Thousands of tourists flock to Maroon Lake near Aspen every summer and fall to experience a Rocky Mountain high of intense natural beauty. I too have been drawn to the lake many times over the last twenty years to gaze upon the lofty peaks that watch over this clear mountain lake. Even though the lake is fairly crowded, most folks don’t mind.
However, to break away from the crowds, all you have to do is take the trail less travelled up to Crater Lake, and beyond. Most of the visitors to the lake walk the “Maroon Lake Trail”, or the Scenic Loop trail. If you decided to explore the Crater Lake trail and get away from one of the most popular destinations near Aspen, come out on a warm day June through September to catch the Maroon Bells Lake at its best.
A great hike
Immerse in the beauty of Mother Nature as you set forth your journey at the Maroon Bells. You might see blue grouse crossing the road or trail. Be sure to have your camera ready as this isn’t the only wildlife seen in the area. Deer, Pica, eagles and bear might be glimpsed on your hike.
The 1.8 mile hike, each way, can be made by most anyone in reasonable shape, and most can do it in about an hour and twenty minutes. I saw a woman in her 70’s walking slow and steady on the hike up to Crater Lake. She said as we passed her “The young ones have gone on ahead, but I’ll catch up eventually.” and I bet she did. Be forewarned that it is a rocky trail and good footwear is important.
Up at the rock slide is where the trail is near its highest point and you will probably hear the familiar chirping of a pika (the resident rodent of the high altitude rocks). Picas are a favorite high country critter. You will almost always hear them before you see them as they play a game of hide-and-seek in the rock piles where they live. If you have a telephoto lens and are lucky, you might just get a good picture of one here.
A wide and beautiful view
As you come into view of Crater Lake, the lake itself is a little short of full-water lately, and not spectacular, but the setting is. Here, you get right up close and personal with the Maroon Bells and it is perfect for photography of these towering peaks. After arriving at the lake, there are many shady spots in the aspens for eating your picnic lunch. Enjoy the sound quaking aspens make as they serenade you with their song born on the breeze. An occasional camp robber bird or chipmunk might take interest in your picnic and adds charm to the setting. You might see several or few other hikers on the trail depending on the time of day and time of year you go.
Who's that looking at you through the trees?
For those that want a longer hike, the trail goes all the way to Crested Butte if you can handle six to eight hours of high country exercise. For most hikers, it’s enough doing 3.6 miles (5.8 km), but if you want more, head back down and try the trail at the far end of Maroon Lake. This is a good place to go in search of wildlife along the cascading Maroon Creek. You might find a face to face encounter with mule deer in the thick aspens. Bear are sometimes seen in the area but seldom cause trouble with hikers. If you see a bear, don’t run. It’s best to stand your ground raising your arms above your head yelling and making noise to scare the bear away. Moose are becoming more frequent visitors to the lakes and on occasion, the forest service closes trails when they are in the area to protect both moose and people.
More than one way to do the trail
Trail rides on horseback are popular and Maroon Bells Outfitters on the way up Maroon Creek Road offers several options from the T Lazy 7 Ranch. If you want to ride all the way to Crested Butte, they offer a two day package. You get to ride all day and are deposited in Crested Butte for dinner and breakfast on your own. The next day, ride back over to the Aspen side and have stories and photos that will last a lifetime. There is nothing like a trail ride through these aspen groves. If you want a shorter ride, check out their website (below) or give them a call to find an adventure fitting your desire.
Anglers do well in the morning and late day fishing either at Maroon Lake or Crater Lake too. You can stop in one of the local fly fishing shops for tips on what fly to use and which kind of license to buy. With a little bit of local advice, your fishing trip is sure to be a good one.
In the glow of aspens
You can also choose to hike the East Portal Trail for an hour or two if you don’t mind the lack of a lake view. It’s on the left side of Maroon Creek Road on the way up to Maroon Lake. This is one of the prettiest trails for a great day-hike between alpine meadows and a canopy of aspen trees. These groves of aspens engulf you in a golden glow during the fall color season while their gilded leaves flutter to the ground weaving a tapestry of color on the forest floor. To catch the best colors, plan on hiking this trail in mid-September to mid-October. It is rarely crowded as most of the visitors to the Maroon Bells go up to the lake. To avoid thunderstorms and their deadly lightning during the summer, it’s best to start your hike around 7 or 8 am or in the late afternoon.
When to visit the Maroon Bells
If you go during the warm months of May-October, plan ahead to make the most of this spectacular Rocky Mountain paradise. Winter brings a different type of experience to the Maroon Bells, but that would be a whole new story. During the peak months of summer most cars are not allowed on the road. Ride the RFTA bus up from Aspen or get permission to drive with your camping permit and bring your car into the park. Summer is the best time to ride a bicycle as vehicle traffic is light. You can rent a bike in Aspen and ride approximately twenty two miles, depending on your start and finish point, up Maroon Bells Road. However, once you see the Maroon Bells Lake, you will see why it was named “the most photographed place on the planet” by Eastman-Kodak. I predict you will return again and again to take in this Rocky Mountain high like the rest of us who have tasted its bliss.
Here are the hiking trails and distances at Maroon Lake:
• Maroon Lake trail – 1 mile, round trip
• Scenic Loop trail – 1.5 miles round trip
• Maroon Creek trail – 3.2 miles, one-way
• Crater Lake trail – 3.6 miles, round trip
Camping ground options at Maroon Bells:
• Silver Bar – 4 tent sites only, walk-in sites
• Silver Bell – 14 sites, 2 including 2 RV/tent, 6 tent only and 6 walk-in
• Silver Queen – 6 sites, can accommodate RVs