Trekking the bells

Take a hike along a 23-mile loop of trails through the Snowmass Wilderness area

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— Just a few miles west of the swanky, Hummer-lined streets of Aspen lies one of Colorado's most scenic -- if not populated -- wilderness areas.

Home of majestic Rocky Mountain summits such as North Maroon and Maroon peaks, Pyramid Peak and Snowmass Mountain, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, which encompasses more than 174,000 acres of the White River and Gunnison national forests, offers outdoor adventurers and the casual day hiker more than 100 miles of interconnected trails.

While the area's popularity often makes summer solitude an impossible commodity, its extensive network of trails allows Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness visitors a wealth of creative backpacking options.

Maroon Lake -- considered by many to be Colorado's most photographed spot -- is far and away the wilderness's most popular area. The lake, located south of Aspen on Maroon Creek Road, is so crowded with camera-toting tourists that the U.S. Forest Service has restricted vehicular traffic to the area during much of the summer. Instead, visitors are shuffled onto shuttle buses that run about every 20 minutes from downtown Aspen.

However, a short drive northwest from Aspen on Colorado 82 to Snowmass Creek Road dumps visitors at the parking lot of the Maroon-Snowmass Trailhead, a popular but more attractive option for those seeking a degree of tranquility.

The northern section of the Maroon-Snowmass Trail -- the opposite end of the trail begins at Maroon Lake -- begins at this trailhead. About a quarter-mile up the dirt road from the Maroon-Snowmass Trail is the East Snowmass Trailhead. Though only a short distance separate the two trails, the East Snowmass Trail receives far less foot traffic than its popular neighbor.

Beginning at about 8,600 feet in elevation, the East Snowmass Trail quickly ascends through dense forest before bearing to the right near the one-mile marker. A sign welcomes trail users into the wilderness area about 45 minutes into the hike.

The trail continues to ascend up the East Snowmass Creek valley through alternating stands of aspen and pine trees, which provide welcome shade on sunny summer days. The steep hike is unrelenting as it climbs up the valley toward East Snowmass Pass.

Hikers emerge from the trees about four miles later, and the terrain is dominated by high Alpine tundra and scattered snowfields that are easily passable during the summer months. The trail winds up the valley to the East Snowmass Pass and its 12,680-foot elevation.

The demanding trail gains more than 4,000 vertical feet by the time hikers reach the picturesque pass, where views of Pyramid Peak and North Maroon Peak are a welcome sight to tired legs and growling stomachs. Willow Lake and its surrounding ponds sit patiently less than a two-mile hike from the pass. The trail quickly descends over red scree before giving way to lush green tundra on the valley floor. The East Snowmass Trail ends at its intersection with the Willow Lake Trail, where hikers should turn traverse for a short, mostly level one-mile jaunt ending at Willow Lake. Even on the Fourth of July weekend, not a fellow backpacker could be seen.

After a nourishing meal and a well-deserved night's rest, retrace the Willow Lake Trail back to its intersection with the East Snowmass Trail, bare left, and head uphill through spotty snowfields to Willow Pass. After gaining more than 4,000 feet in elevation to get to Willow Lake from the trailhead parking lot, the short, 800-foot vertical rise to Willow Pass is a welcome relief.

Like that of East Snowmass Pass, the views from Willow Pass offer picturesque shots of Pyramid and North Maroon peaks and the Sleeping Sexton Range of the Elk Mountains. From the top of the pass, the trail descends over loose scree to the floor of a hanging valley. Head right at the intersection of the Maroon-Snowmass Trail and the Willow Lake Trail toward Buckskin Pass.

The ascent to Buckskin is a series of extended switchbacks, which eventually pass a giant snow cornice before reaching the top of the 12,462-foot elevation pass. As with most areas in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the views throughout the hike are rewarding and refreshing for aching legs and thirsty mouths.

Snowmass Mountain -- not to be confused with the like-named ski area -- makes its first appearance from the top of Buckskin. The deep blue-green of Snowmass Lake, situated at the base of Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Mountain, also is visible through the thick stands of pine surrounding the high-mountain lake.

Again the trail quickly descends from the top of Buckskin into shady pine forests winding toward Snowmass Creek and the base of the valley. The trail intersects Snowmass Creek, and hikers are advised to take off their boots and wade through the knee-deep water to the opposite side during peak snowmelt. From there, the trail twists, turns and ascends through forest to Snowmass Lake, an increasingly popular destination for backpackers and day hikers.

Camping spots at the lake must be at least 100 feet from the water, and campfires are not permitted within a quarter-mile of the lake. Mosquito swarms are prevalent during the summer, but the views of Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Mountain are worth the bites.

The ascent to the 14,092-foot Snowmass Mountain is a three-mile hike from the northeast corner of the lake. Ice axes are not required but are recommended, as the final ascent to the summit is fairly steep and snowy during years with average or greater snowfall.

To complete the 23-mile loop, hikers should cross the log jam where Snowmass Lake gives way to a tributary to Snowmass Creek and head north along the Maroon-Snowmass Trail back to the Maroon-Snowmass Trailhead, just a short walk along a dirt road from the East Snowmass Trailhead, where the loop begins. The roughly eight-mile hike to the trailhead descends about 2,000 feet through stands of aspen and pine, and crosses a tangle of trees over a section of beaver ponds about two miles from Snowmass Lake.

Bring a camera, bug repellent, warm clothes and backcountry wilderness survival essentials, as weather in the Rocky Mountains is always unpredictable and can change in minutes. Stop by or call the Aspen Ranger District at (970) 925-3445 for more information related to trail and weather conditions.

Free backcountry permits must be filled out at the trailhead. Trails Illustrated topographic map No. 128 -- Maroon Bells, Redstone, Marble, is recommended for all Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness users.

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