Hiking in Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness – White River National Forest, Colorado
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is one of the wilderness areas in Colorado that is fast becoming less wild due to its popularity. If you want solitude you will probably be better off finding another place to commune with nature - without a crowd. But how can anyone possibly skip this? Those who have been here can understand why it is one of Colorado’s most heavily visited wildernesses, the stunning beauty of the place is just incredible. You would definitely want to visit here when you see photos of this place on social media. It’s an adventure not to be missed when in Colorado.
MAROON BELLS SCENIC AREA
Maroon Bells Scenic Area lies at the edge of the wilderness, but the Maroon Lake and the peaks of the Maroon Bells as backdrop are the main attraction for most visitors. Needless to say, they are the most photographed peaks in North America. The Maroon Bells' distinctive bell-shape and spectacular reflection on Maroon Lake on a clear day, is an invitation to everyone to embark on a photo session. However, due to the easy access to the lake, it can get crowded at times - about 300,000 people visit this park each season. With such a great stunning landscape how can you not, even Hermann and I can’t get enough pictures of these iconic mountains whenever we come here.
This is an example of mother nature at work. The creation of this beautiful Maroon Valley is due to more than 300 million years of geologic activity, including sedimentation, uplift and erosion by wind, water and ice. The mountains received their distinctive maroon coloring from the weathering of hematite, an iron-bearing mineral while the Maroon Lake below was sculpted by Ice-Age glaciers.
THE WILDERNESS ACT OF 1964
What is now the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was once home to the Ute Indians. Prior to the first arrival of mining prospectors in the Roaring Fork Valley (in what would soon become Aspen) in 1879, the area was their hunting ground for 800 years.
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was one of five original wilderness areas designated in 1964 by the United States Congress (The Wilderness Act now preserves nearly 110 million acres of wilderness across the United States). It was named for the iconic 14,000 foot peaks (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) and the Snowmass Mountain, another 14er. This wilderness was enlarged in 1980 and now comprises over 180,000 acres, the fourth largest wilderness area in Colorado. It contains the Elk Mountains spanning parts of the White River and Gunnison National Forests. The six fourteeners found in this wilderness are considered among the most difficult peaks to climb in Colorado. The wilderness has 100 miles of trails and nine passes above 12,000 feet. Many alpine lakes also dot the area.
Although we live in Colorado, going to Aspen is still a four-hour drive. So, we stay the night or two (outside of Aspen) to be able to start early and be ahead of most of the hikers. If you’re coming from Glenwood Springs, take Highway 82 south toward Aspen until you reach the roundabout, about 40 miles. Follow the Maroon Creek Road exit and keep going until you reach the welcome station, about 4.7 miles, where you pay to go further.
If you start your hike at the Maroon Lake, it’s better to drive early and be at the welcome station before 8:00 am, otherwise you will need to take the shuttle bus. But it's not guaranteed that you will get a parking spot if you were able to drive in early, others might have the same idea as yours. Your best bet is probably to take the shuttle bus.
CLIMBING THE PEAKS
Maroon Bells are popular 14teener in the Elk Range. This is one of "peak baggers" dream, to reach the summit. Although Hermann climbed several fourteeners in Colorado, these are not the ones he would want to climb. The peaks, which are composed of compressed mudstone known as hematite (an iron oxide mineral), have claimed lives over the years. They earned the name “Deadly Bells”. Climbing these peaks is rated Class 3, but even the most experienced can find the climb difficult due to its rough terrain and loose rocks. One article says the South Ridge Route is strenuous, long and steep and will take about 9 to 11 hours to the summit, depending on your physical fitness.
So, if climbing is not your forte, there are plenty of hiking trails here to explore, both for seasoned hikers and for neophytes. We hike here either in Summer or Fall. It is the best times of year to visit when the wildflowers are in bloom or the autumn colors of Aspen trees are at their peak. But you have to time it right, the unpredictable weather of Colorado can spoil your expectations. Every year is different, depending on mother nature's mood. Is that why she's a female and not male?
