Originally published on October 28th 2013.
Photos and Story By Laurel Miller
Despite having lived in Colorado off-and-on for nearly 20 years, until last month, I’d never managed to hike the famed West Maroon Pass. It’s a rite of passage for Coloradans to day-hike the 12 miles from Aspen to Crested Butte (or vice versa), especially when you consider that the alternative is (an admittedly spectacular) 100-mile drive over the Elk Mountains. In my defense, I’ve had a pre-existing back problem since 1994, and until last year, I wasn’t capable of carrying a fully-loaded pack (unless you’re a local, most hikers opt to spend a couple of days in one or both towns).
Two weeks ago, I decided it was high time to establish my Colorado cred. In mid-summer, the hike attracts locals and attracts visitors from all over the world, who come for the wildflower bloom. In the fall, however, the aspens form a blaze of color, making for one of the nation’s most dramatic—and little-publicized—fall foliage displays.
Few people outside of Colorado associate the state with leaf-peeping, which is why West Maroon Pass is more of an autumnal local’s secret. I convinced my Tahoe-based brother to come out and hike from Aspen to Crested Butte (CB), so we could attend Vinotok (a much-loved CB harvest festival best described as “Slovenian Burning Man”).
If you’re fit and acclimated, the West Maroon trail takes six hours and is moderately strenuous; the Aspen-to-CB route is more difficult due to a one-mile, 1,000-foot ascent to the 12,500-foot summit of West Maroon Pass.
We set out the day after a big rain, and so the first snow of the season dusted the peaks. Regardless of what season you hike the Bells, you need to be prepared for inclement weather; summer in particular means afternoon thunderstorms, so be at the trailhead on either side of the pass by 6am (for trailhead transportation and logistics, see sidebar at end of this post).
In fall, delay your departure until 8am, which makes for a less chilly start (Aspen’s Crater Lake trailhead, which connects to the West Maroon Trail, is at 9,580 feet). Fortunately, we had a bluebird day. As the sun rose over the Bells, it cast a mirror-image reflection upon Maroon Lake. As much time as I’ve spent hiking around this region, I’ve never seen it so arrestingly beautiful. The Maroon Bells and Aspen Highlands are, for me, the most spectacular part of Colorado, and the absence of summer crowds heightens their appeal.
The Crater Lake trail winds uphill for nearly two miles, weaving through forest and a field of granite boulders before forking west onto the West Maroon trail. If you’re hiking in fall, be prepared for a couple of wide, swiftly-flowing stream crossings (Note to self: next time, bring hiking poles and water shoes, and make sure your hiking companion isn’t videotaping your near face-plant).
After passing through evergreen forests, meadows, and alpine tundra, we hit the stark red earth that marks the final ascent to the summit: The views of surrounding peaks and glaciers are well worth the quad-burn to the top. The western slope of the trail down to Schofield Park leads into a valley flanked by meadows, a creek, decrepit miner’s cabins, and stands of aspen and evergreen.
It was at this point that my back flared up. Yet despite the discomfort, hiking the West Maroon Trail served as a reminder of why I’ve made Colorado my home and pursued a dirtbag lifestyle in order to live in these mountains. Discovering that I’m capable backpacking has also opened a new world of outdoor exploration for me: proof that you’re never too old or battered to try something new.
The least expensive method is to arrange a car swap if you don’t plan on doing the return hike. If you’re from out of town, post a notice on Facebook or Craigslist. A Forest Service permit is required for overnight stays.
Crested Butte trailhead
If a car swap sketches you out, Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle offers reasonable rates back to Aspen if you can get six people together ($60/pp). Less than that, it’s incrementally more spendy, but they’re a first-rate company (ask for Craig as your driver). Dolly’s does pick-ups and drop-offs at the Schofield Park trailhead by reservation, for $15/pp. It’s 13 miles (a 40 minute drive) down Schofield Pass to Crested Butte. It’s a glorious drive, but don’t rely upon hitching or hiking, especially during shoulder season; cars are few and far between.
From mid-June to roughly mid-October, the Maroon Bells parking lot is open 9am to 5pm; there’s a $10/day fee for motorists and bus passengers (free to non-motorized transit). The Maroon Bells bus runs year-round from Aspen’s Transportation Center, a 10-mile trip, one-way.
If you’re on a budget but want to kick back for a couple of days, both Aspen and Crested Butte have fantastic hostels that cater more to the outdoor crowd than drunken frat boys. Aspen’s conveniently located, uber-friendly St. Moritz Lodge has dorm beds, as well as private rooms with shared and private baths; breakfast included.
Crested Butte International Hostel is located downtown, and also offers dorms, private, and family rooms. Prices at both hostels vary, depending upon season, but expect to pay $36-$48 for a dorm, high season.
If you’ve got some cash to spare, Crested Butte’s recently renovated, slopeside ski chalet, the Nordic Inn, is my pick. Airy, pet-friendly rooms feature down duvets, and sustainably-sourced building materials like Colorado beetle kill pine. The accommodating staff will treat you like you’re a guest in their home. From $249, high season.
The Lodge at Mountaineer Square is a full-service ski-in hotel that also gets major kudos for service and style.
Aspen’s funky Limelight Hotel will shatter any preconceived notions you may have that only Platinum Card® holders are welcome in this tony ski town. In addition to stellar service, a bomb inclusive buffet breakfast, and slope-side location, the Limelight boasts killer shoulder season deals, high-tech green construction, and the best happy hour deals in town (think $10 pizzas, drink specials, and live music).
If you’ve got some bills burning a hole in your hiking shorts, take advantage of the Limelight’s Aspen-Crested Butte package, which includes two nights at the hotel, and two at the Nordic Inn. Included is free private transportation to/from both trailheads, and use of a Spot Satellite GPS Messenger for distress calls. For an additional fee, they’ll also provide you with a mega-bag of Whole Foods-sourced trail snacks, and secure, underground parking. Transit to/from Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is free for all guests.
Options for the return to Aspen are via shuttle or a private, A-Star Eurocopter or Cessna Caravan flight over the mountains. Both flights may be extended for additional exploration and sightseeing. The package runs during the “dry” months, typically June through mid-October.
Tip: In Aspen, swing by Louis’ Swiss Bakery for great breakfast burritos, pre-made sandwiches, or pastry. You haven’t lived until you’ve had one of their meat pies, made with grassfed beef from owner/head baker Felix Tornare’s down-valley ranch. Closed Sundays.
Laurel Miller is a Colorado-based food and travel writer and cheese consultant, the co-author of Cheese for Dummies, and a contributing editor at culture: the word on cheese. Crested Butte is her happy place.
For more from Laurel Miller click here.