Thursday, August 23, 2018

Backpacking the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

In a state known for its mountains, the Maroon Bells stand out among Colorado's most iconic peaks.  Located just a short drive from the mountain resort town of Aspen, the Bells are among the most photographed and visited peaks in the state, possible even the entire US.  Despite the Maroon Bells proximity to Aspen and fairly easy road access, the peaks stand within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness contains more than 180,000 acres within the rugged Elk Range.  With its stunning scenery, it comes to no surprise that the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is one of the busiest in Colorado.  The area offers about 100 miles of trails, making it a paradise for hikers and backpackers.

The Four Pass Loop is possibly Colorado's most popular backpacking loop and draws hikers from around the country.  As its name implies, it travels over four passes, all over 12,000 feet, as it circumnavigates the Maroon Bells on a 26-28 mile loop.  While it circles around the two 14,000 foot summits of the Maroon Bells, the route also passes under 14ers Snowmass Mountain and Pyramid Peak.  Much of the route is above treeline.

When I first moved to Colorado, I planned on hiking the Four Pass Loop as a one day trip.  While I have done several one day endurance treks, I really wanted to get more out of the region.  I looked over a map of the area and researched other routes.  Besides the Four Pass Loop, I found several other backpacking trips in the area.  The East Snowmass-Snowmass Loop is a slightly shorter loop to the north that shares a section of the Four Pass Loop and climbs three 12,000 foot passes.  Also sharing part of the loop is the nearly 40 mile Capitol Circuit.  The Capitol Circuit also features four passes as it circumnavigates 14ers Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain.

I decided on a more ambitious 51 mile loop that incorporated parts of all three of these treks including a little extra travel.  My route would include 7 passes that climb over 12,000 feet, and additional high pass just under 12,000'..

I started my trek from the Snowmass Creek trailhead, just south of the town of Snowmass.  The more popular Maroon Lake Trailhead can also be used as a starting point.  Starting from Maroon Lake involves more logistics.  Parking is not available between 8AM-5PM.  During that time, you are required to take a shuttle to the trailhead from Aspen.  Parking and the shuttle are not free.  If taking the shuttle, you must also pay to park at one of the resort lots which is as much as $20 per day.  The Snowmass Creek trailhead does not have any fees.

I began my hike just after 9AM on Sunday, August 12th.  My route started on the East Snowmass Trail and I quickly entered the Wilderness.  Within a few minutes of starting my hike, I passed a hummingbird that was sitting on the trail and seemingly unable to fly.

My first trail

Hummingbird on the trail

Entering the Wilderness

The East Snowmass trail does not access any of the areas 14ers and sees less traffic than some of the other trails.  The trail begins climbing above East Snowmass Creek through the forest before reaching meadows closer to the creek.  Above treeline the views open up to the surrounded ridges underneath forgotten 13,000 foot summits.  I passed numerous groups of backpackers that were descending the trail.  While the scenery is nice, the visibility was diminished a bit from smoke.  Numerous wildfires, including the largest in the history of California were burning and smoke had been moving into most of Colorado for a while.

The first meadow along the East Snowmass Trail

Along the East Snowmass Trail

The trail above treeline

Continuing toward the first pass

After 7 miles, I reached the first of my 8 passes.  While not officially named, I have seen the first pass referred to as East Snowmass Pass and also called North Willow Pass by locals.  No matter what you call it, at 12,680', it is the highest pass and point on my trip.  I climbed 4300 vertical feet in those 7 miles.  The pass overlooks the high Willow Lake basin with its several small lakes in addition to its larger namesake lake.

Looking back down the East Snowmass Trail

North Maroon Peak

Willow Lake with Pyramid Peak in the distance

Descending toward Willow Lake

From the first pass, the trail drops into the Willow Lake basin.  At over 12,000 feet, the basin is quite scenic.  The main lakes are framed by nameless, jagged peaks.  The rock in the area, the same rock that gives the Maroon Bells its name, is quite red.  Willow Lake looks like it would be a nice camping destination.  I think most of the backpackers I passed on the East Snowmass trail came from Willow Lake.  Despite the traffic on East Snowmass, I had the basin to myself.  I traveled through the grassy basin for less than two miles before reaching my next pass.

