America's Most Photographed Mountain Peaks Tower Over Colorado
In Colorado’s Rocky Mountains lie the two fourteeners -- Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak -- that together comprise the Maroon Bells. As Princess Di was the most photographed woman in the world, so the Maroon Bells are the most-photographed peaks in North America. Iron-rich mudstone distinguishes the two mountains from the rest of the Rockies with a signature maroon tint that’s accumulated over the last 300 million-ish years. Nestled into the Elk Mountains near Aspen and woven through with hiking trails and fishing holes, the Maroon Bells are so sublime that more than 300,000 people will descend upon them in the summer months alone -- though the most popular time of year to visit these peaks is September, when the leaves are turning and the aspens are quaking.
Pristine slopes around Aspen draw people from around the world each winter; wildflower fields carpet the mountains each spring. The region holds hiking trails that’ll challenge even the most practiced climbers. Perhaps a look at a few of the most stunning spots will inspire your next trip -- you’re the only one who hasn’t had a Maroon Bells photoshoot yet.
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Snowmass Wilderness Area
The Maroon Bells are surrounded by the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. The area contains legendary trails like Four Pass Loop, a 26-mile backpacking circuit that summits four separate mountain passes that lie above 12,000 feet. Late summer is the best time of year to make the trek, when churning snowmelt isn’t making river crossings as treacherous. There’s no fee required to hike through.
A relic of the late 1800s, Crystal Mill looks like something that should only exist in The Lord of the Rings, or a Windows 95 screensaver loop. Look at this thing. There used to be an accompanying wooden waterwheel, which helped generate power to ventilate nearby silver mine shafts, but time has left us only the mill itself; the nearby town of Crystal is a ghost town. Today, Crystal Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places, and accessible by trail in the summer and fall.
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Figuring heavily into all those prized Maroon Bells pics, Maroon Lake is best enjoyed in the summer months by hiking in via the Maroon Lake Scenic Trail and resting at the ever-popular Maroon Bells Scenic Area. Prime trout fishing around dawn and dusk, too. There’s a $10 fee per vehicle to enter the area, but also a bus running from the nearby Aspen Highlands Resort between 8am and 5pm if that’s more your speed.
Not far from Maroon Lake lies Crater Lake, which you can hike into from the same trail after you continue past Maroon Lake, crossing the valley between Sievers Mountain and Pyramid Peak (more on those in a minute). Crater Lake is the other essential location at which to post up for a photoshoot -- and a picnic -- under the most iconic view of the Maroon Bells. Peak Maroon Bells, if you will. And if routes like the Maroon Lake Trail seem too easy for your enterprising hikers out there, you won’t be disappointed by everything that comes next.
Conundrum Creek Trail
Got your bear spray and water-filtration gear? Hit the Conundrum Creek Trail, which follows its namesake creek past unbelievable views of Mt. Hayden, Cathedral Peak, Conundrum Peak, and Castle Peak. After about eight and a half miles, two creek crossings by log bridges and one by wading, you’ll arrive at...
Conundrum Hot Springs
These clothing-optional hot springs sit at an elevation of 11,200 feet, and you’ve definitely earned your soak if you hiked in from Conundrum Creek Trailhead. The springs are accessible by car, but keep an eye out for private property signs and know that your car will be towed if you leave it parked along Conundrum Creek Road; there’s a designated parking lot for you at the trailhead. Conundrum Creek Hot Springs are accessible from roughly late June through October, and overnight stays here are definitely the move. There are 20 campsites available each night, for which you’ll need a permit.
Another popular Elk Mountains fourteener inside the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, Capitol Peak is a notoriously challenging climb. You can hike in via the 15-mile Capitol Peak Trail from Snowmass Village, and the views from the summit are matchless -- Snowmass Mountain to the south, Maroon Bells to the east, and beyond them the silhouette of the Continental Divide. To get to that view, though, you’ll first have to make it though...
The most dangerous passage of the Capitol Peak Trail is Knife Edge -- an infamous 150-foot-long balancing act with a 2,000-foot drop on either side, and which many choose to tackle by scooting along on their butts. No shame in that: this is serious stuff. A fall could easily mean death, and the Maroon Bells have at times been known by a darker moniker -- the Deadly Bells.
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Pyramid Peak, accessible via the 7.2-mile Pyramid Peak Trail, looms over Crater Lake and provides some of the most stunning views of the region’s wildflowers. For those of you confident in your technical climbing abilities, these Elk Mountains fourteeners really are a treasure trove of adrenaline. Watch out for mountain goats, which are there to guide your on your journey and also to remind you that all the gear in the world cannot make you half as agile on these slopes as a creature without opposable thumbs.
In the Maroon Creek Valley, near Maroon Lake, you’ll find exquisite views of Sievers Mountain. Don’t overlook it when you’re planning your hiking checklist just because it’s not a fourteener (12,720 feet at the summit). Hit the 13-mile Willow Lake Trail loop -- you’ll be rewarded at the treeline with a lonely, exquisite view of Willow Lake. As with all the trails in the Maroon Bells and broader Snowmass Wilderness Area, just remember: #leavenotrace. Trash never looks good in pictures.