Hiking The Maroon Bells and Maroon Bells Lake
Aspen is a well-known ski area in Colorado. And while it is popular in the winter, it is also an incredible summer and fall destination. Up in the mountains around Aspen are stunning views and incredible hikes. One of these hikes is to the Maroon Bells in the White River National Forest.
These two fourteeners tower high above Maroon Lake. On a calm day you can catch the reflection of the bells in Maroon Lake below. The clear water of Maroon Lake creates a breathtaking reflection of the Maroon Bells above. This is one of the most photographed areas in the United States. From Maroon Lake, you can hike up to Crater Lake and stand at the base of the fourteeners.
The Maroon Bells get their name from weathering hematite in the rock. This iron mineral oxidizes in the air, turning the exposed rock a dark maroon. As the mountains pushed upward and the steep rocky sides were exposed the maroon bells were created. Maroon Lake formed after the bells did. Glaciers moving through the steep terrain carved out the high alpine lake and eventually melted into the lake you see there today.
If you’re planning a trip to Colorado this season, add a stop to Aspen to visit the Maroon Bells. You won’t be disappointed.
The Maroon Bells are a popular summer and fall destination so parking up there can get tight during peak season. The parking lot at the trailhead has limited spaces available, so it is best to take the bus up to the trailhead. Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) offers a bus from the Aspen Highlands Ski Area up to the trailhead at Maroon Lake. Bus tickets can be purchased at the Aspen Highlands Ski Area base.
To get to the Aspen Highlands Ski Area from Highway 82, take the Maroon Creek Road exit off the roundabout 4.5 miles outside of Aspen. This is the only roundabout on Highway 82 west of Aspen. Drive 1.5 miles on Maroon Creek Road until you reach the Aspen Highlands Ski Area base.
If you wish to drive up to the trailhead parking lot, it’s best to go early before 8 o’clock in the morning, or after 5 in the evening. Once on Maroon Creek Road, follow the road until you reach the end at the parking lot of for the trailhead.
(See a higher resolution version here - at the Forest Service)
The Forest Service notes that admission tickets provide access to both the bus tour and the Maroon Bells while combination passes provide access to the bus tour, Maroon Bells and Silver Queen Gondola. These tickets can be purchased at Rubey Park Transit Center in Aspen, and Four Mountain Sports in Aspen Highlands Village. Admission tickets for adults are $6 and $4 for those under 18, while the combination pass is $27 for all ages.
Hiking at the Bells
There are 4 main trails available (distance, difficulty listed):
- The Maroon Lake Trail - 1 mile round trip, super easy
- The Scenic Loop Trail - 1.5 miles round trip, easy
- The Maroon Creek Trail - 3.2 miles one-way, easy/moderate
- Crater Lake Trail - 3.6 miles, moderate
When you get to the Maroon Lake parking area, I'd recommend taking the Scenic Loop Trail to the lake. If you catch the bells on a calm day, they will be reflected in the lake. The scenic loop is the most popular trail at the bells. This is an easy 1-mile loop that takes you up and around the lake. From here you can continue on the Crater Lake Trail.
Crater Lake Trail
Crater Lake Trail is one of the top trails in all of Colorado. Here's a few reasons find out why Crater Lake Trail is so popular:
1. Dog-Friendly Trail: Crater Lake Trail is a fantastic trail for bringing your dog. However, all dogs must be on a leash.
2. Long Enough, but not Too Long: An ideal trail isn’t either too long or too short. Crater Lake Trail falls in that sweet spot of 3.6 miles long.
3. Well Marked Trail: The trail is relatively well marked as compared to other trails in the region. With the exception of the snow covered areas, the trail has signage throughout, including appropriate signage for when caution is necessary.
4. One of the Most Photographed Destinations In The State: The Crater Lake Trail is one of the most photographed destinations in Colorado. The snow capped mountains that dot the background, the lake itself, and the various fauna that one can come across while hiking on this trek make for top-notch pictures.
5. Easy to get to: Either come by car and park for $25 or travel to the base camp by bus.
This 3.6 mile round trip hike takes you up to the base of the Maroon Bells. Getting to Crater Lake and back is a moderate hike. Along the way you pass through alpine forest and aspen groves. This is a great hike to do in the fall when the aspens are turning golden yellow.
Overall, Crater Lake Trail is a super accessible trail, but also a beautiful one and is a must-do if you are in the area.
Maroon Creek Trail
Going the other direction from the parking lot you can take the Maroon Creek Trail back down towards where you picked up the bus. The trail is 3.2 miles one way. Most people choose to take the bus up to Maroon Lake and then hike back down the trail. The bus will pick you up where the trail rejoins the road and bring you back to where you parked. This trail does cross a talus field and is not always best for those unsure of their footing or dogs.