Dropping off East Snowmass Pass

Willow Lake Basin

The not so elusive whistle pig

The trail stays above 12,000' in the Willow Lake Basin

Jagged ridge above Willow Lake

Willow Pass is on the far right of this photo

You can see the trail in the Willow Lake Basin

Willow Lake

Nearing Willow Pass

Interesting rock coloring

Willow Pass stands about 12,600'.  From Willow Pass, I had my first view of 14ers North Maroon and Pyramid Peak.  The trail, now the Willow Lake Trail, drops quickly from the pass.  The trail passes a small, shallow tarn and stream before dropping into a gulch.

North Maroon and the Sleeping Sexton
(I don't know why it's called that)

At Willow Pass

Below Willow Pass

Small tarn

Just above this tarn I spotted some movement of something white on a hillside above me.  A pair of mountain goats made their way up the the small ridge.  It turned out to be a mother with a kid.  The mother would walk ahead.  The kid would playfully leap, then chase its mother.  I watched them for several minutes as I followed the trail.  Unfortunately they stayed on the move and I couldn't get too close for a good photo.  As the trail rounded the hillside, the gentle terrain gave way to cliffs.  Looking up at the cliffs, I could see the kid perched several hundred feet above the trail.

Mountain goats (Clicking on any image will enlarge it)

The mountain goat kid looking back at me

Kid looking down from its perch

Less than a mile from Willow Pass, my route joined the Four Pass Loop about a mile below Buckskin Gulch.  I could see a group of horses, some 700' above, at the pass as well as a few groups of hikers descending from the pass.  From Willow Pass to Crater Lake, the route descends 2400' vertical feet.  The views of North Maroon and Pyramid Peak frame the tough descent through Minnehaha Gulch.

Looking back toward the pass

North Maroon and Sleeping Sexton

Looking into Minnehaha Gulch

Pyramid and North Maroon

Pyramid

Passing by North Maroon

I eventually reached Crater Lake and the West Maroon Trail.  Crater Lake is only a short hike over easy terrain from the Maroon Lake trailhead.  I was there on a Sunday afternoon and it was quite busy.  The lake offers a great vantage point of the Maroon Bells (both Maroon and North Maroon Peaks)  rising dramatically above the lake.  Unfortunately, this day wasn't the best.  Smoke from the fires obscured the view.  The normally scenic Crater Lake was quite dry with much of its banks exposed.  It looked more like a big puddle than a lake.  Nonetheless, large groups of people were around the lake taking photos.

View from Crater Lake

I didn't linger at Crater Lake and continued on my way toward West Maroon Pass, some 4 miles away.  I found the lower reaches of the West Maroon Trail to be the least attractive part of the trip.  The dryness of the Crater Lake basin didn't help.  The trail through here is fairly rough.  I guess the crumbly rock from the Maroon Bells filled the basin and left the trail a rock strewn scree field.  This area was also the busiest since numerous destinations converge.  Hikers on the Four Loop Pass, the Aspen-Crested Butte Traverse, weekend peakbaggers climbing the local 14ers, and tourists that go just a little beyond the lakes were all using the West Maroon Trail.

Waterfall above the trail

Looking up the West Maroon valley

Another waterfall above the trail

After leaving the scree, the trail crossed a creek.  Since I didn't have camping plans set for the night, I decided to take a break at the creek.  By now it was after 3PM.  With the prospect of a dry campsite, I decided to cook my dinner at the stream.  I enjoyed the longer break and felt refreshed.   By 4PM, I was back on the move, headed toward West Maroon Pass.

Now on the south side of the creek, the terrain mellowed.  The trail soon left the forest and traveled through high meadows with several small creeks.  As I climbed, the sky became cloudier, although not too threatening.  Eventually, West Maroon Pass comes into view as the trail climbed higher.  Within the last mile to the pass, a few sprinkles fell.  By the time I reached the pass, the shower stopped.  There were two others on the pass, and this would be the only pass that I didn't have to myself.

