There are multiple Crater Lakes in Colorado. There are also multiple Blue Lakes. And Columbine Lakes. And probably lots of other duplicate names as well. Whoever is in charge of the Colorado Lake Naming Commission needs to up their standards for naming creativity. But it’s probably too late for that now, so I’ll just begin this post by specifying that this is a different Crater Lake than the one I previously wrote about.
This Crater Lake is located outside of Aspen, Colorado in the famous Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. If the name Maroon Bells rings, well, a bell for you it might be because last week’s post was all about these famous mountains. And while watching the sunrise illuminate the Maroon Bells is arguably one of the more popular things to do in this area, there are also plenty of hiking opportunities. Pat and I will definitely be returning many times to complete these various hikes, but for today I’ll talk about one of the shorter and more popular ones: the 3.6 mile (5.8 km) round-trip hike up West Maroon Creek Trail to Crater Lake.
The trail begins along the shore of Maroon Lake, which is a beautiful destination for those not looking to hike.
The trail parallels the shore of Maroon Lake before beginning the 500 foot (150 m) climb to Crater Lake. Above Maroon Lake, the trail enters a grove of the tallest, skinniest aspen trees I’ve ever seen in my life. This entire area is full of aspen trees. Hence the decision to name the town Aspen, I assume.
Shortly after the aspen grove, the forest opens up and the Maroon Bells poke through. Don’t forget to take a moment to pause and look around; there are beautiful views and wildflowers in every direction.
This is one of the rockiest trails I’ve hiked in Colorado, especially towards the end as you cross an extensive section of talus. You won’t be walking over the talus – there is a dirt trail through it – but expect lots and lots of rocks. As someone with bad ankles, this was a challenging section to navigate. This section is also – as of July 2019 – lined with avalanche debris. The trail has been cleared, but the flattened trees remain as a reminder of the harsh winter.
We arrived at Crater Lake at about 5:30pm which – from a photography perspective – was horrible timing. The sun washed out a lot of my photos and the Maroon Bells are in shadow. But even so, this was a beautiful area and we spent about 30 minutes taking in the views before heading back to the trailhead.
I should also mention that the Maroon Bells area is extremely popular, so much so that the Forest Service has implemented some heavy restrictions. The West Maroon Creek Trail leads into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, meaning standard wilderness restrictions apply (including leash requirements for pets, groups size limits, and mandatory overnight camping permits).
Also, during peak season (mid-June through Columbus Day), road access is restricted from 8:00 am to 5:00pm. Only (1) overnight campers, (2) cars with handicap placards or plates, (3) vehicles with more than 12 people, (4) families with children under 2, and (5) cyclists are exempt from these restrictions. All other individuals must park at Aspen Highlands and take the shuttle. Regardless of how you enter, advanced reservations are required.
We had a reservation at Silver Bell Campground, so we were able to drive up the road. If you enter by car, there is a $10/vehicle use fee unless you have one of the Interagency Annual Passes. Silver Bell Campground is one of three small campgrounds located along Maroon Creek Road. Only a few of the sites are reservable; this area fills up ridiculously quickly, so we felt very lucky to have obtained a reservation. To put this into perspective, we were there on July 29th and when I placed the reservation on February 6th it was the last site available for the entire week.
We really loved Silver Bell Campground. It sits in the midst of an aspen grove with the sound of Maroon Creek in the background, and our site was spacious but with plenty of privacy. We didn’t hear much noise from any of our neighbors. There are pit toilets but no potable water, so you’ll have to bring all you need or a water filter. Also, when we woke in the morning our car and tent were completely sticky. Some research tells me it was probably the result of honeydew produced by aphids – which I think is just a fancy way of saying aphid poop. So be prepared for that as well, I guess.
Aphid poop aside, we absolutely loved our time in the Maroon Bells and we will definitely be returning multiple times to complete all the other amazing hikes in this area!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Maroon Lake is at the end of Maroon Creek Road outside of Aspen, CO. As explained above, vehicle access is highly restricted; access is by advanced reservation only
- Fees and passes: if you have an interagency pass, entry is free (but a reservation is still required). If you don’t have a pass, it’s $10/car if you drive yourself in or it’s included in your shuttle fee
- Hiking: 3.6 miles (5.8 km) round trip with 500 feet (150 m) of elevation gain to Crater Lake
- Where to stay: camping is very limited in the area and fills up extremely quickly… definitely have a back up plan if you don’t have a reservation (for example: various lodging options in Aspen)
- Other: there are pit toilets and a water spigot at the trailhead but no other facilities or amenities; stock up in Aspen