It’s hard to think of a more perfect place for gazing at purple mountain majesties than the Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado. I mean, maroon is essentially purple, right? The only way to make it better is to add an extra color in there… say… the golden color of aspen trees, as they turn in the fall. Here’s a look at what a day of hiking is like in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, near the peak of fall color.
I greatly prefer shooting sunsets, as opposed to sunrises, for one very obvious and simple reason: sunrises come early. There’s nothing more difficult to do while on vacation, than to get out of bed two hours before daybreak, dress yourself in several layers of clothing, stumble out into the cold darkness, drive to a promising spot, and then sit and wait for the earth to rotate. But, sometimes it’s worth it.
It’s definitely worth it, when you’re in Aspen. The often-photographed Maroon Bells are at their peak of beauty when the first rays of sunlight dance atop the peaks. On this day in early October, 2014, I wasn’t lucky enough to catch a perfect reflection in the lake…
… as I did in 2012. If you want to take this picture, you absolutely, positively, must get up early.
Back in 2014, I was freezing my fingers off, as I stood beside the lake with several dozen other photographers. Once the initial alpenglow had passed, I retreated to my car, where I blasted the heat and took an uncomfortable, but wonderful, nap.
About an hour after sunrise, I was ready for a day of hiking around the Maroon Bells Wilderness. The mountains already looked different than they did at dawn.
So did the aspen trees. There’s a good-sized grove of them near the start of the trail to Crater Lake, the next lake up the hill. I tried to shoot photos that showed the leaves, and not the barren trees, but it was obvious that I was about a week late for the peak of color here. (In case you’re wondering, I was here on October 7, 2014 — but in that year the leaves were running late, which probably means in an average year, your best bet for catching the peak of fall color at Maroon Bells is in the last two weeks of September.)
Back in 2012, I had a wonderful day hiking here, and I was more than happy to retrace those same steps and see the same things. Of course, this time, thanks to the fall leaves, everything would look somewhat different. So, I set off on the trail up to Crater Lake.
Once I passed through that initial patch of aspen color, the trail took me through forests of evergreen, and the occasional yellow tree. This part of the trail has only limited, occasional views of the nearby mountains, thanks to all the trees.
Just before arriving at Crater Lake, the trail passed through a patch of trees which had already lost their leaves. It was still beautiful and photogenic to see all the leaves on the ground.
Maroon Lake (the lake nearest the parking area) may not have had a glassy surface, but much to my surprise, Crater Lake did!
I walked around the north end of Crater Lake for this photo. This end of the lake is littered with logs, and there’s no clear path around to the left side.
I did find some colorful birds here.
Back around at the official trail, which skirts the western side of Crater Lake…
… I discovered this scary-looking nub of a tree branch on a fallen log. Is it just me, or is it freaking you out too?
The trail continues beyond Crater Lake…
… up onto a scree slope, consisting of rocks that add pinks and purples to the already colorful landscape. The trail gains some elevation as it skirts around the base of the first of the Bells…
… then passes through a wooded area and campground…
… before dropping down slightly, and rounding another scree slope.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a pika! Even if you don’t see them, you’ll hear them.
I decided to turn around at the base of the second Bell. From here, the trail continues south, as it heads up West Maroon Creek, and then eventually up to Maroon Pass. I’m not sure how much further it is to the pass, but I do know that it requires an elevation gain — from this spot — of about 2,000 more feet. I’m sure the view from the pass would have been stunning, but I was already getting tired…
… so I turned around and headed back. Of course by now it was mid-day, which meant the sun was to the south, and everything to the north was beautifully lit. I took my time and enjoyed the return hike.
Back near Maroon Lake…
… I spent more time focusing on the aspen trees that still had their leaves…
… or at least some of their leaves. I wish I had been here for the peak of fall color, but this was still quite nice.
And, many of the mountains that surround Maroon Lake are colorful year-round!
By mid-afternoon, I was back where I had started at 7 a.m. The Maroon Bells no longer looked purple, they looked grey. It’s unfortunate that so many people will take an afternoon bus, and see the mountains like this, and that will be their only experience. I beg you, get up early!
The aspen trees at Maroon Lake may have been slightly past their peak, but the trees along the road were perfect! I stopped several times on the drive back to Aspen to enjoy these fall colors.
The Bottom Line
When in Aspen, visit the Maroon Bells. Arrive early. Hike as far as you want — but at least try to make it up to Crater Lake. If you can, try to visit during the fall colors.
The Maroon Bells Wilderness, and the famous mountains with the same name, are located outside Aspen, Colorado. From downtown Aspen, head west on Route 82, across the bridge and into the roundabout. Take the exit to Maroon Creek Road, and drive to the end — about 9 miles.
To ease congestion on this road, it is closed to traffic during the day during summer months. You can take a shuttle bus to access the area. Alternatively, you could arrive early (the road remains open to vehicles from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.). You’ll need to pay a $10 fee (National Park annual passes are accepted). This really is the best option, so that you can be at the lake for sunrise, when the water is glass-like and reflective.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive back from the Maroon Bells, into Aspen: