Maroon Bells Recreation Area, Colorado
The Maroon Bells, reflecting in the mirror-like surface of Maroon Lake, form a scene that epitomizes the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. From Maroon Lake, you can see into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness—a pristine natural environment where miles of hiking trails lure backpackers into the beautiful backcountry. In fact, backpackers and hikers alike consider this place a nirvana, because even the casual hiker can venture down a path amid the towering peaks and alpine lakes—no need for a tent.
Once you arrive at Maroon Lake, a crystal clear lake sculpted by glaciers, follow the short Maroon Lake Trail that leads from the bus stop or parking lot for a closer view of the meadow and lake. This 1.0 mile roundtrip hike provides stunning views of the Maroon Bells and the red rock towers of Sievers Mountain.
It is quite possible to spend the day relaxing by the lake, enjoying the grandeur of the towering maroon sentinels, but the more adventurous might enjoy the Crater Lake Trail. This 3.6 mile roundtrip hike travels through aspen groves and alpine tundra to Crater Lake, another pristine lake that glistens under the Colorado sun. The trail is often described as steep and rocky, which it is to some extent, but if you want a taste of Aspen’s famed backcountry with little time and effort, then wander down this popular path. However, should you become concerned that you are not meeting the challenge of the Deadly Bells, fear not—the hike is indeed steep in spots, so you can be sure that you have earned these spectacular views.
When we began our hike up the trail, we immediately noticed an abundance of wildlife—we had just entered the aspen forest when we caught a glimpse of a weasel in the underbrush, followed by sightings of squirrel, swallows, and a beautifully colored western tanager. These sightings, along with the superb views from the trail, combined to make this a very enjoyable hike.
As we neared the basin that cradles the lake, we entered the rocky terrain of the alpine tundra—several unique plants and animals call the tundra home, including the pika. Listen when you stop to catch your breath while passing through this zone and you will most likely hear the high-pitched chirp of this rabbit-like animal. Once you hear their call take a quick scan of the rocks and you will see them busily scurrying about gathering food for storage—pika have always provided us with unlimited entertainment while hiking through a high altitude paradise.
Once you leave the pika behind it won’t be long before you reach your goal—just a few more switchbacks, and a little more climbing through the ancient rockslide that holds Crater Lake, and you will finally reach your destination. Your reward for climbing is a more intimate view of the awe-inspiring Maroon Bells, including 14,165 foot Maroon Peak, which makes for the perfect day hike.
Crater Lake, at 10,076 feet, is the ideal setting for a post hike nap in the sun, or for a well deserved picnic—but we didn’t stop for either, we opted to venture a little further down Maroon Pass in hopes of getting closer views of the waterfall that we could see from the shores of the lake. Unfortunately, we never really got much closer to the falls, but the hike down Maroon Pass Trail benefited us in another way, it got us away from the more crowded area around Crater Lake.
As we hiked around the area in search of the waterfall, we found a side trail that led us to a large hill of boulders that was home to several yellow-bellied marmots. We stayed at the boulders for several minutes and watched the marmots sun themselves, and we listened as they whistled their warnings to anything in ear shot.
After enjoying the antics of the marmots, we made our way back to Crater Lake—the light was beautiful, and the surface of the lake was so smooth that it practically reflected the entire mountain vista. Adding to the beauty of the day was the fact that the sun was shining brightly, the trees were swaying in the breeze, and people were enjoying their time at the lake—indeed, a perfect summer day. We hated to leave, but it was time to head back down the trail.
We arrived back at Maroon Lake and took another stroll on the path that skirts the shore. Earlier, while hiking this shoreline trail we had spotted a ptarmigan and her chicks and we wanted to see if she was still in the area, and indeed, she was. So we set up our equipment and photographed her as she foraged in the tall grass, and then just as she was disappearing into the underbrush a flock of Canada Geese settled in along the shore of the lake. Their timing was perfect, which allowed us to turn our attention in their direction without having to reposition our cameras—several frames were shot of our new feathered subjects before it was time to head back to the bus stop.
As we sat waiting for the bus we reviewed our photos (don’t you just love digital!) with smiles on our faces. After all, nothing beats a day of fantastic hiking and photography in the great outdoors, particularly when it is spent in a setting as grand as the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.