Maroon Bells | Aspen, Colorado
The U.S Park Service has a hard time dealing with especially large tracts of natural beauty. It’s more than a little difficult to manage the hundreds of thousands of acres that fall within national parks like Kings Canyon or Yosemite, and they only constitute small fractions of the surrounding wilderness.
Take the Rocky Mountains, for example. The Rockies stretch from the upper reaches of New Mexico, through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia. Each peak and valley holds precious and stunning natural wonders found nowhere else on Earth, but creating a national park of that size would be simply impossible.
So, instead, Colorado has Rocky Mountain National Park, a microcosm of the sprawling range which offers tourists, climbers, and hikers a glimpse of the treasures hidden between and atop the labyrinthine peaks. Yet with all the pomp and glamor—and of course the name—of Rocky Mountain National Park, other protected lands in the range are overlooked. This a good thing from a conservational standpoint, but it also means a wealth of unseen scenery waiting for the curious and the dedicated.
King among these lesser-known tracts is the Maroon Bells Wilderness, 283 square miles of emerald valleys, crystalline lakes, dizzying passes, and some of the highest summits on the continent. Straddling Gunnison and White River National Forests and only ten miles from Aspen, it is one of the best-kept secrets of the Rockies.
Maroon Bells Geology
Like the rest of the Rockies, the mountains of the Maroon Bells Wilderness were formed by the subduction of a number of tectonic plates beneath North America between 80 and 55 million years ago. This literally crumpled the landscape, thrusting up a huge train of mountains spanning more than 3,000 miles.
When people talk about the Maroon Bells, they’re usually referring to the two highest peaks of the wilderness, which also happen to be the most picturesque. Maroon Peak (14,163 ft.) and North Maroon Peak (14,019 ft.) are two of Colorado’s famous “fourteeners” which stand side by side in the middle of the park. Both are composed of a unique variety of mudstone, a family of sedimentary rocks formed by the cementation of layers of mud or clay over eons. The specific type of stone present in the two peaks has a striking reddish-purple hue, hence their names. Mudstone is crumbly and fractures easily, making it challenging and dangerous to climb, but it’s also responsible for the unusual and eye-catching striations on their faces.
The wilderness also boasts a collection of jewellike alpine lakes, fed by glacial melt and rainwater and slowly draining, via small creeks and subterranean seepage into the larger rivers below. Each valley in the park is encircled by high and precipitous ridges, transforming each vale and glade in its own private sanctuary, its sapphire pools and verdant gardens of wildflowers bounded by formidable talus slopes and icy towers above.
Endless Aspen Trees
Photography opportunities around Maroon Bells and all throughout Colorado are absolutely endless. Especially in the Spring and the Fall, the endless hillsides full of Aspen trees provide beauty around every corner. Photographing trees is one of my favorite things to do and there are certainly no shortage of amazing trees all across the state.
Aspen trees are found across most of North America, from Canada all the way down to Mexico, so that’s not necessarily going to narrow down your options. Birch trees, however, are generally only found in the eastern United States and parts of Canada. So, if you’re out West, the golden leaves waving at you probably belong to an aspen.
Activities Around Maroon Bells
Maroon Bells offers all the staple recreational activities afforded elsewhere in the Rockies, with an added bonus of seclusion compared with some of the more popular areas nearby.
Hiking is the main attraction. The Maroon Bells Wilderness boasts an extensive network of trails providing access to all its major attractions and hidden gems. Difficulty ranges from the relaxing promenade around Maroon Lake to the challenging and comprehensive Four-Pass Loop. Because of the numerous steep mountain ridges in the park, many of the harder trails require fording passes as high as 12,500 feet. Even with the smaller size of the park, exploring it all is no easy feat.
Climbing is another popular activity in the wilderness, as it is all across the Rockies. The majority of experienced climbers come to Maroon Bells for its eponymous peaks. A popular project across Colorado is to summit all the “fourteeners” in the state—all the peaks whose elevations surpass 14,000 feet. Of the fifty-eight fourteeners in Colorado, Maroon Peak holds 27th place, and North Maroon Peak claims 50th. This might seem to imply a significant difference in height, but one must remember the tallest fourteener in the state, Mount Elbert, is only 14,439 feet. Of course, other types of climbing besides summiting are also popular, and many visit the area to practice bouldering and other more technical forms of the sport.
The Maroon Bells Wilderness also offers ample opportunities for skiing during the winter months. Once the major roads into and around the park become impassable to cars, Maroon Creek Road becomes transformed into a Nordic-style ski slope for use by the public. This 6.2-mile stretch offers a 1400-foot change in elevation, a gentle grade easy and accessible for all skill-types. The only obstacle to be aware of is the equally popular snowmobile tours which share the road. Other opportunities for skiing and snowboarding are offered by the mountainous slopes of the park, but these must be reached by foot though miles of snow and ice, and may be leagues away from the nearest road or home—challenges only to be attempted by those with significant experience.
Other activities include camping for the purposes of sightseeing, backpacking, skiing, or climbing; mountain biking is allowed on some of the more level and popular trails; fishing is permitted in lakes and streams with a proper license; finally, stargazing and astrophotography is possible everywhere in the park, but best at the higher elevations and on clear nights.
Ten miles to the northeast of Maroon Bells stands Aspen, and any trip to one should necessarily include the other.
Aspen was founded as a silver-mining frontier town back in 1879. During its first three decades, the town boomed and could soon boast a hospital, police department, opera house, and even electricity. The settlement slumped when the productivity of the mines waned, but was revived in the 1930s as a skiing destination; an industry which still thrives today.
Aspen is known across the world for its snow sporting opportunities and facilities. Chief among these is the Aspen Snowmass, a massive winter sports complex and resort which has been home to the WInter X-Games since 2002. The four major divisions of the complex—Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass, are major training grounds for amateur and professional skiers and snowboarders from all across the globe.
Beyond the snow, hiking and climbing are also popular in the peaks around Aspen, and the summer months see no fewer visitors than in winter. Another draw is, of course, the city itself. Aspen is home to dozens of local artists, from painters and potters to fine art photographers. Much of this art can be viewed and purchased from the array of excellent local galleries, celebrating the beauty and uniqueness of the surrounding landscape.
If you plan to visit the Maroon Bells, it’s more than likely Aspen will be your home-base. If so, consider taking in the sights and attractions of this alpine hamlet as well as the wilderness beyond.
Despite its lower visitation than places like Rocky Mountain National Park, the Maroon Bells Wilderness suffers no shortage of adventure or scenery. Back in the 1950s, it proved worthy of the lens of Ansel Adams in his aptly named Maroon Bells, and has certainly lost none of its majesty since then. Whether passing through Aspen or even just crossing the Rockies in general, this secluded wild is well-worth the journey.