Magnificent Maroon Bells, Colorado

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13164A, Backpacking


  • Hike spectacular mountain terrain in Colorado
  • Experience solitude, often on trails above 11,000 feet
  • Share your passion for the outdoors with like-minded people


  • Delicious meals and group cooking equipment
  • One and a half layover days for exploring without backpacks
  • Discussions about our nation’s beautiful public lands and wilderness protection


DatesAug 10–17, 2013
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffMichael Jensen
Photo: David Todd Schwartz

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Trip Overview

The Trip

"I think the best inspired painter that ever drew would fail in attempting to describe these mighty mountains. He may convey correctly enough an impression of their shape, their vast extent and sublime beauty. But there is something always left out which escapes all his colours and all his skill. Their aspects shift and vary continually. Their very shapes seem to undergo a perpetual transformation like the clouds above them. There is a mystery like the mystery of the sea — a silence not of death but of eternity."  - James Chisholm

Because of its beauty and spectacular scenery, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was included in the original 1964 Wilderness Act; additional area was added in the 1980 Colorado wilderness legislation.  In these Elk Mountains, glaciers carved out U-shaped valleys and cirques, and sculpted the iconic shape of the Maroon Bells.  Sparkling mountain lakes, deep red sandstone colored peaks, rock glaciers, mountain meadows filled with flowers, magnificent waterfalls, aspen forested valleys, krummholz above timberline, and other natural features were created by geologic forces, time, and weather. These high mountains include six that are over 14,000 feet and are the most photographed in Colorado. 

Our trip through this 184,000-acre wilderness will be a loop of about 40 miles, often above 10,000 feet.  We will cross a number of high passes, camp at several lakes, and enjoy the wilderness.  We may see elk and deer, which are plentiful in this area though under pressure from the developments at Aspen and Snowmass.  Despite being a popular area for backpackers and climbers (the peaks are among the most difficult to scale in the state), we will have an outstanding wilderness experience.  This challenging adventure will allow you to shed the cares and pressures of modern life and will help you to refresh your spirit.  

“Climb the Mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  - John Muir


Pre-Trip: On Friday, August 9th, the evening before the trip starts, we will meet so that everyone can introduce him/her self, have our “trailhead talk,” check weights of packs, and distribute commissary gear.  This will ensure a smoother start the next day at the trailhead. 

Day 1: We will meet at 9:00 a.m. at a designated parking area.  After a last-minute check of equipment, we will carpool to the Maroon Snowmass trailhead.  Following the Snowmass Creek Trail, we will hike about six miles and about 2,200-feet elevation gain into the heart of the wilderness area to a small lake for our first camp at about 11,000 feet. 

Day 2: The second day will be short (only about 2.5 miles) to Snowmass Lake, named for the large snowfield that lies on its eastern slopes. This short hike will allow more time for acclimatization and exploration around the lake.

Days 3-4: Following the Geneva Lake Trail and traversing Trail Rider Pass, we will travel about 4.5 miles to Geneva Lake, with an elevation gain and loss of about 1,950 feet. On the layover day you can explore without a pack, or relax in camp.

Day 5: Leaving Geneva Lake, we will follow the North Fork Fravert Basin Trail (North Fork of Crystal River) about 5.7 miles to Fravert Basin and find a campsite near the North Fork Crystal River.  We will have an elevation climb of about 1,970 feet, a loss of about 1,650 feet, and the campsite elevation is about 11,300 feet. 

Day 6: We will continue on the North Fork Trail over Frigid Air Pass to the West Maroon Pass Trail. Going over West Maroon Pass, we will hike along West Maroon Creek Trail until we find a good campsite.  Today’s hike is about 5.6 miles with an elevation climb of about 2,100 feet and a loss of 2,800 feet. 

Day 7: Today’s hike will lead us past Crater Lake onto the Maroon Snowmass Trail, then onto the Willow Lake Trail.  We will go over Willow Pass and camp at Willow Lake.  Mileage today is about 5.7 miles, with an elevation climb of about 2,600 feet and a loss of 1,600 feet.  Elevation of Willow Lake is 11,800 feet. 

Day 8: On our longest day for hiking (nine miles), we will follow East Snowmass Trail back to the Maroon Snowmass Trailhead.  Elevation gain is about 1,200 feet and loss is about 4,400 feet.  We will arrive back at the trailhead in the afternoon.

Wilderness travel can go as planned, or unforeseen conditions or circumstances can necessitate a change in plans, so please bring a flexible attitude with you on the trip.  Likewise, since we are not sure when we will arrive back at our cars on Saturday, August 17, please make your return flight reservations for Sunday, August 18 or later.



Getting There

For flying in, Denver is about 220 miles and four hours from the trailhead, which is near Snowmass Village.  Ride-sharing is strongly encouraged on Sierra Club outings, and a roster of trip members will be provided ahead of time to facilitate this.  Our first night’s camp is at an elevation of 11,000 feet; much of the trip and camping sites will be between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. It is highly recommended that you arrive a day or two before the trip to acclimatize. 