Nameless 13,000' peaks

Maroon

Looking back down West Maroon basin

The upper reaches of the West Maroon
Trail are quite lush

Looking at West Maroon Pass

Darkening skies

Precarious Peak on the right

The trail just before the pass

From 12,432' West Maroon Pass, the trail drops to the west.  Most people backpacking here will descend a mile and join the trail that climbs toward Frigid Air Pass.  The two passes are just over a two miles apart.  I intended to travel to Frigid Air Pass myself, but I had a longer route planned that added an additional pass on a lesser traveled trail.  My route also had a brief section of off trail travel.

Maroon and Pyramid in the distance

Looking southeast from the pass

Looking north from the pass toward Belleview Mountain

From West Maroon Pass, the skies looked somewhat ominous.  Rain looked like a real threat and thunderstorm activity wasn't out of the question.  My goal for the day was to drop below West Maroon Pass and camp.  This would allow me to hit my next two passes in the morning before the chance of thunderstorms.  At this point I had plenty of daylight left.  I still hadn't seen lightning or heard any thunder.  I decided to take my chances and continue further.

Looking toward Pyramid and Thunder

Looking southwest from the pass

Interesting rock features above the pass

I dropped off of West Maroon Pass toward Schofield Park.  The trail in this section is lush and green.  The grey skies contrast with green meadow added to the beauty.  I passed numerous groups of tents as I descended.  I quickly passed the turn off for Frigid Air Pass and continued my descent.  After 1200' of elevation loss and 2 miles of traveled, I reached my next leg, the Hasley Basin Trail.

Descending from West Maroon Pass

This basin was also quite lush

Heading toward Schofield Basin

Looking back toward West Maroon Pass

A tarn in the basin

Prior to my trip, while researching, I saw that the junction for the Hasley Basin Trail was signed.  What stood out, was the sign was only knee high.  The sign indicated West Maroon Pass and Hasley Basin.  A few years have passed since the photo was taken.  I finally reached the junction and saw a knee high sign but the Hasley Basin part was missing.  The sign was quite short with West Maroon Pass indicated.  A trail headed toward Hasley Basin, albeit overgrown with thick willows.  The tread was quite visible and worn however.  I figured it must be the trail.

Interesting light

Grey skies despite a few peaks of sunshine

After a short distance, the willows were less dense and it looked more like a trail.  I continued to keep an eye and ear to the sky for signs of a thunderstorm but nothing was brewing and I continued up the Hasley Basin Trail.  Navigating the trail was straightforward with on exception.  The trail splits at one point about a 1/2 mile from its start.  A purposely placed cairn stands between the two trails and it isn't obvious which trail is correct since both are very well tread.  The trail to the left is the proper trail to reach Hasley Pass.  The area is used for sheep grazing and numerous herd trails are visible but they are all faint.  The actual trail is obvious beyond the split.

Heading toward Hasley Pass

Maroon beyond Frigid Air Pass

 Mt Bellview, not to be confused with Belleview Mtn
which is also in the area

Just below Hasley Pass

Maroon

Looking back from the pass

The ridge just east of Hasley Pass

I reached 12,144'  Hasley Pass fairly quickly after the split.  The trail is rather gradual to the pass.  From Hasley Pass, I planned on heading to Frigid Air Pass.  On most maps there is a trail shown between the two passes.  The trail, however, is no longer maintained.  The most recent information I found on the trail indicated that the trail disappears between the two passes.

Vast area of tundra
Snowmass and Hagerman

Looking across the upper reaches of Hasley Basin

Hagerman and Snowmass

The Hasley Basin Trail continues north into the basin from its crest.  Just below the crest, a faint trail diverges to the east through scree.  There is no sign for this trail and it is easy to miss.  Once on the trail, following it through the scree it becomes obvious.  After passing through the scree, the trail appears to head downhill into the basin.  Ignore this trail, and head towards a saddle in the distance in direct line.  A very faint path comes and goes in this stretch.  Maroon Peak stands out like a gun sight beyond the saddle.  If you lose the trail, just head toward Maroon Peak until you reach the saddle.  Once at the saddle, the trail is very easy to follow toward Frigid Air Pass.

