Hiking to Maroon Bells and Crater Lake in Aspen’s White River National Forest is worth getting up early for … real early.
I rose before the sun and drove nine miles into the White River National Forest to see the most photographed mountains in North America.
As I was driving in the dark down the long road to the trailhead, a deer nearly ended its life in front of me. I forged ahead undaunted and hoped it was the only animal I would see on this adventure. This, dear reader, is what is known as foreshadowing.
There were only a few cars in the parking lot at 5:30 am. I hiked about half a paved mile down to the lake and saw the cars mostly belonged to photographers. They lined up along the shoreline, waiting for the sun to come out and cast its glow upon the lake giving the “bells” their world-famous lake reflection.
They say they’re distinctively bell-shaped and receive their maroon color from the iron-bearing mineral hematite. I think that depends on the light and your imagination, but hey, they’re not my mountains to name.
It rained the night before and the peaks were shrouded in cloud. Instead of waiting for the sun, I walked the mile-long trail around the lake. Once away from the crowd, I was able to see the peaks at a closer vantage, as well as the waterfall that feeds into the lake below.
The waterfalls in the park form from snowmelt at the top of the mountains. They flow eventually into Maroon Creek, which feeds into Crater Lake, above, and Maroon Lake below. I stood next to the Maroon Lake and snapped the coveted image of the peaks reflected in the lake above.
As the sun started to come out, more people arrived. The park allows entry by registration only, so there were less than two dozen people. I’m told there used to be dozens and dozens clamoring for a spot to take a photo of the reflection.
I opted for the road less traveled and hiked for the trail up the mountain toward Crater Lake.
The trail begins at Maroon Lake and climbs through a massive grove of white Aspen trees. It follows Maroon Creek and crosses two bridges before climbing steep and rocky hills. Are all the hikes in Colorado steep and rocky? In my experience, yes.
The out-and-back trail is just under two miles each way and leaves you alone in the middle of a forested wonderland. Rangers warn to be prepared for cooler temperatures and spontaneous thunderstorms – each of which I encountered.
Signs are warning about the bears and encouraging you not to feed them. As a lone hiker, it gave me pause. It’s always more comforting to have someone you can run faster than with you. I tried to put the idea of feeding bears out of my mind. Whenever I’m afraid, I think, “Would you rather die on the couch or …” Fill in the blank. This day I chose a bear fight.
The hike up is moderately steep but easily manageable for most and the elevation only gains about 500 feet. Navigating the rocks is the most difficult part.
White Aspen Forest
Early in the hike, I passed fields of Aspen trees that people carved their initials into. The oldest date I saw was JH ’72. I wouldn’t say I like carving trees, but it was comforting, while out there alone, to know that others came before. People have been hiking this trail since long before I was born.
Aspen trees grow quickly and well on gravel slopes. They have good longevity because they’re more likely to survive avalanches in the wintertime. As you walk through the forest, you can hear them “quaking” when the wind blows their butterfly-like leaves.
I crossed paths with other hikers about every 15 minutes coming down the trail or passing me by. I’m a “slow and steady” hiker with old lungs and no prizes to win, so I’m accustomed to being passed.
About halfway up, I heard what I thought were the telltale sounds of clicking hikers poles behind me. I looked behind and thought I saw someone move, so I waited to let them pass. Nobody came, so I kept walking.
After a distance, I again heard the clicking, this time accompanied by grunting that seemed again to be heading in my direction. I shouted, “Hello?” but the only response was another grunt.
Ready, set, RUN!
Two things happened at the same time: I thought, bear? And I started running. It’s amazing how fast I can hike when properly motivated.
I was bounding up that rocky slope faster than you’d believe possible. Like a freaking gazelle, I could literally see the trees zipping past me like in the Roadrunner cartoons.
This is how dumb I can be: I realized while running that I didn’t have a clue how to survive if you encounter a bear. My best insight comes from Dwight Shrute on The Office. (Darwinism is real).
Once I was out of breath (pretty quickly), I stopped running and started shouting to see if anyone was within earshot of me.
Hey! Hello? Hey! Hey! Hello? Hello?
I’ve since read that you should not run from or yell at a bear. They don’t like it. Any wagers on a day coming when I’m alone in the woods and don’t run from a bear? Not a bet I would take.
Bear attack 101
What you should do is back slowly away and identify yourself as human. How? By waving your arms and speaking in a calm, appeasing tone. “Oh, hello there bear, fancy meeting you here on this mountain. What ya up to? Hunting? That’s cool. Me? Oh, I’m strolling around courting death, you know, the usual. Anyway, great to see ya; I just remembered I forgot something in my car, so …”
They don’t say anything about crying, so I assume I was good on that front.
After I yelled several times, a large dark skin man with hiking poles came into view from the direction I ran from. He was wearing earbuds and said, in barely discernable English, “You ok?” and then he grunted. I’d met my bear.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just seeing who was out here.” But he didn’t actually speak more English than “You ok?” so we parted ways.
I quicken my pace so I was ahead of him, but didn’t get too far away. I figured if there was a bear I could probably outrun that guy.
Down into the valley
About three-quarters of the way up the trail, the valley floor opened onto a rock field, which the DNR refers to as a “rock garden.” It’s such an elaborate garden; it’s hard to make out where the trail is. Several times I was unsure and had to use my powers of deduction.
Not the cliff, not that tree cluster … must be through this rock pile …
In the end, the trail slopes down and opens up into a valley bordered by mountain cliffs, waterfalls, and finally, Crater Lake.
I think the people who only go to Maroon Bells are missing out on an equally, if not better, reflecting lake just up the mountain. Though I’ve heard if you go when it’s dry, the lake may not be much more than a puddle, so plan accordingly.
In the middle of the mountains, and a nifty little beaver dam, the blue-green lake sits nestled in perfect stillness. Because it’s so sheltered, it has high nutrient levels, which contribute to algae growth creating its unique color.
Standing there, I watched a beaver make his dam while keeping my eyes peeled for bears (I was paranoid now). A trail goes around the lake and gives you a delightful new reflection view every 20 feet.
As I walked around, I marveled at the beavers, the clouds’ closeness, the lake reflections, and my own prowess at getting to this amazing spot. Then bear-man joined me.
He was grunting heavily now. He’d taken the earbuds out of his ears and played his aggressive eastern music for all to hear—”All,” meaning just me. The music was a mix of traditional reed flute and oboe mixed with a more assertive guitar and angry windchime. I suspect he recorded it himself.
Despite the assault on my ears, I sat on a nearby log, watching him set up camera equipment. I wondered what story he might tell about the crazy woman he found screaming on the trail.
What goes up
After a brief rest, while watching bear-man take his pics, I headed back down the trail. I passed four young people from England on my way down. They stopped to ask how much further – that question is the hiker’s hello – and said they were through hiking and planned to camp overnight near the lake. They were bolder than me, but I guess having a few extra bodies for the bears makes you brave.
I continued onward; it was no easier to traverse the way down. The trail was quiet and I didn’t see another person for an hour. An impromptu hail storm only lasted a few minutes. That was a blessing because, coming while I was in the ‘rock garden,” I didn’t have any cover. Since they were ice rocks, I didn’t get wet, and I appreciated that.
There’s something to be said about being alone in the woods. The history of the trees and the mountains, the animals’ wildness, and the knowledge that your survival is completely in your own hands.
I didn’t carve my name on a tree as I passed back through the forest. I did stop to listen to their quaking and set my hands on them. My initials may not be there for years to come, but those trees and that mountain will live in me always, and that’s enough.