Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of White River National Forest in Colorado

I spent 4 days in Aspen, Colorado so that I could explore the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in the White River National Forest. This post is going to read more like a journal entry than a typical blog post.

On Tuesday September 26th I rode my bike from my Airbnb down into town to the Grateful Deli (an amazing deli that’s dedicated to the Grateful Dead) to pick up an avocado sandwich for lunch. I then walked a few blocks to the bus station and boarded the bus to Aspen Highlands ski resort. The city bus was totally free, and was clean and beautiful.  At Aspen Highlands I bought a ticket for $8 to take the tour bus to the top of the mountain, to Maroon Bells. The bus driver was also a tour guide, and gave us a history of the Maroon Bells area, and some cool information about avalanches and the flora and fauna of the area. At the very top of the mountain, he dropped everyone off and most people made their way down to the lake to see the Maroon Bells mountains; I made my way back down the mountain about 1/4 mile to find a good place to have my lunch. I found a beautiful spot in the woods, near a stream, and had my lunch. I wasn’t alone though; a really cute bird joined me, and to my surprise, grabbed some of my sandwich out of my hand. This was definitely a first for me; having a wild bird be brave enough to take food out of my hand! I gave him another piece of my sandwich, finished my lunch, and made my way back up to the Bells to hike around and shoot photos.

The birds are friendly at Maroon Bells

I’d seen Maroon Bells in photos before, and it was definitely on my list of places to visit on my road trip; but when a park ranger at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota told me that Maroon Bells was the most beautiful place she had ever seen; that sealed the deal for me. Upon walking up to the lake, I couldn’t help but agree with her. Maroon Bells is the most photographed mountain in North America; and I’d venture to say it’s the most photographed mountain in this hemisphere, and I could certainly see why. It’s simply breathtaking. I never understood why it was called Maroon Bells until I saw it in person. The mountains are literally maroon in color, and they are shaped like 3 side-by-side bells. They reflect perfectly in the lake that sits directly in front of them, and to their sides is a perfectly U-shaped bowl of a valley; carved out by a glacier long ago. Along the sides of this valley are thousands of beautiful Aspen trees. There’s simply nothing else like it on earth. It’s just perfect.

I shot about 100 photos of the Bells and the lake, and decided that I’d had enough of the tourists, so I picked the least trafficked trail, heading back down the mountain along the stream above. The last bus departed the top of the mountain at 5PM, and I wasn’t sure that I could hitchhike with someone after that, so I decided to just wing it and hope that I could hike the 3.5 mile trail in the 1 1/2 hours that I had left. The cool thing about the bus system is that they will happily pick you up anywhere along the road, at any time. You don’t have to be waiting at the top of the mountain for them; you just have to ensure that you are on the road, somewhere, before the last bus departs. In retrospect, I’ve realized that I could have easily hitchhiked back down the mountain anytime between 5:00 and 9:00, but I’d never been here before and didn’t know how many people would have been up there in the evening. I made my way down the trail and didn’t pass a single person along the 1.5 miles that I hiked. At 4pm I came to a split in the trail and decide that it was probably safer to assume that the split would bring me back to the road; rather than hoping I’d complete the remaining 2 miles before 5:00. I took the split, and found myself in a gorgeous stand of Aspen, every leaf blowing in the breeze. I sat for a while, amongst the trees, totally alone, and blissfully happy.

Around 4:30 I made my way back along the trail to the mountain road, and then walked down the road for about 1/2 mile; taking photos of the surrounding snow-covered peaks, and Aspen-filled valleys. At 5:00 a bus came down the hill and pulled over for me. I hopped on and rode back down the hill to the Highlands ski area, and then took the city bus back to Aspen. I wandered into town and stumbled across the Aspen Brewery; ordered myself a flight of 6 beers, and absolutely LOVED 4 out of the 6. Aspen Brewery is easily one of the best beers I’ve ever had; my favorite was the Stout. Try it sometime. After the brewery I went next door to the White House Restaurant. My server (@stufflodoes) ended up being a really cool girl who was into the outdoors as much as I am. She gave me a ton of tips on places to visit and things to do in the valley; so I decided that the next day I’d visit Ashcroft; an abandoned mining town up in the high elevations above Aspen. I went back to my Airbnb and chatted with my host Beyron for a while about my trip, and about her life in Aspen. She is an amazing soul, and I’m really happy to have met her and to have made a new friend in the process. I found out that her 60th birthday was the next day, so that was pretty cool, and I felt pretty special that she approved my stay with her during such a special weekend.

