Maroon Bells, July 2007
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This year Eric
convinced us that if he had to fly anyway,
he could fly anywhere and we might as well come meet him. So
we all flew to Colorado.
The Rockies are significantly larger than the Sierras, and the trails
much steeper. So I call this the Strenuous Trip.
Pretty much the entire route was above 10,000', at one point reaching
12,700'. We covered 34 miles and about 11,000 vertical
feet. Our route was a slight variation on the Four Pass Loop,
starting in Snowmass Village instead of at Maroon Lake and crossing
five passes instead of four.
The Rockies are much wetter than the Sierras, as well. This
has its benefits in gushing streams, lush vegetation, and outrageous
wildflowers, but also guarantees some tent time every
afternoon. Next time we'll bring a deck of cards.
New! This year I've added a slide show.
The slide show has a lot more photos than are shown
page. Click on any photo to enter the show, or start at the beginning.
You can navigate the slide show using the left and right
arrows on your keyboard, and hit the space bar to zoom the photos to
their full size.
Day 0: Fly and Drive
After flying to Denver and renting a car, we made a
quick stop at REI
for the one thing you can't bring on airplanes: white
gas. Then it was West on I-70 for a few hours. We
stopped for a snack and bathrooms in Vail and had
the misfortune of
paying $7 for the Worlds Worst Burrito: about the size of a
sunglasses case and heated up in a microwave. Our stomachs
all regretted that one.
We finally arrived in Snowmass Village, had a very
nice dinner at Il
Poggio, repacked, and went to sleep.
Day 1: Snowmass Village to Snowmass Lake
Our first day we were expecting to be hard. It was 8 miles,
2600' up, full packs, and our first day at altitude. And no
mule! But we took it slowly and steadily and reached the lake
without too much difficultly. We were three very proud,
Starting at the Snowmass Falls Ranch trailhead, the
hike proceeded gradually up a lovely, aspen-coated
valley. Gradually, the aspens gave way to pine, and we began
to catch glimpses of the towering white and red peaks around
us. After crossing the World's Most Difficult Log Jam, the
trail began to climb in earnest the last couple of miles to the lake.
Snowmass Lake is a beautiful blue, nestled up
against a white granite
cliff below Snowmass Peak. We swam and
relaxed as per
usual. We'd heard that it rains every afternoon in the
Rockies, and true to expectations the sky had begun to cloud over
around noon. A brief drizzle at 1:00 had brought out some
rain gear, but the real downpour didn't start until 5:00, after we'd
Day 2: Snowmass Lake to King Falls
We broke camp and started slowly up the 1500' to Trail Rider
Pass. The trail quickly broke out of the forest
into a high
alpine meadow. This is where the views and the wildflowers
really started to blow our minds. I'd never seen wildflowers
like this before. Explosions of yellow, blue, red, pink, and
white over a carpet of bright green. And views of
snow-streaked rock on all sides!
The pass itself provided excellent vistas down both sides.
The way we'd come, we could see back to Snowmass Lake
and get glimpses
of the back sides of the Bells. Looking
forward, the meadow
tumbled away into a large valley backed by Treasure Mountain.
After a snack, we began to descend, which revealed fabulous views up
the North Fork of the Crystal River into Fravert
basin, where we were heading on Day 3, was a glorious carpet of three
shades of green, striped with deep red rocks poking through.
We were very excited to get there!
Unfortunately, the trail grew very steep and crumbly after the turnoff
to Geneva Lake, and it became very difficult and
tiring to keep our
footing. Alex slipped at one point and bent his hiking
pole. I never thought we'd have a Death March that was
downhill, but if this trip had a Death March, this was it.
Finally we reached the valley floor and began climbing easily towards
King Falls. Just before the falls we found
a campsite in a
small grove of pine overlooking the river. We splashed
briefly in the achingly cold river and settled in for the remainder of
the day. The infamous Kung Poo Chicken dinner was an
unfortunate blotch on an otherwise lovely evening. We fell
asleep to the hiss of the waterfall.
Day 3: King Falls to Purity Basin
The first task of this day was the 500' climb around King
we dispatched with ease. After that, the trail wound its way
gradually up the Fravert Basin. As we'd
seen from Trail Rider
Pass, the Basin was a glorious mix of green and
described it as a cinnamon layer cake with lime frosting.
