I spent most of last week shooting in Colorado. The Aspen leaves were turning and a storm had just dumped a load of snow on the high peaks so I thought I should shoot it while I could. I drove up to the Maroon Bells, shooting as I went, and ended up spending the rest of my time at this one great spot.
The Maroon Bells are located just west of Aspen, CO. Take State Road 82 west of Aspen until you get to the traffic circle just outside of town and then turn south onto State Road 125. The Maroon Bells, a set of massive, vertical, 14,000 plus foot peaks are about eight miles up this road; Maroon Lake, a glacially carved tarn lies at the base of the Bells,.
In mid summer, when everyone in the world visits the Bells, you will probably have to take a shuttle bus to get to the lake. It is crowded, but with all the trails in the area it is easy to lose 95% of them very quickly. In spring and fall you can drive all the way up to the lake but you will have to pay a $10.00 entry fee. For your money you get a nice brochure and map of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area and entry into one of the most beautiful areas in the world.
And the Maroon Bells are definitely one of the premier scenic locations not only in Colorado but anywhere in the world. The mountains are not only huge but extremely scenic, lieing as they do at the far end of a classic U shaped mountain valley. In the fall they reach the peak of their beauty when the aspens that cover the high mountains on both the right and left sides of the valley turn yellow and gold and red. To top it off, the whole scene is perfectly reflected in the waters of Maroon Lake.
Every morning at dawn, no matter the season or the weather, dozens and sometimes hundreds of photographers line up to photograph the magnificent, maroon colored Bells. Don’t be put off by the huge crowd of photographers. In the first place, the picture that almost everyone wants, the Bells reflected in Maroon Lake, really is a terrific shot, one of the most famous in the world. It’s worth fighting for a spot in the line of photographers to take this picture. However, this main shot that everyone strives to take, is only a small part of what the Maroon Bells has to offer.
There is a terrific aspen forest all around the parking lot side of the Lake that offers all kinds of great aspen shots and scenic views of the lake and the surrounding peaks. There are also a number of great hiking trails that leave from the lake. There is the 1.5 round trip Scenic Loop Trail which heads up the valley toward the Bells along which runs a beautiful stream with several waterfalls. Also, there is the easy 3.2 mile Maroon Creek Trail that wends its way down Maroon Creek to the East Maroon Portal where you can catch a bus that will bring you back to Maroon Lake.
However, I think the best trail is the 3.6 mile (round trip) Crater Lake Trail. This trail is a rocky, steep trail that climbs up to the very base of the Maroon Bells where you will find Crater Lake. This trail is a great introduction to the Rockies. For the best trip leave in midmorning when the sun is illuminating the Bells. There are tons of great shots all the way up to Crater Lake and beyond. If you leave at 10:00 am or so, the sun is in the right location to use a polarizing lens for shots of the Bells and the upper lake. Here is an article on how much a polarizing filter will improve your photography. There are some wonderful shots to be had here.
If you want to hike beyond Crater Lake there are two wonderful trails to take. The West Maroon Creek trail continues on to the south over West Maroon Pass and eventually on to Schofield Pass and if you get really carried away, all the way to Crested Butte. In the summer this is a classic wildflower trail and in the fall a classic aspen trail. There are shuttles so if you go over the montains, you only have to do the hike one way. This is one of the most famous hikes in the Rockies.
Another great trail to take from Crater Lake is the trail up to Buckskin Pass to the West of the Maroon Bells. From this pass there is another classic Rocky Mountain view, this time of Snowmass Mountain and the Elk Range. Again, this is one of the most famous views in the Rockies.
If you do the Crater Lake Trail in the late afternoon, the return trip back to Maroon Lake gives you some terrific shots of Pyramid Peak off to your right. A real bonus is that the sun is now in perfect position to polarize views of Pyramid Peak between the aspen trees and the red leaves of the under-story bushes. There are some really nice views and photographs to be had here.
While you are on any of these hikes, be sure you don’t give in to the urge to climb the Maroon Bells or Pyramid Peak or any of the surrounding peaks unless you are an experienced mountaineer who knows what he is doing on difficult ground. The Bells and all of the mountains in the vicinity are doubly dangerous because the rock on them is very loose and rotten. There are millions of tons of rock on all of these peaks just sitting there on ledges or loose slopes waiting to fall on you.
I came as close to being killed as I ever have on the Bells long ago when decided that I wanted to climb a couloir (a steep, snow filled gully) high on South Maroon Peak. I was with one of my then teenaged sons half way up the couloir when we heard a huge boom high above us. Twenty or thirty or so seconds later, what seemed to be a huge dump-truck load of boulders swept over the cliff edge five hundred feet above us and fell directly towards us. When we saw the rock coming we ran as hard as we could for the cliff face hoping most of the boulders would fly over us. Unfortunately, we ran right through most of them. Luckily, incredible luckily, the only rock that hit us was one small rock that grazed my arm and hand with only minor injuries. That is as close as I ever want to come to dying in the mountains. The Maroon Bells aren’t called the Deadly Bells for nothing. Many climbers have been killed by rock fall on these dangerous mountains. Beware.
Anyway, stay off the mountains and on the trails and you will discover one of the most beautiful and satisfying places in the world
8357, Aspen Grove with the Maroon Bells in the background.