The trail through the scree

The route stays above treeline while crossing the tundra and just barely dips below 12,000'.  With the high elevation, I was rewarded with constant views.  The skies were still quite grey but there were still no signs of thunderstorms. 

Cloudy skies combined with smoke made some drab photos

After crossing the scree and entering the tundra, I was serenaded by something I never encountered while hiking.  The upper reaches of Hasley Basin were filled with a large flock of domestic sheep.  It seemed like quite a large herd spread out, grazing on the tundra.

Passing the sheep

The flock was spread out

I don't think the sheep appreciated their scenery

From the saddle, there is a short stretch of trail before reconnecting with the Four Pass Loop.  Once on the Four Pass Loop, the trail climbs steeply to 12,405' Frigid Air Pass.  By the time I reached the pass, it was 730PM.  The skies looked quite threatening and a steady breeze made it feel quite chilly.  I took a few pictures and dropped into the Fravert Basin.

Frigid Air Pass

Bellview

Gothic and Baldy

I came from the trail to the right dropping from the saddle

Maroon

Dropping off of Frigid Air Pass

Tarn in the upper reaches of Fravert Basin

The Fravert Basin features bright green vegetation.  The upper part of the basin is surrounded by loft peaks and Snowmass dominates the landscape.  The green vegetation and red rock seemed to stand out in contrast to the dark grey skies.

Trail in Fravert Basin

The trail just below the pass

With the threat of rain looming, I hoped to make it below treeline to camp for the night.  Luckily gravity was working with me, and I made it below treeline fairly quickly.  I was hoping to find a campsite close to the water but was running out of daylight.  The grey skies sped up nightfall.  I found a satisfactory campsite that was well sheltered in the trees about 810PM at roughly 11,200' in elevation.  Despite the dreary skies, I didn't see any rain since West Maroon Pass.  I set up camp and ate a quick snack before turning in for the night.

Maroon

I traveled further than I hoped given my late start.  Based on my elevation, I hiked about 22.6 miles.  I managed to get five of the eight passes behind me.  I climbed 9,000 vertical feet.  It may sound like a long day, but I generally can hike from the time I get up, until dark.  I'm glad I retained my thru hiking endurance from my AT thru hike nearly 20 years ago.

When I went into my tent for the night, I left my rain fly open, despite the threatening skies.  Usually any rain on the nylon tent is noisy and wakes me up.  I expected it to rain.  I woke up a few hours later to use the bathroom.  The skies were clear.  It never did rain.

I woke up my second day just after 6AM, when the sun starts to illuminate the sky, to a nice clear morning.  I broke down camp and was on the move about 710AM.  After hiking a few minutes, I realized I could of had a much better campsite closer to the water if I hiked a short distance further.  The sky was already hazy from the distant fires and I could smell smoke.  The smell of smoke would last the rest of my hike.

Belleview in the morning light

Ridge along Fravert Basin in the morning light

As the Fravert Basin Trail drops, it stays close to the water.  There are numerous waterfalls along the trail.  Some of the campsites have prime views of waterfalls.  The steepest drop along the trail descends at the head of the largest waterfall.  Once below the falls, the trail enters a meadow with a great look at the plunge.  I found the largest falls to be conveniently named Fravert Basin Falls and it drops 120 feet.  Once in the meadow below, there are several good views toward it.  The falls makes a nice rumble as it tumbles through its rocky course.  There are a few spots to camp with a view of the falls.  There is one water crossing in Fravert Basin that could be difficult in higher water.  I was able to step across on rocks and stay dry.  Any more water, it would be an easy ford.  In high water, it could be a challenging crossing.

