About Maroon Bells Waterfalls
The Maroon Bells Waterfalls were really my waterfalling excuse to talk about the iconic Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado.
The Maroon Bells consisted of a pair of signature 14,000ft peaks backing a well-photographed panorama (especially in the Autumn when the trees would change color) fronted by the reflective Maroon Lake.
Although my visit didn’t occur in the Autumn, I did make a late July 2020 visit.
This involved making a booking for a shuttle then doing some day hikes in the half-day I was up in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness (part of the White River National Forest).
It was only when I made my random meander in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area did I start to notice the area’s more subtle beauty, which included a rapids-like cascade near the head of Maroon Lake as well as a tall cascade tumbling below North Maroon Peak at Crater Lake.
Indeed, my hiking in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area pretty much consisted of the 1-mile Maroon Lake Scenic Loop and the 2.8-mile round-trip out-and-back Crater Lake Trail.
This didn’t include the 0.8 miles of hiking along the northern perimeter of Maroon Lake, where I took most of those iconic reflection shots of the Maroon Bells.
That often-photographed stretch went between the shuttle stop and the branching off points for both the Crater Lake and Maroon Lake Scenic Loop Trails.
I also extended my visit slightly at Crater Lake where I happened to notice another hard-to-see gushing waterfall in the Minnehaha Gulch, where I could have gotten closer to it by extending the hike even further up that trail.
Therefore, according to my GPS logs, I wound up hiking around 6.8 miles overall, which further encompassed some extra walking from a bridge washout and going back-and-forth along Maroon Lake to fully experience the views there.
Enabling A Visit To The Maroon Bells
Typically in the Maroon Bells’ busiest times of the year (i.e. Summer and Fall), they run a mandatory shuttle system between the Aspen Highlands Center and the Maroon Bells Scenic Area in order to manage the traffic and the crowds.
However, when I made my visit in late July 2020, I had to pre-book shuttle tickets due to COVID-19.
Apparently, it was possible to book hard-to-get private vehicle parking passes if the intent was to show up right around sunrise or not even be reliant on the shuttles themselves.
Nevertheless, I found the shuttle system pretty hassle free, and since we were staying in Aspen (roughly 3 miles from the Aspen Highlands Center), my wife dropped me off and picked me up so I didn’t have to stress about parking.
Trail Description of the Northern Shore of Maroon Lake
After getting off the shuttle, I followed a concrete path that descended towards the north shore of Maroon Lake.
During this descent, I was pretty much compelled to go further east on the lake (i.e. away from where I was supposed to go for the hikes) so I could experience as much of the reflective panoramas across the lake as possible.
Since I had showed up before 9am, it was still somewhat quiet around the lake so I was afforded the luxury of paying attention to the zig-zagging birds over the lake that never seemed to land and take a breather.
I also tried to compose photos with the many wildflowers blooming by the shore of the lake.
However, after having my fill of these signature panoramas, I then completed the roughly 0.4-mile walk upstream towards the pair of forks in the trail that split into the Maroon Lake Scenic Loop (left) and the Crater Lake Trail (right).
The first trail fork was closer to the level of the lake with some signage and infrastructure so taking the left fork to the Maroon Lake Scenic Loops was a continuation of the shoreline walk until it got to where Maroon Creek spilled into the head of the lake.
The second trail fork was kind of like a last chance to go down by the lake as there was a steeper trail descending from the Crater Lake Trail to the head of Maroon Lake.
Trail Description of the Maroon Lake Scenic Loops
The Maroon Lake Scenic Loop Trail was actually a pair of looping trails beyond Maroon Lake connected by bridges across Maroon Creek thereby forming a figure 8.
When I made my visit in late July 2020, the lower bridge was washed out so I actually had to hike a little more to fully experience both loops.
Anyways, if I had to do this part of the hike all over again, I would recommend doing both loops in a clockwise manner.
That way you get to face the Maroon Bells in a more open part of the trail so the scenery is always before you instead of having to look over-the-shoulder to see the signature peaks.
Then, once you reach the top end of the upper loop, the trail would then return to the head of Maroon Lake where it’s more overgrown and less interesting.
In the middle of the two loops was a footbridge right at a series of rapids and small cascades on Maroon Creek.
In my mind, the best view of these rapids and cascades were from the southern banks of Maroon Creek just downstream of that bridge.
This was where I took one of the waterfall photos you see further up on this post.
Trail Description of the Crater Lake Hike
The trail to Crater Lake was very popular largely because it had the right distance to incorporate for a half-day visit in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.
It was a straightforward out-and-back trail that gained roughly 600ft in a one-mile stretch though its overall distance was on the order of just under 2 miles.
That said, the modest trail length was surprisingly taxing when you combine the high altitude and the somewhat rough and rocky terrain on the trail.
I also found the hike to be somewhat difficult when I had to breathe through my mask whenever people were passing by, which was quite frequent.
Moreover, most of the climbing stretch of the trail was pretty featureless until the trail finally started to descend in the last quarter-mile towards the mouth of Crater Lake.
Once at the lake, I was able to look across the calm lake backed by the Maroon Bells while also surprising me with a cascade dropping conspicuously beneath the North Maroon Peak from a hanging valley fed by a cirque that the maps call the Sleeping Sexton.
The very first photo on this page was of that very waterfall.
While I explored a little more towards the head of Crater Lake, I managed to catch the U-shaped glacial valley between the Bells and Pyramid Peak, and I also caught a glimpse of a gushing-but-hard-to-see waterfall in the Minnehaha Gulch.
I’m guessing that in order to get a better look at that waterfall, I would have to keep extending the hike uphill at least another half-mile in each direction from the head of Crater Lake.
I also had the option of continuing along the Maroon Creek Trail beyond Crater Lake, which would eventually climb towards both the Maroon Bells as well as reaching the West Maroon Pass right on the border of Pitkin and Gunnison Counties.
Since I didn’t do these trail extensions, I can’t say more about them.
However, needless to say, there were opportunities at seeing even more cascades and waterfalls, which would have further added more content to this page.
So in the end, I managed to do the nearly 7 miles of hiking over a span of 6 hours including the shuttle transit and waiting.
That ought to give you a good idea of what can be reasonably accomplished should you also make a half-day to a full-day visit in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.
The Maroon Bells Scenic Area resides in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of the White River National Forest near the city of Aspen in Pitkin County and Gunnison County, Colorado. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
The way I reached the Maroon Bells Scenic Area was by pre-booking a shuttle that left from the Aspen Highlands Center. It was a mere 3-mile drive to get from the east side of Aspen to the Aspen Highlands Center.
There are plenty of resources that cover the logistics behind reaching the Maroon Bells. However, the one I used that eventually led me to making my shuttle reservation was from the Aspen Chamber of Commerce.
As for reaching Aspen, it’s a popular ski resort town so you can route to this town using your favorite routing app or software.
For context, Aspen was about 41 miles (under an hour drive) south of Glenwood Springs, 127 miles (over 2 hours drive) southeast of Grand Junction, 171 miles (3.5 hours drive) northeast of Ouray, 198 miles (about 3.5 hours drive) southwest of Denver, about 242 miles (about 5.5 hours drive) north of Durango, 238 miles (over over 3.5 hours drive) east of Moab, Utah, and 465 miles (over 8 hours drive) north of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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