On our second full day at Paonia State Park, we drove over to Maroon Bells Scenic Area. Maroon Bells is such a popular attraction that the US Forest Service limits the number of visitors to keep the area from being overwhelmed. This was our first time at Maroon Bells and it was spectacular. We can understand why so many people want to visit it.
We had heard stories of how crowded Maroon Bells was and that you had to pay to ride a shuttle bus to get to it, so we avoided it in the past. However, as Right Buddy (RB) was researching what places were open as the COVID lockdown restrictions started to be lifted, she came across the information that Maroon Bells was selling vehicle passes a few weeks before the shuttle buses started running again (US Forest Service Maroon Bells Scenic Area). She found an available parking reservation a few weeks out and jumped on it. COVID offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Maroon Bells without the crowds of people which was an opportunity hard to pass up.
It was a cold morning, in the thirties. We got up at 6 am and were on the road by 7 am. We stopped at a park in Carbondale so Left Buddy (LB) could make another cup of coffee and we could use the port-a-potty. We arrived at the Maroon Bells Welcome Station at 9:15 am. Our reservation was for 9:30 am, but they let us right in even though we were 15 minutes early. Maroon Creek Road is a pretty drive. A few farms and houses were along the way. Maroon Bells Scenic Area is managed by the US Forest Service. We had a six hour reservation which cost $10. The options available until the shuttle buses start running again were two hour, four hour, six hour, and all day. They were all the same price.
There are three Forest Service campgrounds along the road: Silver Bar, Silver Bell, and Silver Queen Campgrounds. We had tried to reserve a spot in one of them, but they were all booked. From the signs, it looked like you could park at the Maroon Lake overflow parking lot without a Maroon Lake parking pass if you were staying at one of the campgrounds. Camping at one of the campgrounds looks like the ideal way to visit Maroon Bells. You can come and go as you please at any time of day, or you could hike or ride a bike from the campground. An alternative is to bike all the way from Aspen, but it is uphill all the way over about 10 miles so it would be difficult to do any hiking around Maroon Lake after you get there, unless you are in really good shape. Also, you would need to park your vehicle somewhere in Aspen. They charge for parking at the ski resort.
The parking at Maroon Lake was divided up into sections, one for each type of parking pass: two hour, four hour, six hour and all day. That probably makes it easier for the park staff to make sure people clear out at their designated times. There are vault toilets and water fountains at the parking lot. In the morning, there were not a lot of people around, but the density of people seemed to increase in the afternoon. We think we calculated from the reservation slots available that there should only be about 45 vehicles parked at Maroon Lake at any given time.
Even though the day lighting is not as great as at sunrise or sunset, the view was still breathtaking. The mountain peaks dominate the view. The water in the lake is crystal clear. At the lake, there was a naturalist waiting to lead people on a group hike, either to Crater Lake or the Maroon Lake Trail. The naturalist tour is free and run by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. At least the day we were there, they were running two of them, one at 10:15 am and the other at 1:15 pm. They are available every day during the summer.
Before we started our hike, we both used the restrooms at the parking lot. There was a sign inside the women's restroom listing the Do's and Don'ts of how to use the toilet. RB thought the sign was funny, so she took a picture of it to show LB. When she came out, LB informed her that the same sign was in the men's restroom. He also found the sign amusing and took a picture of it to share with her. Great minds think alike! Obviously, people from all over the world visit Maroon Bells who are used to different cultures and customs. We are pretty sure the forest service employees who clean the restrooms are not laughing.
We started out hiking the short Maroon Lake Trail to the other end of the lake to start the Scenic Loop Trail. The Scenic Loop Trail used to be a double loop, but the bridge at the end of Maroon Lake is out, so the trail is now a lollipop. There is another bridge across West Maroon Creek where the trail splits into the loop. At the bridge and further upstream are a few stunning cascading waterfalls. Being still spring, they were flowing strong. We hiked the loop in the clockwise direction. Starting out on the loop, the trail became quite rocky, even when crossing a meadow. You had to stop every now and then to enjoy the view because you had to watch where you were placing your feet while walking. In addition to the spectacular views of waterfalls and mountain peaks, there were wildflowers alongside the trail, especially when crossing a small water tributary. When we returned to the start of the Scenic Loop Trail, we found a trail that cut over to the Crater Lake Trail, so we did not have to go back to the Deadly Bells Kiosk to pick up the Crater Lake Trail.
Crater Lake Trail is a steady climb almost the whole way up to Crater Lake. It starts out a little rocky and gets rockier the closer you get to Crater Lake. The views are farther apart than on Scenic Loop Trail, but you have to spend most of you time looking at your feet anyway. The trail is surrounded by aspen groves and evergreen trees until you get close to Crater Lake. Near the top, the trail flattens out a little, but becomes so rocky that there is no horizontal surface to place your feet. We were glad we were wearing our hiking boots and had our trekking poles with us as we carefully planted our feet on top of one jagged rock to the next. We would recommend hiking boots and poles on this hike, but most of the people on the trail were in athletic shoes and one was wearing flip flops. No thanks! We don’t want to imagine how difficult it would be to get back down the trail with a twisted ankle or worse. A small boy tripped and fell in the rocks coming the other direction down the trail. He was crying, but his mom was able to comfort him. We don’t think he was seriously hurt. However, it wouldn’t be that hard to break a bone or crack your skull when falling in that jumbled array of rocks.
When we reached the lake, the wind was blowing strong. We sat on a small tarp near the shoreline and ate our lunch, listening to the wind howl and the small waves of the lake lap against the shore. There were only a handful of others at the lake while we were there. The mountain peaks surround the lake and made us feel like we were in a really remote and special place.
There seemed to be quite a few more people on the trail on the way down than on the way up. One of the naturalist tour groups passed us on their way up to Crater Lake. As we approached the trailhead, a couple past us with backpacks on. Helmets and ice axes were visible on the outside of their packs. We asked if they had been climbing. They told us the two areas they had been climbing that day, but not being familiar with the area, the names didn’t stick in our heads They said they had gotten up at 3:30 in the morning. The snow was good that day according to them. It was about 2:30 pm at the time we were talking with them. They said they were ready for a beer and a nap.
By the time we finished hiking, we still had an hour left on our parking pass, so we grabbed a bag of tortilla chips, a jar of salsa, and RB grabbed a cold can of Coke. We ate our snack at a picnic table near the roaring West Maroon Creek. The timing worked out perfectly. We counted the combination of the Maroon Lake Trail, the Scenic Loop Trail and the Crater Lake Trail as hike #34 in our 52 Hike Challenge, a total of 5.25 miles with an 842 foot elevation gain in four hours and 30 minutes.
It was a two hour drive back to Paonia State Park to our camp site and we had smiles on our faces the whole way. It was a tiring day of hiking but it was so fulfilling. We hope you challenge your body and get out to enjoy nature’s beauty.
Check out our related video: Maroon Bells Scenic Area