There is a campsite overlooking this waterfall

Another waterfall 

Near the top of Fravert Basin Falls

Looking down Fravert Basin

View from the top of Fravert Basin Falls

Fravert Basin Falls

Wide shot of the falls

Cruising through the basin

North Fork Crystal River

At the next junction, I followed the Four Loop Pass toward Trail Rider Pass.  After a mile and 1200' of climbing, I reached another junction.  I diverted from the Four Pass Loop for good and followed the trail toward Geneva Lake.  The trail passes through a nice coniferous forest before reaching the lake's basin in another mile.

Climbing away from Fravert Basin

Smoky haze over Fravert Basin

I'm guessing  Snowmass but not sure

View just above Geneva Lake

Geneva Lake sits around 11,000' in an open basin.  The area is quite pretty with higher peaks to the north of the lake.  There are seven numbered campsites around the lake and it would make for a setting for an overnight stay.  It was still in the 9AM hour when I reached the lake, so I had no intention of camping and continued.

Geneva Lake

Making my way around the lake

Geneva Lake would make a nice place to camp

From the lake's outlet, the trail drops, steeply at times, over the next 3 miles as it makes its way toward the Lead King Basin.  Along the trail, Geneva Lake's outlet stream tumbles down cliffs with several impressive waterfalls.  The trail drops 1300 feet or so and exits the Wilderness at the Geneva Lake trailhead.

Treasury and Treasure Mountains in the Ragged Wilderness

Upper waterfall

Lower section of waterfall

Dense willows

Aspens

At the Geneva Lake trailhead, the trail ends at Forest Service Road 315.  Where the trail meet this road, there is a nice campsite along a stream.  I stopped for an extended break to hydrate and have a bite to eat.  My route dipped below 9700' feet at this point and is the lowest point, with the exception of the starting trailhead of my hike.

The next two miles I left trails and followed FSR 315.  Although it didn't seem too bad, access to this area is by a fairly rough on the road.  I didn't see any traffic as I made my way along the road.  Most of the route along the road passes through open terrain and the views are enjoyable.  I left the road at the Silver Creek trailhead.

The road walk isn't so bad with views like this

Another nice view from the road

The Silver Creek Trail almost immediately reenters the Wilderness.  The trail starts out in an open meadow.  The views are pretty continuous and open up after passing a junction less than a mile into the trail.  The trail becomes a little faint at times after the junction, but there is always enough tread visible to stay on track.  The trail enters a scenic alpine basin that is quite lush and green that is surrounded by the higher terrain as it makes its way toward the next pass.  Before the trail leaves the basin and begins its push for the pass, the route passes several small creeks.

Starting up the Silver Creek Trail

Looking back down the Silver Creek Trail

Continuing toward Silver Creek Pass

Nice views along the entire climb

Still making my way toward the pass

Several small creeks are along the trail

The view back down the trail

The trail left the lush basin and began its final climb toward Silver Creek Pass.  The trail pushes through rocky terrain as it traverses numerous switchbacks to the pass.  From my break at the start of FSR 315, the route climbed nearly 2600' over 4.4 miles.  I reached the 12,242' crest of the Silver Creek Pass.

The start of the steeper climbing to the pass

I gained elevation quickly

Nice rugged ridgeline

Looking back down from the pass

From the pass, I got a good look at my route ahead.  From nearly every vantage point, the Elks are an impressive range.  From the pass, I got my first glimpse of Capitol in the distance.  The pass on Capitol's west shoulder was my destination later in the day and easy to see.

The ridge between Snowmass and Capitol

Mt Richey on left and Capitol on far right on edge of picture

The clouds had increased all morning since I hiked.  From the pass, I got a good look to the north and it looked like the possibility of weather moving in.  I didn't hear any threat of thunderstorms at least.

Capitol

Mt Roxanne and Mt Richey

I dropped to the north side of Silver Creek Pass.  Almost immediately the trail disappeared at times.  An occasional cairn marked the way.  I would lose the trail for a short stretch, before it would become visible again.  Sometimes a cairn would lead the way.  I never would lose the trail too long.  Some stretches the trail would split and the correct path wasn't obvious.  Even if I took the wrong split, I would rejoin the correct path fairly quickly.  The trail tread was faint much of the route.

