Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Why the Maroon Bells are such a popular destination

We’re heading out of Aspen,Colorado to hike around the Maroon Bells, the most photographed peaks in North America.  But we’re not getting there as easily as we did 9 years ago.

It’s 2020, and the COVID pandemic has changed so many things. First of all, we did not make reservations before arriving in Aspen, something we could—and should—have done months ago when first planning our road trip. None of the sites I researched mentioned that fact, but for us this was a must-do.

So we had only one option: Drive to the check-in place in Snow Mass, arrive by 7:00 a.m. and put our names on a wait list in the hope that someone who did have a reservation would not show up that morning. That’s what we did. We were sixth on the list for the shuttle (parking passes were extremely hard to come by) that would take us nine more miles to the Maroon Bells site.

No snow has fallen yet in late September, but the temperature is 34 degrees as we wait outdoors for a possible chance to go. Finally, we get on the 9:15 shuttle (only 15 passengers allowed at a time), and in another 20 minutes we arrive at the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. 

Vehicles are usually allowed to enter before 9:00 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m. During the day, visitors must take the bus from Aspen or the shuttle which conveniently drops you off at the base of the Maroon Bells, located in the White River National Forest. We disembark and follow the trail to Maroon Lake for our first view of the twin peaks.  Because of restrictions, the area is not as crowded as on our previous visit. Happily, that makes taking pictures without stray people much easier.

In the early morning sun, the view is stunning, and reflections are spectacular. The reddish tint of two 14,000-foot peaks contrasts beautifully with bright yellow aspens lining the slopes. With such an irresistible view we can’t stop taking so many pictures.

After walking around Maroon Lake and photographing the scene from different angles, we decide to hike to Crater Lake, just over four miles round trip.  The trail winds through an aspen forest and ascends 600 feet over rocky paths.  The initial incline is moderately difficult, partly because the altitude here is 9,000 feet, and the air has less oxygen.  And because we are almost a decade older, we find it more difficult than our previous hike there. But every bit as spectacular.

Golden-leafed aspens glow in the sunlight, draping the trail in luminous beauty. It’s an excellent fall foliage hike. At one point we look back to see Maroon Lake framed by a clear blue sky and colorful leaf display--a postcard-perfect scene. 

After an hour we arrive at CraterLake, which is surrounded by fallen logs and boggy ground, still a little crunchy from overnight frost.  The water level is low, but that’s normal for the fall season.  Snow melt in spring will fill up the lake again. The weather is surprisingly warm, and we shed layers of clothing, stuffing jackets in our backpacks until they won’t hold any more.  Because the air is dry, we must drink plenty of water.

Before leaving Crater Lake we find a log to sit on and refresh ourselves with some granola bars. A couple of chipmunks come scampering by. Larry puts his half-eaten snack in his backpack and wanders off to take photos.  It doesn’t take long for the chipmunks to find it, steal it away, and finish it off. A crowd of people gathers to watch the cute chipmunks--charming to everyone but Larry, who has lost the rest of his snack.

Upon returning to Maroon Lake, we pause for final views of the peaks. The sun has changed direction, and reflections aren’t nearly as sparkling and clear as earlier in the day. 

We board the shuttle for the ride back to our car and then drive back, arriving in Aspen around 4:00 p.m. Luckily, a local hamburger restaurant is just across the street from our resort, so we indulge in Larry’s favorite meal.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



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