Maroon Bells Lake Guide
Maroon Bells Lake is one of the most photographed travel spots in Colorado. Every summer, swarms of tourist groups visit this clear mountain lake and experience its breathtaking splendor. The lake is fairly crowded and most of the travelers at the lake hike via either the Maroon Lake Trail or the Scenic Loop trail.
This lake is an alpine at the center of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area and ranges around 9585 ft. It is situated outside the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness accessible at the end of Maroon Creek Road (CR 13). The distance from Maroon Bells Lake to Crater Lake is 1.8 Miles or 10,076 ft.
The scenic lake is surrounded by fields of eye-catching wildflowers and reflects beautiful mirror images of the Maroon Bells in its waters. You can enjoy aspen groves, the surrounding meadows, and the creek as well. On a nice day, you can bring a picnic lunch and eat by the gorgeous views! There are also a few animals in the lake area. If you are lucky, you may even spot a rabbit, woodpecker, deer, and many more. Remember, do not feed or try to touch the wildlife.
A 4.2 mile hiking trail surrounds the lake. To preserve its natural views or image, swimming and kayaking are prohibited. Fishing is allowed but, you will need to have a Colorado fishing license and must follow the park rules regarding fishing there.
The spring season- around late April and May- is when the water level of the lake is high. You can see the aspens with new leaves, wildflowers and green plants. The summer season is also enjoyable with busy streams and beautifully colored wildflowers. In the winter season Maroon Creek Road is normally closed, so plan on visiting the lake from mid-July to late September.
If you arrive at the lake 30 minutes before sunrise, you won’t find a proper spot. For proper parking and finding the perfect spot for a photograph, you should plan on arriving at least 1 or 2 hours before sunrise.
At night, the lake which is one of the most stunning views in Colorado. If you are a nature lover, the reflection of the starlight in the lake in a must-see view. If you visit on a clear enough night, you can gaze at Milky Way strewn across the night sky. A truly unforgettable experience!
In and around Aspen there is lots of camping in the summer and fall. The Forestry Service lists the following options:
- Silver Bar Campground - 4 sites at a very basic campground.
- Silver Bell Campground - 14 sites located right along the banks of Maroon Creek.
- Silver Queen Campground - 5 campsites available, in the proximity of Maroon Creek.
Additionally, there are standard campsites for RVs, but drinking water and electric hook-ups are not provided. There are also a few walk-in tent campsites down closer to Maroon Creek.
However, there are also a number of other campgrounds around Aspen. Weller, Lincoln Creek, Lost Man and Difficult Campgrounds are a few in the area. Keep in mind that Aspen is located at 8,000 feet above sea level and many of the campgrounds are above that. It can get cold at night even in the summer, and especially in the spring and fall.
Some campgrounds take reservations beforehand, others are first come first serve. Check online at recreation.gov to see if you need to make a reservation beforehand. Depending on your preferred level of roughing it, some campgrounds offer toilets and other amenities, while other only have vault toilets. Information on what amenities campgrounds offer is detailed on recreation.gov. Most campsites fill up around noon during peak season so get to the campground early if you want to ensure you get a spot.
The Maroon Bells are a great photography spot. If you can catch the bells on a calm, clear day you’re sure to get some great photos of the peaks reflecting in Maroon Lake. You can also hike up to Crater Lake with great views of the surrounding valley along the way.
If you have the opportunity to visit in the fall, you’ll be there to see the aspen turning golden yellow. Hiking through the aspen groves is a great opportunity to capture the changing leaves. The golden yellow aspen groves contrasting next to dark evergreen forest on a blue-sky day makes for a great photo opportunity.
For those hoping to capture the classic photo of the Maroon Bells reflecting on Maroon Lake, it’s best to go early or late. The early morning and late afternoon sun brings out the colors of the bells, sky and foliage. There are also less people up at the lake during those hours so you’ll spend less time photoshopping the people out of your photos.
Best time to visit
Summer and fall are the best times to visit the Maroon Bells. Getting up the road and hiking around the lake can be difficult in the spring due to snow. If you can catch the bells on a clear, calm day you’re in for a treat. The clear blue sky behind the bells reflected in the lake is hard to beat.
The best and most popular time to see the bells is in the fall when the aspens turn golden yellow. Hiking through the golden aspen groves on a nice fall day is truly breathtaking. Late September is typically peak leaf season in Aspen.
Typically, weekdays are less busy than weekends no matter where you go.
Visiting the Maroon Bells is no different. If you’re hoping to get great photos of the bells or avoid the crowds, its best to go on a weekday in the early morning or late afternoon.
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