Looking back at Silver Creek Pass

Meadow Mountain and the ridge just east of Silver Creek Pass
The trail descending from the pass

Mt Richey
Capitol in the distance and I believe the closer
mountain is Siberia Peak

This was a very scenic trail
After the initial drop from the pass, the trail was rather undulating.   The trail never dropped below 11,400' and stayed above treeline for a nearly four mile stretch beyond the pass.  I eventually came to two very large cairns.  After the large cairns, the trail became much easier to follow.  At one point the trail traverses a long sidehill through a stretch of scree.

Section of faint trail

This was one of the longer, continuous stretches above treeline

Nice trail through talus field

View over scree field

The Elk Range is quite impressive

Sidehill trail through scree

Once past the scree, the route switchbacked up to another saddle around 11,800 feet.  The trail traversed some nice open terrain with nice views, particularly toward Capitol, before finally descending.  After five miles of hiking from Silver Creek Pass, the trail reached Avalanche Creek and the junction for Avalanche Lake.

View from the saddle

Capitol from the saddle

Another view near the saddle
Rugged peaks in every direction

Walking along the ridgetop

I stopped for a longer break at the creek to refuel.  My next stretch required a 1500' climb in 1.7 miles to the pass above Capitol Lake.  I also took the time to take off my shoes and socks.  By now my lower legs were quite dirty and I took the chance to wash them and clean my feet.  The sky was still dark to the north, but it didn't look quite as threatening as earlier.

Descending from the saddle
Dropping toward Avalanche Creek

Pika

From the Avalanche Lake junction, I reached the Capitol Creek Trail in about a 1/4 mile.   The Capitol Creek Trail climbs to a pass that separates the Capitol Creek and Avalanche Creek drainages.  Although the pass is unnamed, it climbs just over 12,000 feet.   I expected to drag climbing to the pass, but the climbing was easier than I thought.  After a short stretch in the forest, the trail broke out above treeline.

Heading toward Capitol
Looking south from the Capitol Creek Trail

This trail climbs to the pass over Capitol Peaks northwest shoulder.  Capitol Peak has a reputation as possibly the most difficult 14er in Colorado.  When hiking directly below its mass, the peak looks intimidating.  There isn't a flat spot visible.  Based on the amount of scree surrounding its base, the rock appears to be quite crumbly.  Much of the mountain is comprised of cliffs.

Getting close to Capitol and the pass

The trail headed to the pass

The pass overlooks Capitol Lake, which sit just a 1/2 mile or so below the pass at 11,585'.  The trail gets quite rough as it nears the lake and passes over scree fields.  Just below the lake are numerous numbered campsites.  Camping is only allowed at these numbered sites in the vicinity of the lake. I contemplated camping at one of these sites but continued hiking since it was only 530PM when I reached the area.

Capitol Lake from the pass

Looking back toward the pass over the lake

The area around the lake is rugged and scenic.  I'm  not sure how the camping would be.  The area is used as a base camp for climbers seeking Capitol Peak.  The sites fill up quickly.  I imagine the climbers are moving quite early, which could be a problem in the morning.  The other potential problem was the area was teeming with marmots.  I saw one lurking right outside of a tent.  While marmots aren't a threat like a bear, they still can be quite destructive and a nuisance, getting themselves and your gear in trouble.

Marmot

Yet another marmot looking for an
unattended campsite

From the Capitol Lake campsites, I hiked another 3 miles to my next junction.  After a series of meadows, the trail goes back into the forest.  Water was fairly plentiful with Capitol Creek never too far from the trail.

View below Capitol Lake

Further down the Capitol Lake Trail

After a couple miles, the trail passes through a fence and gate.  I entered a meadow full of cows.  On the edge of the meadow, only a few yard from some of the cows, I spotted a coyote.  The lone coyote seemed to be assessing the herd for a meal.  There were some larger calves in the group, but nothing seemed small enough to be taken down by a single coyote.  The nearby cows watch but didn't appear too concerned.  The coyote eventually saw me and took off into the forest.  The trail went through another stretch of trees before reaching another meadow full of cows.  A few cows stood in the middle of the trail, requiring me to leave the trail to pass them.

