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Situated above the Poudre Canyon in the Arapaho National Forest, Kelly Flats is a scenic, rugged, and challenging 4x4 trail offering steep ascents and descents, rock obstacles, water crossings, lush meadows, and picturesque mountain views. This trail can prove unnerving for beginning off-road drivers, as well as challenge even the most seasoned veteran. Gather your buddies, grab your recovery gear, and head out to this extremely popular trail.
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Kelly Flats is a straight-through trail that can be run in either direction but is most commonly run starting at the Poudre Canyon, Highway 14. The trail starts out extremely rough for the first mile with a rocky ascent, followed by several small sections of protruding rock, passing a few camping spurs, and approaching the daunting Heart Attack Hill obstacle. This steep hill climb is peppered with large, loose rocks, and traction can be extremely difficult. Lifting a tire off the ground on occasion can certainly be expected while traversing this dangerous hill.
After conquering the hill climb, the trail mellows out considerably and passes through private property, before entering national forest again and offering an optional rock crawling obstacle known as "The Chutes", halfway through the trail. The last 5 miles of trail trek through thick pine forest and open meadows, crossing several rocky descents, a few mud pits, and a couple of stream crossings.
This trail is best suited for modified vehicles. Factory vehicles driven by an experienced off-road driver, and equipped with lockers and winches, could safely complete this trail with minimal undercarriage damage.
The trail begins on the north side of the Poudre Canyon Highway, directly across from Kelly Flats Campground. A large parking area here provides ample trailer park and is the perfect place to gather a group and air down for the trail. Directly past the kiosk, you will pass through the seasonal gate and the trail will immediately become rocky.
The first rock obstacle provides users with an idea of what to expect along the trail. There are only two legal lines up this obstacle; one to the far left over a 14" ledge, and one directly up the center, over several undulating rocks ranging in size from 8''-16''. Any line on the hillside to the right you might see is illegal and should not be traveled. Please remember to travel only designated routes and do not create bypasses, as such actions can result in permanent trail closure.
At a Y-intersection, you can clearly see the hardest part of the trail straight ahead. To tackle Heart Attack Hill, veer slightly left. The bypass route down 168C is not much of a bypass, as users will still be required to travel a steep hill with loose rocks and tall, protruding boulders.
A faint road to the far left, heading west leads to a grassy, level campsite, ideal for one or two vehicles.
This optional obstacle is a short, up-and-over climb across mounds of dirt and rock and a great place to test suspension articulation. The obstacle can be bypassed by staying on the east side of the trail.
As you begin your assault on this steep, rocky hill climb, remember that constant momentum is your friend. This does not mean speed, just continuous movement forward. There are many lines of travel up the hill, none of which are easy. The far left side of the hill offers the shortest ledges but is a mix of loose dirt, gravel, and small baseball-sized rocks, making traction extremely difficult if you were to stop. Other lines across the hillside offer two-foot vertical ledges and steep slabs of granite covered in gravel. This is a dangerous hill, and mistakes here can lead to rollovers and end in serious tragedy. Confidence is a must here, and experience is highly recommended.
As you approach the top of the hill, you will notice the last rise is covered in concrete. The reason behind this is unknown. As the trail levels off, you trek along the grassy ridgeline and are greeted with spectacular mountain views.
At a T-intersection, continue north as 168C reconnects from the east. At this intersection there is a small campsite under the tree that is extremely unlevel and best for vehicle camping. The site is only large enough for one vehicle.
The trail splits briefly at a short, 5-yard-long rock obstacle suitable for any high clearance vehicle. At this point, the trail smooths out significantly, and 4wd will not be needed again for some time.
The trail transitions into a well-maintained gravel road as you cross through private property and pass several houses along the roadside. These houses have a private gated access road from the north. Private roads and driveways are well-marked here, making it hard to get lost. Please respect the local homeowner’s private property rights and drive in a cautious, respectful manner.
After exiting the section of private property, dispersed camping is once again allowed. At a faint Y-intersection, the main trail continues to the north. The grassy meadow ahead offers a small, secluded campsite good for one or two vehicles.
The Chutes is a 300-foot-long optional obstacle that splits off from the main trail and rejoins just around the corner. This obstacle is a narrow, rocky channel carved through towering granite walls and is best suited for modified vehicles. Body damage and mechanical breakage are a high likelihood on this obstacle. Parking areas at the top and bottom of the obstacle allow plenty of spectators to gather and not block the trail.
The first part of The Chutes is the rocky V-notch climb, while the second part chokes down barely wide enough for a vehicle. Long-wheelbase vehicles have an increased likelihood of body damage as they attempt to snake through the tight turns and navigate the narrow passageway. Once exiting The Chute, intersect with the main road once again and turn uphill to the left.
Veer right at the entrance to a private residence. Some maps show two public roads here, but rest assured, there is only one, and the private residence is well-marked and gated. Immediately after the gate, drop down a series of granite rock slabs. Some years, erosion here will create deep trenches that will stock-size tires and flex your suspension to the max.
Descend an eroded, undulating granite slab or take the smoother, dirt path down the hill and continue forward.
This area is well-known for deep erosion ruts after heavy rainfall.
A newly appearing mud bog has created a deep, vehicle-swallowing hole filled with logs and tree debris. The mud is the consistency of concrete and binds itself to every component it touches. There are plenty of trees here to winch to, and please remember, you should always use a tree saver when winching to trees.
Pass through a wide creek crossing and clean that undercarriage of mud. This tributary of Elkhorn Creek is a hard bottom creek crossing around 18" deep. Remember to stay in the main channel and do not attempt to create bypasses.
Pass through the Elkhorn Creek tributary again, through another hard-bottomed, 18" crossing.
As you enter the burn scar of the 2020 Cameron Peak fire, you will be required to navigate a deep, rutty section of the meadow. The far right side is the deepest tire ruts, while the center offers wide ridges that avoid the ruts altogether. A newly created bypass, through the grass to the far left is illegal. Remain on the main trail and avoid creating bypasses.
Descend the final switchback of the trail, where erosion has carved a few shallow channels resulting in slight suspension articulation. As this is entirely within a burn scar, be aware that heavy rains could cause additional erosion in this switchback.
The trail comes to an end as you pass through a seasonal gate and intersect with Manhattan Road. There is a small parking lot here that can accommodate about six vehicles. Turning right and heading north on manhattan Road will lead you to Red Feather Lakes. Turning left and heading south will take you into Rustic.
Dispersed camping is allowed throughout most of the trail, but users must be aware of several private property boundaries you pass through along the trail. Camping is not permitted on private property. Please refer to the Forest Service MVUM for allowable camping areas.
Ideal campsites can be found at Waypoints 3, 7, and 10.
If a more formal camping location is your desire, established US Forest Service campgrounds are abundant throughout the Poudre Canyon. In fact, the campground across the highway from the trailhead is known as the Kelly Flats Campground. This campground is first come first served and sees heavy use during the summer months. During hot, dry summer months, the Roosevelt National Forest often times has a fire restriction or fire ban in place, which would prohibit open camp fires in dispersed camping locations. Know before you go.
Head north on Highway 287 about 10 miles west of Fort Collins. Head west on Colorado Highway 14, the Poudre Canyon Highway, and travel about 25 miles. Kelly Flats 4x4 Road begins on the north side of the road at mile marker 97.
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