The view from the top of King Falls
After passing the tree line, the Basin opened up into a stunning alpine
meadow with wildflowers by the millions as far as we could
see. We also gained a nice view up to Maroon Peak
The final climb to the pass was steep but not too hard, and we had a
lovely lunch on top. The views from the pass were typically
amazing, covering all of the Fravert Basin, Purity
Basin, into Hasley
We were hoping to camp in the Purity Basin that
afternoon since a storm
was approaching and we didn't want to tackle a second pass.
But some other hikers had told us there was really nothing
there. With grim resolve, we headed down into the
Basin. Well, one thing I've learned over the years is to
never trust what other hikers say. We easily found a very
nice (if disused) spot off-trail, on a hill above a small creek.
Purity Basin was one of the most desolate places on
Almost entirely alpine meadow, surrounded by high peaks, it reminded
Eric of Scotland. I now must visit Scotland.
The predicted storm finally arrived after we'd made camp and it was a
doozy. Rain and hail pelted the tent and the temperature
dropped 15 degrees at least. We huddled inside until it
stopped, then put on all of our warm clothes and had a quick dinner
Day 4: Purity Basin to Crater Lake
The next morning we were greeted with a beautiful sky and the sun
rising over Belleview Mountain. We packed
up and headed over
West Maroon Pass. The climb was uneventful
and after a snack
we headed down the other side to follow West Maroon Creek.
The trail wound along the creek between Maroon Peak
and Pyramid Peak,
slowly descending back into forest. The rain came early this
day, and we hiked the last few miles in a drizzle. A gorgeous
few miles it was, though! Thick forest, tumbling creek,
jagged peaks on both sides -- Alex was in heaven.
Finally we arrived at Crater Lake, perhaps the most
misnamed lake in
the Rockies. Not so much a crater as a mud pit, the lake was
a big disappointment and afforded no opportunity to swim. In
addition, being 1.6 miles from a major trailhead, it was crowded with
campers and day hikers. We found a nice, secluded spot,
though, and settled in. The rains came back in earnest, and
all of our gear got wet and muddy.
Day 5: Crater Lake to Willow Lake
This day we thought would be our Death March: 2500' up in
about 2 miles (an average 25% grade), but it in fact wasn't too
bad. The hardest part was the crowds: the route to
Snowmass Lake from the Maroon Lake
Trailhead is very popular on a
Friday. From the trail we could see masses of people grouped
on Buckskin Pass. Fortunately, we turned
right and headed
over Willow Pass instead -- and didn't see another
human for 24 hours!
It was a gray day hiking up to Willow Pass, but it
never rained on
us. Again we passed through zones of aspen and pine and into
the alpine meadows. We continued up into bare rock and
crested the very steep, cold, and windy pass well before lunch.
The pass provided astonishing views down into the next basin,
containing perfect, round, clear Willow Lake.
We hurried down
the other side, set up camp, and spent the afternoon swimming, reading,
and exploring under a clearing sky. This was my favorite part
of the trip. The area around Willow Lake
is gorgeous, full of
lakes and small cascades, surrounded by red and white peaks and a
tumbling green carpet of grass and flowers. Plus, we had the
entire basin to ourselves!
While we were there, a doe began circling our campsite, slowly
approaching but clearly scared to do so. Eventually she
worked up the courage to come right into our camp, at which point she
went straight for the bush we'd been peeing on and proceeded to eat
it. She must've been after the salt, but we thought it was
pretty funny. We "refreshed" the bush for her a few times
that night, and by morning she'd completely denuded large sections of
The only disappointment of the evening was that we were unable to start
a fire. Wet wood and a lack of oxygen were blamed.
Day 6: Willow Lake to Snowmass Village
Our last pass was our highest: recently named Chipotle
at 12,700'. The climb was not too bad, but on the way up my
platypus sprung a leak, flooding the inside of my pack with two liters
of water and forcing me to bum some off Eric and Alex. On the
way up, we began to see what looked like unusually large deer
prints. We couldn't figure them out until we crested the pass
and spied a herd of elk on a nearby ridge.
While resting on the pass, a marmot approached cautiously and started
eating the dirt on which we'd peed. Then he went and fetched
his mate and they both set to work. Not much salt up there, I
From the pass, we descended gradually along East Snowmass
down to the trailhead. The scenery was as stunning as
ever. We made it back around 4:00 and checked into the hotel
again. After a nice dinner at the Big Hoss Grill,
Il Poggio, and a failed attempt at a sauna, we went
Day 7: Drive and Fly
...plus a lot of waiting in the airport. We did not stop back
in Vail to yell at the folks in Flying Burrito.