Hiking to Crater Lake at Maroon Bells

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Once you’ve spent a while at Maroon Lake, you’ll probably be looking for an escape from the crowds.  The hike up to Crater Lake won’t provide total serenity, but it does offer a chance to leave some of the most casual tourists behind, while enjoying a walk through aspen forests to another beautiful mountain lake.

Watch for the trailhead to Crater Lake, about halfway up the path that leads along the side of Maroon Lake.  It’s about 1.8 miles, one way, from here to Crater Lake, and since you’ll probably hike a bit further than the lake, you can expect this trip to be about 4.5 miles or so, depending on your level of ambitiousness.

Early on the trail, you’re gaining elevation at a steady pace.  It’s not too difficult a climb, and it’s remarkably relaxing, thanks to all those shimmering aspen leaves that surround you. Views are somewhat limited, but if you could see, you’d be looking down on Maroon Creek, at the area covered by the scenic loop.

A few foot bridges take you across trickling streams…

… and you’re sure to spot some flowers blooming, if you visit during late spring or early summer.

Those tall aspens envelop you for quite a while…

…until you finally break free…

… and pass through the ancient rockslide that impounded Crater Lake.  The trail is rocky in places, and involves some ups and downs, but it’s just enough to make it fun, and not enough to make it difficult.

The trail reaches Crater Lake at its northeastern end.  A few old tree skeletons provide some good spots to pose for photos.

The trail skirts the northwest side of Crater Lake.  At this point, you’re getting much closer to the Maroon Bells peaks.

Follow the shoreline to the upper end of the lake.  Beyond here, the trail continues for several more miles, all the way to West Maroon Pass.  If you hiked all the way to the pass and back to the parking area at Maroon Lake, you’d be covering about 13 miles — probably too much for the casual hiker to cover in one day.  But it’s still a good idea to go a little further.

Looking back to the northeast, this is where you just came from.  In this direction, you’re facing the town of Aspen, and the Maroon Creek valley.

Keep hiking to the upper end of Crater Lake, and you’ll pass through a marshy area, where water flows into the lake.  You can keep your feet dry…

… but you may need to balance on a log, to get across the creek.  At this point, the Bells don’t look quite the same as they did, further down the valley.  You really are directly underneath them.

Look closely at the photo above, in the upper-right corner, and you can see a waterfall.

Here’s what it looks like through the zoom lens.  I don’t think you can easily hike to this one, but it is close enough that you can hear it.

Keep hiking up the valley…

… and you’ll pass by the lower end of a talus slope.  Look straight up the rocks…

… and you’ll see another cliffside waterfall.

Yes, you can climb up to it!  The hike would be exhausting, for sure, but I did spot several people attempting it.

And just imagine the reward for making it to the top: your own private grotto, where you could walk underneath and behind the cascade.  Of course, it probably wouldn’t stay private for long.  Someone else would certainly show up.

I made it a little further up the valley, into another rockslide area, where I found a great place to sit, unpack a lunch, and relax.   My perfect spot had a fantastic view of Crater Lake…

… and the mountains behind it.  Who would have guessed that one of the most beautiful views of the day would be in the opposite direction of the Maroon Bells?

On the hike back down to Crater Lake, I seriously considered tackling that talus slope up to the waterfall.  It would have been a tough slog — essentially, a staircase of uneven, wobbly rock, up a 50 story building (or maybe more).  I really did come close to trying it, but at the last moment, I turned away, and kept heading downhill.

Back at Crater Lake, I spent some time exploring the marshy area where water flows in.

There are some beautiful patterns cut into the grass here.  And now that it was early afternoon, Pyramid Peak to the east was looking great.

Eventually I left Crater Lake, hiked back down to Maroon Lake, and back to the car.  By that time, I was very proud of my first-in-the-lot parking space.  Despite the restriction on cars during the day, the parking lot was full, and shuttle buses were dropping off even more people.  The crowded scene convinced me that the only good way to visit Maroon Bells is to arrive as early in the day as possible.

The popularity of the Maroon Bells has led to some strict rules. Traffic is restricted to non-motorized vehicles on Maroon Creek Road from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (incoming traffic only — if you drove in before 9, you can drive out any time). During the day, a shuttle bus runs from Highlands (the last cluster of businesses on Maroon Creek Road) to the lake. The buses run every 20 minutes, and the charge is $6 per adult, children and seniors $4. If you want to arrive early for the best light and calmest waters, you can drive, but you’ll need to pay a $10 recreation fee, or display your National Parks Pass. The toll booth opens at 7 a.m. — before then, you’re on your honor to use the self-pay envelopes (so don’t forget to have exact change with you).

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