If you’ve ever seen a picture associated with the United States’ mountains, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve come across Maroon Bells. They are two peaks located in Colorado’s Elk Mountains—standing above 14,000 feet, just outside of Aspen—with a shimmering lake below.
They’ve been touted as the number one photographed location in North America, and for good reason: it’s a breathtakingly beautiful sight. Pictures just don’t do it justice, despite the post card-worthy shots.
When you grow up in Colorado, you hear about Maroon Bells. It’s a bucket-list item, big time. The area is known for hiking, camping, and biking opportunities and is as picturesque as it gets, so there have been more than a few proposals, engagement pic sessions, and likely elopements as well. The Maroon Bells are as close to magic as it gets.
So, after two years of living within an hour of the Bells, Chad and I decided to check them out. It was time. We chose to do the Maroon Bells Scenic Trail and the hike to Crater Lake.
Navigating the Shuttle System
Maroon Bells is an incredibly popular destination for both overnight and day visitors, ranking in about 3000,000 people each season. Because of this—including the ecological impact of so many visitors in wild, natural lands—the US Forest Service has implemented a paid permit system. To get to Maroon Bells, you have to pay.
There’s also a shuttle system in place, to reduce driving traffic and curb the volume of visitors. It’s required to take a shuttle (and pay $20 per person) during the peak season, between the hours of 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Here’s the sweet deal: there’s a hack to get around the shuttle system. Get there early. If you arrive before 8 a.m., you don’t have to take the shuttle. You’ll still have to pay a fee for a car permit ($10 for the entire vehicle), but it’s significantly less. You can drive your car all the way to the Maroon Bells parking lot and save yourself the hassle and some cash.
Here’s the catch: everyone is going to have that plan. So, it’s important to get there early if you want to find a coveted parking spot.
Chad and I left our house at 5 a.m. and made it just in time to nab one of the last parking spots. By 6:45 a.m. it was full. This can be expected in the peak seasons, notably summer and fall. (As a non-morning person, this was super tough!)
So, keep that in mind when you’re planning! The area was peaceful and we had much of the trail to ourselves when we first arrived. By 9 a.m., the trails were getting crowded. However, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the shuttle system and how easy it is, and the money goes to a really good cause (conservation!), so it really does come down to preference and affordability. Do you!
Maroon Bells has several hiking options and trails that continue on to different routes. For any of the hikes, be sure to bring appropriate footwear (closed-toe for sure), water, and sunscreen. Layers, too! Dogs are also welcome, as long as they’re kept on a leash.
For a complete list of trails, click here.
Maroon Lake Scenic Trail
Though we stumbled on this trail accidentally (Chad more or less got us lost), it was a huge blessing. The Scenic Trail is an easy 1-mile trek that starts at the parking lot and follows along the edge of the lake, through a few Aspens and wild flower hot spots.
Since we were there so early, we had the bulk of the trail to ourselves. It was dazzling. Between the early morning dew on the vibrant greenery to the babbling creek beside us, the scenic trail was a perfect warm-up. The only thing missing was a moose sighting, though we kept our eyes peeled the entire time.
- Distance: 1.9 miles
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation: 100 ft gain
- Trail type: Loop
The Crater Lake Trail was a little more difficult, with a steady incline, lots of rocks (high-ankle boots are preferred), and a few switchbacks. It’s the quintessential Colorado hike though, taking you through wooded Aspens, alongside boulders, and up to a high-alpine lake.
For us, we aren’t in ultimate hiking shape, so we took a few stops along the way to catch our breath with the altitude gain. However, we fared pretty well overall, and loved the scenery along the way.
Crater Lake is at the top, with draw-dropping views and plenty of spots to sit and soak it all in. We sat on a log and hung out for a bit after we got here, laughing at the chimp monks and feeling absolutely lucky to live in such a gorgeous state.
- Distance: 3.8 miles round trip
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation: 692 ft gain
- Trail type: There and back
Maroon Bells: Overall Rating
To be clear, a trip to the Maroon Bells is worth it. If you’re in the Aspen area—or Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Rifle, Silt, Carbondale, or Snowmass—make the time for a trip to Maroon Bells. Beyond scenery, the area is restorative. There’s nature, calm, and true wonder as you breathe in all of the surrounding vibrancy.
You can’t help but just feel at peace.