High above Crested Butte

See the Maroon Bells from a different angle


One needs three hours to drive from Aspen to Crested Butte, and that's in the summer. But the two Colorado resort towns aren't much more than 20 miles apart as the eagle flies. And the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, which lies between the two towns, affords some of the most beautiful scenery in the state.

If you haven't been to East Maroon Pass, it's time to plan a long weekend. You'll see the famous peaks of the Maroon Bells from a new angle.

Driving time to Crested Butte from Steamboat Springs is five hours whether you choose to go via Carbondale or Leadville. The Carbondale route isn't an option in winter because Kebler Pass closes. So, do yourself a favor this summer or fall and take the scenic route up the Crystal River to Redstone, then Marble and McClure Pass. Once on the other side of the pass, cruise down Colorado Highway 133 beyond Paonia Reservoir. Watch for a left turn on Gunnison County Road 12 and follow the unpaved road over moderate Kebler Pass. The scenery is unsurpassed and you can find informal campsites in the forest. Alternatively, follow the road about 30 miles to Crested Butte's back door. If you've made reservations, you can bunk at the historic Elk Mountain Lodge and check out the chili vinaigrette salad dressing and the McScottish Ale at the Idle Spur.

Rise early the next morning and head for the Copper Creek Trail (No. 739). From old town Crested Butte, drive up the hill to the town of Mount Crested Butte and continue beyond the hotels and condos another 2 miles to the refurbished ghost town of Gothic. It serves as home to a biological research field station.

Just beyond Gothic, take a right turn into a trailhead parking lot. If you have a high clearance vehicle (our minvan made it just fine) continue another half mile to a second parking lot.

Don't be deterred by all of the cars in the parking lot. Most folks walk no farther than a half mile to enjoy the view of Judd Falls (it can't compare with Fish Creek Falls, near Steamboat).

East Maroon Pass is for more ambitious hikers willing to put up with five stream crossings and a climb of 2,500 vertical feet.

The first almost 2 miles of the hike are a virtual walk in the park, proceeding along a gentle two-track.

The first crossing of Copper Creek signals that things are about to change. On June 19, there was no choice at this ford, but to get your feet wet. You can slog across in your hiking boots, or you can strip down to bare feet and endure the icy needles in the snowmelt stream. Smart hikers will take along a pair of river sandals and a hiking pole to save themselves the discomfort.

Of the five stream crossings, three involved wet feet June 19, and two could be made on shaky log bridges. That situation will begin to change daily as the high snowfields yield to the July sun.

The trail becomes rocky and climbs more steeply after the third stream crossing.

After 3 miles of hiking, the trail forks with the right fork leading to Triangle Pass, and the left fork leading to green-tinted Copper Lake, and East Maroon Pass beyond. It's worth a little side trip to take the Triangle Pass Trail just to get the spectacular view of that drainage dominated by White Rock Mountain. Where the trail leads into a vast scree field, it is possible to double-back to the west on a faint trail to walk toward Copper Lake.

Don't walk all the way down to the lake -- instead, veer to your right and pick up the trail to East Maroon Pass.

The last half-mile to the 11,800-foot summit leads across snowfields. You'll find yourself pulling on a windbreaker before you step into the windy pass.

It also is worth dropping down the Aspen side for a quarter of a mile to improve your views of the Maroon Bells, which appear quite close.

If you've got an itch to have dinner in Aspen, you have another 9 miles to hike and a shuttle ride from Maroon Lake ahead of you. Call the Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce at (970) 349-6438 for information. Or, if you're game, stay overnight in Aspen and hike back in the morning.


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