Maroon Bells' Aspen
Ablaze in September
Maroon Bells consists of two treacherous "fourteeners" (peaks over 14,000 ft.) in the Elk Mountains 12 miles SW of Aspen. They are probably the most photographed mountains in Colorado, especially from the vantage point of looking up Maroon Creek Valley from the edge of Maroon Lake (el. 9580'). My husband, Greg, has hiked a few fourteeners, but after reading about the hardened metamorphic sedimentary sandstone - giving the peaks their reddish tone - which fractures easily and has caused the deaths of a number of hikers, it's not next on his list.
The three mile round trip lakes hike, however, is fairly easy with slight inclines and should take only two hours. The trail passes by Maroon and Crater Lakes allowing you to gaze at spectacular scenery along the way. On the third weekend of September, 2008, we hoped to catch the aspen in full color, but when we arrived, we realized the following weekend would probably be the peak. The timing depends on the weather, but you should be able to see yellow at some point along a Colorado mountain side near the end of September or early October.
Directions From Aspen go a half mile west on hwy 82 to a roundabout and turn onto Maroon Creek Rd. Go 9 1/2 miles to the Maroon Lake parking lot. Only shuttle buses from Aspen Highlands Village (off Maroon Creek Rd.) are allowed between 9am - 5 pm every day from June 20 through Labor Day, then only on Fri., Sat., and Sun. until the snow blocks the roads (usually mid Oct.). So we made sure we got there with our car around 8:30am.
We stayed in Snowmass to save money, but few restaurants were open during the off season, so we drove to nearby Aspen for dinner and shopping.
We happened to be there when Aspen was hosting a rugby tournament. We only watched briefly. It was strange to see green ski slopes. The town is very picturesque, so we enjoyed strolling around in the evenings.
We were fortunate to have a calm day for a clear reflection and the morning sun lit the peaks nicely. Afternoon sun also worked well on our return back from the hike as it lit up both sides of the valley more. The path went to the right side of the photo (above) and approached a thick patch of aspens to the right of the valley (photo below). Not far into the aspen, the trail splits, leading to a bridge and Maroon Creek at the base of the valley on the left or you can stay straight at a higher elevation.
We were surrounded by mountain peaks on either side that were visible along much of the path except where the aspen were thick.
The views were great looking forward and backward. The aspen glowed brilliantly when the sun hit the leaves. I stopped to take photos so often that we added another 45 minutes or so to our hike. This was a path where I wanted to simply stand still to soak up the beauty of nature all around me.
The path had a lot of people on it, but not so many that it made it difficult to take photos without strangers in it. It was along this rock pile that I started to hear strange squeaking noises. Another hiker told me the sounds came from pikas. I looked around, then spotted this little creature that seemed to want a little attention. He allowed me to get within about 4 feet of him for good photos. When he made a slight move to retreat, I backed off.
I was happy to spot a wildflower as we approached Crater Lake almost visible below.
It had been an enjoyable and fairly easy hike to this point and we were almost at the end of our trail.
Crater Lake was small and bordered by rocks and rotting logs. We stopped here for a bite to eat and relax. I loved the view of the mountainsides and changing lighting with the fast moving clouds as we stood near the base of Maroon Bells.
Much of the path was strewn with rocks, but easily passable. I had to be careful not to trip as my gaze was often drawn to the sights all around me. I took many photos of the trees because I loved the white trunks and fluttering green and yellow leaves. We saw a couple of downy woodpeckers, but no elk or mule deer that are supposed to live in the area. It was a great hike and I hope to do it in the summer sometime when wildflowers dot the valley floor.