Posted: Mar 02, 2017 by Sam Szarka
The Maroon Bells – Snowmass wilderness is one of the crown jewels of the United States wilderness system. Beautiful rocky mountain scenery consisting of the iconic bell shaped peaks of the Maroon Bells, enchanting aspen forests, soaring lofty peaks, and wildflower meadow lands charm landscape photographers and tourists alike. But finding solitude in the busy Maroon Bells – Snowmass wilderness can be a challenge. Recently the Maroon Bells 4 Pass Loop has been popularized and have caused some to look for alternative trails to enjoy the stunning scenery of this special part of Colorado.
Situated on the northern portion of the wilderness, the Snowmass, East Snowmass, Willow, Maroon, and Conundrum Creeks form parallel, north-south oriented valleys. In the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness, for ease of travel hiking trails follow valleys from the lowlands to the valley terminus. Many valley trails will connect to neighboring trails by traversing high mountain passes forming the Maroon Snowmass wilderness trail network.
The Snowmass to East Snowmass Creek loop is a 21 mile loop in the northern part of the Maroon Snowmass wilderness near Aspen, Colorado. The trail connects the Maroon Snowmass Trail (#1975), the Willow Lake Trail (#1978) to East Snowmass Trail (#1977) (in that order). The loop can be done in either direction, but it is easier to begin the loop on the Maroon – Snowmass trail which follows the Snowmass Creek up a scenic mountain valley to Snowmass Lake. Before arriving at the lake, you’ll encounter a logjam that dams a small lake. The trail crosses the creek at this point across the logjam. Continue south toward Snowmass Lake. At Snowmass Lake, turn east continuing on the Maroon – Snowmass trail to 12,462 foot Buckskin Pass. From Buckskin Pass, a long limestone ridge to the south appears, called the Sleeping Sexton. Just beyond it, the north face of the North Maroon Peak is visible. Look directly across the Maroon Creek valley (looking southeast) from the pass and you’ll notice purple hued Pyramid Peak, one of five fourteen thousand foot high peaks located here.
The portion of the trail between Snowmass Lake and Buckskin Pass is extremely scenic with views of Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Lake below. It is also the only leg of the loop that is also in common with the 4 Pass Loop and you will likely encounter a fair amount of fellow backpackers here. Continue down from Buckskin Pass only a few switchbacks to the Willow Lake trail signpost (trail #1978). The Willow Lake trail turns back northward toward Willow Pass. This is an extremely steep section of trail but it is well worth it! Keep heading up to the pass and over to the northern side where Willow Lake will come into view below. You may choose to head down the trail to Willow Lake to camp or to enjoy the lake itself. But note that the trail forks a short way before Willow Lake. The fork is East Snowmass Trail (#1977), and is the last leg of the loop hike. Head north on the East Snowmass trail over one final steep climb over a mountain pass. This trail is fainter and the least traversed of all of the trails so far. Continue on the trail over the pass into the beautiful and verdant East Snowmass valley. The trail follows the valley north several miles dropping in elevation rapidly back to the trailhead.
The Snowmass to East Snowmass Creek Loop is best experienced in the summer months or early fall. During the months of July and August, the high alpine tundra turns verdant green and blooms with sunflowers, gentian, paintbrush, larkspur, columbine, and many other rare mountain wildflower species. The deciduous aspen trees that cover the lower montane zones turn iridescent green and contrast with the maroon and dark grey hued peaks. During the fall, the alpine tundra goes dormant, and the grasses and forms turn a golden yellow or reddish brown. The aspen forest also turns color from summer green to a brilliant yellow gold. This happens for a brief time during the last week of September. If you visit later, most of the leaves will be gone. Winter is a dangerous time in the Maroon Snowmass wilderness. The mountains here collect a high amount of winter snow that often produce avalanches.
Finding the Trailhead
The trailhead for both East Snowmass and the Maroon – Snowmass trails is located at the end of Snowmass Creek Road, County Road 11.
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