On my second day in Aspen it was rainy and overcast, so I decided to stick around and explore the town of Aspen. I didn’t want to go hiking and get stuck in the rain. My friend Mary randomly texted me and said that she was 15 minutes outside of town and that she wanted to meet for breakfast; so we met up at Peaches for breakfast and then a stroll through town. We grabbed coffees after breakfast, and wandered around town for a bit. It was so good to see a friend, and she invited me to stay with her in Redstone Colorado, where she lived with her husband Nic and their adorable girl Emma. That gave me a plan for where to head after departing Aspen. After Mary left, I wandered around Aspen for a few hours. I went to the Aspen Art Museum; an unexpectedly modern and beautiful modern art museum. I also went to City Market; the grocery store with the same name as ours back home in Burlington, VT. I thought it might be a co-op, but it’s just a regular grocery store that’s owned by Kroger. The size and feel of it is much more like our City Market than a generic grocery store though. I bought fruit and a ton of trail mix to have in the car for the next leg of my trip, and I got some mums for my Airbnb host Beyron, as it was her 60th birthday on the 27th. The mums were a beautiful fall color; maroon and yellow. She seemed to love them! She had a few friends over when I got back to her place, and we chatted for a while about my trip and about how they ended up in Aspen. One of her friends offered to link me up with her sister-in-law in Park City Utah for a place to stay, so hopefully I hear from them as they sound like really cool people.

On my third, and last day in Aspen, I was expecting more rain, but I woke up to beautiful sunny skies and was stoked to be able to get outside and explore the mountains. My goal for the morning was to explore the abandoned mining town of Ashcroft. I packed up my things, had a coffee, and drove back down to the Grateful Deli again to pick up yet another avocado sandwich! It was too good and too convenient not to. Plus, it reminded me a lot of the Kountry Kart Deli back home. I drove up the mountain road towards Ashcroft and found myself passing by some unbelievable modern mountain homes The road follows a beautiful, crystal-clear mountain stream, and bright yellow Aspen are everywhere. You can read more about the ghost town of Ashcroft in my blog post.

The abandoned mining town of Ashcroft, Colorado
The abandoned mining town of Ashcroft, Colorado

After departing Ashcroft and heading out of Aspen, I thought to myself that it would be stupid to be so close to the Maroon Bells and not to go back and see them again. I did a last-minute u-turn at the Aspen Airport and made my way up the mountain again. I arrived right at 5:00pm when the buses stop running and cars are allowed on the road. I got up there and found that there were close to no people there; the masses of tourists that came on the buses had left, and I could photograph the lake and the mountains without having anyone on the frame ruining my shots. The weather was supposed to be rain, but the skies had cleared and the only clouds left were the ones that clung to the peaks of the Maroon Bells. It made for the best shots of the trip so far; so turning around was a very good decision!

I shot a bunch of photos and then hiked the scenic trail above the lake. When I got back to the lake, the sun had set and the light was remarkable, so I shot about 100 more photos. While I was there, I met Heather Grow, who was shooting photos next to me. Turns out that she had embarked on an indefinite road trip across the country at the same time that I had, and that she is also a photographer! She had built herself a van, and set out from Virginia with her two dogs. We decided that since we were both traveling solo, on very similar paths, that we would plan to meet up again. I was pretty psyched to make a new friend and to have someone to link up with along my journey.

Next stop after departing Aspen is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park on Saturday September 30th. Heather and I are meeting at 12:30 to hike and explore the park, blog post to follow!

Leave a Comment