top of the mesa, alternating between sweeping vistas over the high alpine tundra (the mesa top is at about 11,700 ft) and thick brambles of willows. The flowers had lost most of their splendor, but it was easy to imagine how spectacular they looked a couple weeks earlier, probably carpeting the entire mesa top with their pinks, yellows, and purples. The benefit of being on top of the mesa was we could see weather approaching from any and all directions. For our entire hike we were fine, but we could see storms building around us and made sure not to dawdle. You definitely do not want to get caught in a thunderstorm on top of the mesa because you are the tallest thing around for miles. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t see a promising future for myself as a lightning rod!
After wandering around the mesa top for about an hour, we came to a fork in the trail for the Stillwater trail. I was very confused and concerned because the article I had read said the only intersection we should encounter would be for the Bear River trail. The people who wrote the article had never actually past the Devil’s Causeway, but they had been correct up until that point. And I really didn’t want to think of the possibility that I had gotten us seriously lost! We decided to turn left on the Stillwater trail since that appeared to take us back towards Stillwater reservoir where our car was parked. All the panic was for nothing because we shortly encountered the Bear River trail. So take note: you follow the East Fork trail, which turns into the Chinese Wall trail, then take a left at the Stillwater trail, a left at the Bear River trail, and a right at the trail intersection where you should have registered yourself in the trail registry. Easy peasy!
The rest of the hike was uneventful, mainly because we were both ready to be done. It was quite beautiful, following along a bubbling brook for a while, passing by countless lakes, and eventually meeting back up with Stillwater reservoir. But by that point my face was feeling quite sunburned since I forgot a hat, and we were both thinking more about what we would eat when got home than taking time to appreciate our surroundings.
I’m so glad we made the decision to go to Devil’s Causeway. It was a wonderful hike and after we were done I was really thankful we hadn’t done the Four Pass Loop because I would have been in serious pain. If I were to do the Devil’s Causeway Loop again, I would do it in the opposite direction on fresher legs. The climb to the top of the mesa on the Bear River trail is much more gradual and 99% of it is runnable. It took us 4 hours to complete the loop (3:16 moving time) but that could easy be cut down to about 2 hours of moving time going in the opposite direction. If you are feeling especially adventurous you can add an out-and-back section to see Island Lakes. My rough estimate of a route can be found here on Strava. And here’s a little video from the narrowest part of Devil’s Causeway.