There always seems to be a cow guarding the trail

More cows ignoring my passage

The trail dropped below 10,000 feet in this stretch and I made it to the Capitol Creek/West Snowmass Trail junction about 630PM.  I dropped off the trail a couple hundred feet to find a flat spot in the woods to set up camp for the night. Not long after I stopped hiking, a light rain began falling, only lasting a few minutes. Although I could hear the water below, it wasn't the most easiest to access.

Since I still had water, I decided to cook before I set up my tent for the night.  After eating, I trudged down to the creek.  It wasn't very far, maybe a tenth of a mile, but numerous blowdowns and thick forest made it more difficult than I would have liked.  I packed as much water as I could carry to my tent.  A few more light sprinkles fell in this time, but it only lasted a few minutes.

Back at my campsite, I set up my tent.  With not much else to do, I went into my tent and looked over my map to see what was ahead.  I could hear the cows, not much more than a 1/4 mile away, occasionally from my campsite.  I was hoping they didn't visit me overnight.

Home for night two

My second day I covered just under 23 miles.  I climbed over another two 12,000' passes and gained more than 6000' in elevation.  Despite the dreary looking skies much of the day, I managed to avoid any rain until I stopped hiking for the day.

Once again, I left my rain fly open for the night.  A couple hours after I went to sleep, I awoke to the patter of light rain on my tent.  I closed the fly and quickly fell back asleep.  A couple hours later, I stepped out of my tent to go to the bathroom and noticed clear skies.

As the sky started brightening for the morning, I woke up.  After breaking down my camp and eating, I was back on the trail about 710AM.  The sky was noticeably hazy and the smell of smoke was in the air again.

The smoke and early morning sun made interesting colors

More smoke enhanced colors

I had less than 6 miles of hiking to finish my trip.  The steepest pass of my trip was just ahead.  The rest of my trip followed the West Snowmass Trail for majority of the distance.  From my campsite, the trail climbs 2000 vertical feet in about 1.5 miles to the crest of Haystack Pass.  Although the pass features the lowest elevation of the eight I have traversed, it is the steepest.

Mt Daly

Following the west side of the West Snowmass Trail toward Haystack Pass, the trail could be a little tricky to follow a few places.  There are numerous cow paths that braid off of the main trail.  Generally following the most obvious trail will take you on the correct route.  Most of the cow trails seem to fade quickly.  There was at least one blowdown that blocked the trail where the route wasn't immediately obvious.  After ascending through a mix of forest and meadows, the trail climbs above treeline.

Nice tundra walk

Once above treeline, the trail climbs quickly on a series of switchbacks.  I saw a few cows along the entire route, all the way to the pass.  Despite the steepness, I didn't find the climb to the 11,900'+ pass that difficult after a good night's sleep.  Despite thick haze and smoke, the views are quite impressive from the pass, particularly toward Mt Daly.

Headed to Haystack Pass

View east from Haystack Pass

The descent from the pass starts out pleasantly above treeline.  I continued to pass cows on the grassy slopes.  The trail often faces the interior of the Wilderness and the views continue along the descent.  Eventually the trail leaves the tundra and stays consistently in the forest for the last couple miles.  I saw the occasional cow all the way to Snowmass Creek.  From Haystack Pass, the trail drops nearly 3500' during its last 4.4 miles to the trailhead.

Smoky skies
Peaks to the south

Mt Daly

Another look at Daly

Well below treeline on the West Snowmass Trail, I saw something dart across the trail.  At first I thought it was a marmot.  I found it odd that a marmot was so low, now below 10,000'.  Soon it jumped in a tree and climbed.  I realized I saw a marten.  The marten climbed a spindly tree and didn't want to get down while I was so close.  I took a few pictures of it.  It stared down at me and made chortling noises.  This was only the second time I can confirm I saw a marten.  The last marten I saw also treed itself allowing for me to take a few photos.  That one was in the lower elevations of New Hampshire's Presidential Range.

