Hiking trails around Aspen: Part 1
July 14, 2004
This strenuous yet popular hike leads through groves of aspen and pine to a high-mountain lake. From mid-June to mid-August, expect to see a virtual palette of wildflowers. Drive west on Hwy. 82 from Aspen, then turn onto Castle Creek Road from the roundabout. Drive 10 miles up the Castle Creek Valley until you see the Elk Mountain Lodge, a large log structure, on the left. The trailhead, and parking, are on the right.
The trail starts steeply, switchbacking for about 1.5 miles before reaching a spruce stand where it levels out. Continue hiking to large meadow divided by aspen trees. The trail then rejoins the forest and rises more gently. About a half-mile before the lake, the trail crosses areas of rockslides. The lake, at 11,365 feet, is just beyond the second slide.
The Braille Trail, the first of its kind when it was dedicated in 1967, was designed to offer blind visitors a feeling of independence in the natural world. Those who walk it are encouraged to feel, hear, inhale and even taste nature. The trail winds nearly a quarter mile through a dense spruce and fir forest and crosses a wooden footbridge over a mountain stream. Twenty-three stations along the way let visitors read (in Braille or in print) about the local flora, fauna and geological formations. The trail is located off Hwy. 82 on the way to Independence Pass about 10 miles from Aspen near milepost 55
Given its proximity to the most-visited tourist attraction in Aspen, the Maroon Bells, this steep trail is well tread. Many use it as a launching pad for backpack trips into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The trail starts at Maroon Lake; at the far end of the lake, bear right to merge with the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Lake Trail. Hike this trail to Crater Lake. At the bulletin board near the lake, take the right fork, which climbs steadily through the trees up Minnehaha Gulch. In about a mile the trail exits the gulch into a vast alpine meadow. Buckskin Pass looms ahead. You’ll come to a sign for the Willow Lake trail junction in another half-mile. Take the left fork, pass through a meadow and climb the steep switchbacks to Buckskin Pass, where you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of the Elk Mountains.
Through Labor Day, the access to Maroon Lake is limited to shuttle buses only; buses depart regularly from the base of Aspen Highlands, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily (the last bus from the Maroon Bells leaves at 5 p.m.). After Labor Day, the buses will run on weekends through September. The cost is $6 for adults, $4 for children 6-16 and seniors, free for children under 6. Call 925-8484 for more transit information.
This is a good backpacking hike with access to many other wilderness trails. The trail itself goes to Capitol Lake. The trail actually starts with a half-mile of downhill before crossing Capitol Creek. It then parallels the creek most of the way up the drainage. Note that camping is not allowed in the meadows or within 200 feet of Capitol Lake, where 14,130-foot Capitol Peak looms overhead.
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From Aspen, drive 14 miles west on Hwy. 82 to the Old Snowmass Conoco. Turn left there, and drive two miles to the “T” intersection. Take a right onto Capitol Creek Road. The road is paved for the first 4.5 miles. When the pavement ends, drive another three miles to get to the Capitol Creek trailhead. The last mile of this trip requires four-wheel drive, so if you don’t have it, park two miles below the trailhead in the meadow.
Both tough and extremely popular, the trail follows Pine Creek canyon, ascending through forest, alpine meadows and scree fields to a high-mountain lake. It’s a steep climb for the first section, then levels out at the top of the canyon before ascending again. As you’d imagine, the views of the Elk Mountain Range from the trail are spectacular. If you’re up for hiking farther, the trail continues up to Electric Pass.
From Aspen drive west on Hwy. 82 to the roundabout; then turn onto Castle Creek Road. Drive 12.2 miles up the valley. Turn right shortly after passing the Ashcroft ghost town on the left. Follow the gravel road a half-mile to the trailhead.
This popular trail starts at Maroon Lake and leads to the base of the Maroon Bells. To encounter fewer people, hike it early or late in the day. (For access to the trail, see Buckskin Pass listing). Traverse the meadow to the far end of Crater Lake, then pick up the Maroon-Snowmass Trail to the right. You’ll face a steady climb through aspens up to the lake. Note that dogs are not allowed within 100 feet of Crater Lake.
Several trails will get you to Crested Butte, a summer neighbor and winter stranger. The shortest (and hardest) route goes along the West Maroon Trail from Crater Lake, over West Maroon Pass and down to Schofield Park, about 14 miles from downtown Crested Butte. (You can arrange for a taxi pickup from here to bring you to Crested Butte; call the Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce.) This 11-mile hike includes a 3,000-foot ascent and takes approximately eight hours. It’s easy enough for inexperienced-yet-fit hikers who want to try something different but will still keep experienced hikers entertained. The easiest, most direct route to Crested Butte follows the East Maroon Trail over East Maroon Pass to Gothic; it’s 14 miles one way. Given the complexity of such a journey, seek out good topography maps and directions at the Aspen Forest Service office (806 W. Hallam; 925-3445).
This moderate trail is used most frequently by backpackers seeking out the warm waters of the Conundrum hot springs, a set of natural pools at 11,200 feet. Given the popularity of the springs, the Forest Service has issued special instructions regarding campsite usage, human waste and dogs; pick up an information sheet at the Aspen Forest Service office. To help alleviate overcrowding, try to limit your stay to one night.
Not everyone on the trail is destined for the hot springs, however; many day hikers use it to access some pretty meadows and bridged stream crossings. The views of mountains and wildflowers are superb. To get to the trailhead, drive west from Aspen on Hwy. 82 to the roundabout. Turn onto Castle Creek Road, and go five miles to Conundrum Road. Make a right and continue for 1.1 miles to the
trailhead. If the parking is full, backtrack to an overflow
lot on Castle Creek Road ” don’t park on Conundrum Road.
An easy, close getaway into the forest, the Difficult Creek Trail begins at the Difficult Campground east of Aspen. Drive east on Hwy. 82 toward Independence Pass for about three miles; you’ll see signs for the campground on your right. Drive a half-mile down the campground road and park at the picnic area. The trailhead is at the lot’s southeast corner. Follow the trail onto a gravel road, which heads toward the Roaring Fork River. At the river, the trail goes left. Cross the river via a wooden bridge; the trail then turns right and climbs the bank. Within a half-mile, you’ll pass through an area of sagebrush and begin to parallel Difficult Creek. The trailpeters out after you pass the remains of several old cabins.
This trail, which has no incline of which to speak, is perfect for the entire family. About 1.7 miles one way (the natural turnabout point in the bench offering killer views of Mt. Daly), the Ditch Trail starts from the Divide parking lot in Snowmass Village.