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April 2001

Backpacking Colorado’s Elk Mountains

When it pours, good rain gear and a great sense of humor help you find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Elk Mountains, CO

  • Getting there: The 181,117-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado’s fourth-largest wilderness, is about 31/2 hours west of Denver. The Maroon Lake trailhead is at the end of Maroon Creek Road, off CO 82 half a mile west of Aspen.

  • Season: Weather patterns change quickly. Summer weather is usually dry, but afternoon thunderstorms are common. Daytime highs range from the 50s to the 80s, and nighttime lows from the 20s to the 40s, depending on elevation. Snow can occur in any month at higher elevations. Trails and passes often are not free of snow until mid-July.

  • Trails: The wilderness area has 100 miles of trail and nine passes higher than 12,000 feet. Our 5-day loop from Maroon Lake followed the Maroon-Snowmass Trail (No. 1975) to West Maroon Creek Trail (No. 1970) through West Maroon Pass to North Fork Fravert Basin Trail (No. 1974) through Frigid Air Pass to North Fork Cutoff Trail (No. 1976) and Geneva Lake Trail (No. 1973) through Trail Rider Pass. Finally, at Snowmass Lake, the route turns right (east) onto the Maroon-Snowmass Trail, following it over Buckskin Pass and back to the trailhead.

  • Elevation: The route we took ranges from 9,500 feet at the trailhead to four passes higher than 12,400 feet. If you’re coming from sea level, spend a night or two in a nearby town before your hike to begin acclimating. Plan to hike fewer miles per day than you would at lower elevations. Stay hydrated and hike at a pace that allows you to breathe deeply and easily. Treat any prolonged symptoms, including headache, nausea, loss of appetite, and especially diminished physical coordination or level of consciousness, by descending immediately. For more information on preventing altitude sickness, see “Heave Ho!” (August 1999).

  • Permits and access: No permit is required for backpacking, but parking at the trailhead requires a 5-day pass ($10). Maroon Creek Road is not maintained during the winter due to high avalanche hazard.

  • Guides: Trails Illustrated’s Maroon Bells/Redstone/Marble map (#128, 800-962-1643;; $9.95). USGS 7.5-minute quads, Snowmass Mountain and Maroon Bells (888-ASK-USGS;; $4).

    Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach (Fulcrum, 800-992-2908;; $18.95), describes routes up the Elks’ six 14ers.

  • Walk softly: Use established campsites or camp at least 200 feet from trails, lakes, creeks, and wet meadows. If you camp at Snowmass Lake, use designated sites. No campfires. Check with land managers for federal wilderness regulations before you go.

  • Contact: White River National Forest, Aspen Ranger District, (970) 925-3445;

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