Marten

I took 14 photos of the marten and these
are the only two that you can see its face

Less than a mile from the trailhead, I reached Snowmass Creek.  This was the only stream that I couldn't cross without getting my feet wet.  I removed my shoes and socks for the chilly ford. Just beyond the creek, I reached an unmarked junction.  This was the Maroon Snowmass Trail.  Although it wasn't signed, it was obvious since it was very heavily traveled.  Coming from the trailhead, this is the first junction you cross.  This would lead me back to the trailhead the last 3/4 of a mile.  I reach the trailhead about 1045AM.

A last look at the higher summits

Snowmass Creek, the only ford and less
than a mile from the finish

I'm glad that I chose this route over the Four Loop Pass.  I got a chance to see a large portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.  My route traversed over 8 high passes while covering about 51 miles with nearly 17,000 vertical feet of climbing.  Even with the smoky and cloudy skies, the scenery is outstanding.  I'm not surprised that this is one of the busiest Wildernesses in the state.  My only regret is not going a few weeks earlier.  By the time I hiked, the wildflowers were pretty well gone.

Willow Lake

View northeast from West Maroon Pass


For those wishing to visit this area to backpack, there are numerous options for trips that I have mentioned earlier.  If you are looking for dramatic, alpine mountains, The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness will not disappoint.  If you seek solitude, it will be hard to find here in summer.

View north from Silver Creek Pass

Despite crossing paths with people on nearly every trail, the crowds didn't bother me.  The area is easily accessible and the has incredible scenery.  While I'm sure the weekends are busier, particularly around the trailheads and campsites, there doesn't seem to be much less people here during the week.  The area is well known and people travel from all over the country, particularly around the Maroon and Crater Lakes area as well as the Four Loop Pass.

Capitol

Unlike my last trip in the West Elk Wilderness, which featured plenty of solitude and difficult to follow trails, the Maroon Bell-Snowmass Wilderness is much easier to navigate.  Generally the trails and junctions are well signed.  While the Silver Creek Trail had some challenging sections to follow, most of the other trails are well tread.

View from Silver Creek Trail

There are a few regulations to be aware of when traveling in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.  Permits are required for all groups for overnight stays.  These permits are self issued at every trailhead that enters the Wilderness and need to be carried by at least one member of each party.

Capitol Lake

All overnight users are required to have an approved bear canister for storage of food and anything else that may attract wildlife such as toothpaste or sunscreen.  Bear canisters are bulky and heavy.  There are routinely reports of bears in and around the busier campsites.  I have heard numerous reports of bears around Crater Lake in particular.  Prior to my trip, I contacted the local Ranger District and approved Ursacks may also be used for those hoping to save on bulk and weight.

Mt Daly from West Snowmass Trail

Some of the higher use areas have specific camping regulations.  Besides normal Wilderness camping regulations, camping at Crater Lake, Geneva Lake, Capitol Lake, and Snowmass Lake is limited to designated sites within a certain distance from the lakes.  While I didn't see any rangers during my hike, I'm told they will enforce these rules and issue fines for violations.  Also as I mentioned before, there are road and parking restrictions for access at the Maroon Lake trailhead.

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4 comments:

  1. Hey, Tomcat. What a great write-up. Thanks for posting this. My buddy and I are looking for a long loop in that area, and this might just be the ticket. We both thru-hiked the AT, he in in 1999 and I in 2000. We've got about a week to hike, so if you know of any longer loops, I'd love to hear about them.

    --Faceplant
    NOBO 2000
    adam23@gmail.com

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    1. This is a great loop and stays mostly in the Wilderness. Don't rush this year though, a real high snow season is pushing back the season. What's your buddy's trail name. I thru hiked in 1999 on the AT too.

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  2. Hey Tomcat, like Faceplant said, thanks for the excellent trip report. I think we're going to try your route in early August, assuming the passes aren't dangerously iced in. My trailname was Movin' when I thru-hiked the AT in 1999. I'm sure we crossed paths! Again, thanks for the great write-up.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the trip report. Check out the Four Pass Loop Facebook page for updates for your trip. As of a few days ago a ranger in that area said there was still 60% snow coverage.

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