Accommodations and Food

The trip price includes meals from lunch on day one through lunch on the last day, as well as use of cooking gear, stoves, fuel, first-aid kit, and scale. All group gear and food will be weighed and distributed each morning.

A nutritious, high-energy diet is planned. Any food allergies or limitations should be indicated on your trip application. There will be chicken and fish on the menu, and summer sausage/beef jerky may be included in a couple of lunches. Vegetarians can be accommodated, but anyone not eating dairy products should consider another trip. Trip members will be divided into cook crews to help prepare meals and clean up during the trip. 

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated a 4.  There will be seven moving days of 2.5 to 9 miles each and one layover day (the short hiking day would be a half layover day).  The elevation is generally high (often above 11,000 feet), and a couple of days have significant elevation gain and loss.  It will be a moderate to strenuous trip on some days.  Backpacking at elevation will also seem more tiring until you are acclimatized, so arriving a couple of days early to get in some hikes before our trip begins will be especially helpful. You will need to be in good physical condition to carry 25 pounds of your own gear plus up to 15-17 pounds of group food and commissary. Proper preparation will enhance your wilderness experience, as well as show consideration toward your fellow hikers.

Daytime temperatures in August average in the low 70s. Nighttime and early morning temperatures could dip into the 30s. Afternoon thunderstorms and lightning are common. Hail, snow, high winds, and cold temperatures can also occur at this time of year. Snow fields may be present on the mountain passes. It is essential that participants be prepared for extremes in weather conditions, and also be flexible so that we can adapt our route to accommodate unexpected conditions or events. 

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed equipment list will be sent to all registered trip members. Participants are expected to furnish their own backpack and camping gear, as well as good raingear (including backpack cover), layers of clothing to keep you comfortable between 30-75 degrees, broken-in medium-weight waterproof boots, and other personal gear, eating utensils, toiletries, etc. Your personal backpack gear should weigh no more than 25 pounds as we will give you up to 15-17 pounds of commissary gear (in a bear canister). You may also find hiking poles helpful for stream crossings, steep downhills, and difficult terrain.



  • Molvar, Erik, Hiking Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness (A Falcon Guide). 
  • Kershaw, Linda J., Andy MacKinnon, and Jim Pojar, Plants of the Rocky Mountains. 
  • Dahms, David, Rocky Mountain Wildflowers (A Pocket Guide).
  • Tekiela, Stan, Birds of Colorado.


The complete route of our trip can be found on Trails Illustrated Map #128 Maroon Bells Redstone, Marble.  We will be using the following 7.5 minute USGS topographic maps: Snowmass Mountain and Maroon Bells; first and last days are primarily on Capitol Reef and Highland Peak. These are available by download or purchase at  Both leaders will be carrying these maps (or parts of them), so it would not be necessary to bring these except for your own interest and curiosity. 


We will discuss the Sierra Club’s role in protection of wild and wondrous places, the Wilderness Act that set aside areas such as the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area, and some of the dangers and assaults on this natural environment.

The Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness is part of America’s 110 million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System, which provides protected habitat for rare and endangered plants and animals. These habitats include riparian zones near rivers and streams, mountain meadows, alpine tundra, conifer forests, and aspen groves. Warming climate, decreased annual snowpack, and reduction of surface water has significantly impacted these habitats. Mountain pine beetle infestation, decimation of lodgepole and ponderosa forests, dying aspen groves, habitat encroachment from development, and environmental concerns related to extraction of natural resources will be discussed. Participants are urged to share their experiences from their local activities, so we can all learn about new areas. 

We will travel lightly upon the land by learning and practicing Leave No Trace principles throughout the trip. Reducing our camp footprint by sharing tents, camping in designated campsites to limit impact, and packing out all that we pack in (including food scraps) will help keep the wilderness as pristine as before so that those who come after us will have the same sense of discovery that we will have. 


Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from White River National Forest.



Michael Jensen has been hooked on backpacking since his first backpack trip in the Wind River Range in 1980. He has backpacked on Sierra Club and personal trips in twelve states and Canada. Sharing glorious vistas with interesting new people makes these trips a wonderful experience. While his job at a university keeps him indoors too much, in his spare time his outdoor activities with family and friends include day hikes, backpacking, telemark skiing, and an occasional canoe trip. Michael also enjoys reading, writing fiction, and photography.


Becky Wong is from British Columbia, Canada. She is also a marathon pacing coach and runner. Becky has led trips with the Sierra Club on the Rainbow Plateau in Arizona and the Sierra Nevada. She also has many years of backpacking on the West Coast of Vancouver Island as well as in the Canadian Rockies. She believes in spending as much time as possible outdoors. "Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit" - Edward Abbey. Becky is a Certified Wilderness First Responder.

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