The Maroom Bells Scenic Area is one of the major access points for wilderness activities such as hiking and backpacking.
MAROON LAKE TRAILS
Most visitors just stay by the Maroon Lake, but there are easy hikes you can take that don’t require a lot of effort.
The Maroon Lake Trail is less than a one-mile easy hike/walk round trip. It follows the west shore of the lake.
Maroon Creek Trail is about 3.5 miles one-way. You might get a chance of seeing wildlife here and there are good views of the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak. This trail is also popular for horseback riding.
The wildflowers in this valley in late spring and golden colors of Aspen in autumn provide plenty of photo opportunities for everyone. Many “leaf peepers” come here during the peak season in autumn, so expect a crowd.
- MORE ADVENTUROUS HIKES -
CRATER LAKE TRAIL – 6.0 mile round-trip
This is a moderate hike and also a popular trail which means plenty of foot traffic. This trail also begins at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. There’s a steep and rocky ascent for the first mile with the trail mostly in the forest, but you will see the view of the valley from a few gaps in the trees.
Keep your eyes open, you might see some Mountain Goats on the slope by the trail. We did! Just don't get too close, wild animals can be dangerous if they feel threatened.
The trail ends at the base of three fourteeners, the Maroon Bells on the west and Pyramid Peak on the east. The Crater Lake is shallow, especially in autumn. Camping here used to be allowed, but is now prohibited by the Forest Service due to the heavy impact in the area.
Most visitors stop here by the lake, but the trail continues for miles over West Maroon Pass and beyond. Also, another trail leaves from here to Buckskin Pass (which Hermann has done several times) and many other destinations. But these options are for seasoned hikers only.
AMERICAN LAKE – 7.0 miles
To get to the trailhead from Aspen, take the roundabout and follow the Castle Creek Road (County Road 15) for about 10 miles then turn right. You arrived at the trailhead, you won't miss it, it's just across from the Elk Mountain Lodge complex.
This is a popular trail for day hikers and backpackers. This is a gorgeous trail in autumn, even at the beginning of the trail the colors are bright and beautiful. And the best part is that there were very few hikers here when we did this hike - they were all at the Maroon Bells.
No warm-up on this trail, it rises steeply for about one and a half miles and then it levels out with periodic easy to moderate ascents.
This trail is mostly through pine forest and aspen groves so views are limited, but the lack of views in autumn compensates for the beautiful bright colors of the aspen groves - as you can see from the pictures. Gorgeous aren't they? As they say, "pictures can say a thousand words". Wait until you reach the lake, great views await.
CATHEDRAL LAKE – 6.5 miles round trip
To get to the trailhead from Aspen’s roundabout, follow Castle Creek Road (County Road 15) for about 12 miles or so, then turn right to Cathedral Lake Road, just past Ashcroft. The gravel road to the trailhead is about half a mile. Parking here is limited and popular in summertime and weekends so it’s best to arrive early.
This is a strenuous hike. The trail climbs for ¾ mile before entering the wilderness, then gets steeper afterwards. You will pass boulder fields and then the final hike to the lake is very steep with serious switchbacks. At the end of the switchbacks there’s a fork on the trail with signs pointing to Electric Pass and Cathedral Lake, follow your heart’s desire. Another half mile and you will finally see Cathedral Lake.
This lake is surrounded by mountain ridges and two towering peaks - Malemute Peak (13,348 ft) on the south and Cathedral Peak (13,943ft) on the west side.
If you have time, and energy, you can extend your hike to Electric Pass (13,485 ft), considered the highest pass in Colorado accessible by trail. You could probably guess why it was called Electric Pass. Colorado is known for lightning, which hits this pass frequently on summer afternoons and it is advised to be off the ridge before noon.
If you are new to camping, be aware of the rules and regulations as well as ALERT notices. There is lots of bear activity in the area and it’s wise to carry bear spray - just make sure you know how to use it. Be mindful of the rules and regulations so that others can enjoy this beautiful wilderness for years to come.
Other wilderness areas nearby you can explore in Colorado: