Mountain Lakes, Rivers, and Passes of the Maroon Bells, Colorado

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14151A, Backpacking


  • Experience rigorous hiking over five alpine passes, including the celebrated Buckskin Pass
  • Camp by four alpine lakes for six nights
  • Enjoy a variety of forests, alpine meadows, and wildlife


  • All meals
  • All group equipment (bear canisters, cooking equipment, stoves)
  • Easy-going leaders, beautiful scenery, long hikes in the mountains


DatesJul 19–26, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffCraig Woodcook

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Trip Overview

The Trip

The Maroon Bells is located in the White River National Forest's Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. This area is often claimed as one of the most photographed areas in the United States due to its wide variety of environs and its plethora of panoramic views. The group will trek through wildflowered meadows and aspen valleys, visit waterfalls, and hopefully encounter an abundance of wildlife.

We will be hiking this area on its 50th anniversary of being included in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Our journey of (roughly) 50 miles will include hiking over five iconic passes and camping at four splendid lakes for six nights, all in the shadows of the magnificent Maroon Bells. Eating hearty food while camping near the star-reflected lakes makes this trip’s nights especially social and memorable.


The following is the expected itinerary; however, largely due to permitting requirements and restrictions, it is subject to change. On-trip modifications may also be necessary due to group pace and weather.

Day 1: Since we have a long first day (over eight miles) with quite a bit of elevation gain (2,200 feet), we will get an early start and meet at the designated parking area at 7 a.m. This will ensure a more relaxed first-day pace with ample time for breaks and lunch. We will start at the Maroon-Snowmass Trailhead (elev. 8,420 feet) and will hike by (and across) Snowmass Creek for much of the trail. We hope to camp at Snowmass Lake on our first night.

Day 2: Today we will journey over Buckskin Pass (elev. 12,462 feet), which offers spectacular views of both the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak. We will then descend through some meadows and ascend over Willow Pass (12,580 feet) before camping at our second lake.

Day 3: We will backtrack a short distance and again traverse Willow Pass, then Minnehaha Gulch. From there, we will descend through a forest of aspen to our third lake in three days. Distance: approximately five miles.

Day 4: Today we encounter our third pass, West Maroon Pass (elev. 12,500 feet). We have several stream crossings and we will hike through a willow forest. Our camp will be somewhere near the East Fork of the Crystal River. There's no alpine lake, but the stream is simply serene. Distance: approximately five miles.

Day 5: Today we travel over our fourth pass, Frigid Air Pass (elev. 12,415 feet), and camp by our fourth lake. The breathtaking waterfalls along the way make today’s eight-mile hike well worth it.

Day 6: Today we travel over our fifth pass, Trail Rider Pass (elev. 12,400 feet), and again camp at Snowmass Lake. On the easiest day of the trip (less than four miles), we will meander through meadows and catch great views of waterfalls.

Day 7: We will repeat day two.

Day 8: Today we have a long downhill hike (over eight miles). Our last day starts out in the tundra, before descending through a boulder field, a meadow, and a forest of aspen, pine, and spruce. We will have completed our figure-eight journey and end at our cars.



Getting There

Snowmass Village is the closest town to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area with overnight accommodations. Before the trip, your leaders will be staying in this vicinity in order to acclimatize and make last-minute arrangements. If you’re traveling by air, Denver is generally the easiest airport. From Denver, it is about a four-hour drive to Snowmass Village. Flying into Vail is also an option and reduces the drive to Snowmass Village to two hours. Ride-sharing is greatly encouraged and trip participants will be put in touch with each other so they can coordinate.

Accommodations and Food

Your trip includes all meals from lunch on the first day through breakfast on the last day. Bear canisters, stoves, and cooking equipment will also be provided. All group gear and food will be re-distributed each day.

Given the altitude, almost all dinners will include a soup as a supplement to the main course. Main courses often include chicken and fish-based tacos, pastas, and rice dishes. Lunches are on the go and often consist of tuna, summer sausage, cheese, crackers, peanut butter, and flatbreads. Breakfasts will often include granola, oatmeal, eggs, and breakfast tacos. These meals are not vegan or vegetarian friendly; however, the leaders are glad to discuss diets with interested individuals. All kitchen duties, including filling water bottles, will be shared by the entire group.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated 4 on a scale of 1 through 5 as we will be hiking approximately 50 miles almost entirely over 10,000 feet and traversing over five different passes that are over 12,000 feet. No layover days are scheduled, and while the average hiking day is six miles, three days contain hikes over eight miles. You will need to be in very good physical condition and be able to carry a pack weighing approximately 45 pounds. (Your personal gear should weigh no more than 25 pounds; in addition to it, you will be given approximately 15-20 pounds of food and group gear to carry.) Elevation training (stairs, high-grade treadmill, steep trails) is a must, as is good cardiovascular training.

Prior backpacking experience is beneficial, but not required as long as you are in good physical condition. The weather of the Maroon Bells changes suddenly and often includes afternoon thundershowers. Daytime temperatures average in the mid 70s and nighttime/morning temperatures average in the mid 40s, but can easily reach freezing.

Almost our entire trip will be above 10,000 feet; thus, arriving at the Maroon Bells a few days early to acclimatize is highly recommended!

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed equipment list will be provided to all trip participants. All participants must provide their own backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, rain gear, broken-in waterproof hiking boots (and recommend water shoes or sandals), tent (although participants may share), and personal gear. Hiking poles are also strongly encouraged given the numerous stream crossings. Clothing should be easily layered as daytime temperatures average in the mid 70s and nighttime/morning temperatures average in the mid 40s, but can easily reach freezing.


  • Movar, Erik, Hiking Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness (A Falcon Guide).
  • National Geographic’s Maroon Bells, Redstone, Marble Trails Illustrated #128.


The Sierra Club’s conservation efforts and Leave No Trace principles will be casually discussed throughout the trip. Given we will be hiking the Maroon Bells during the 50th anniversary of its inclusion in the 1964 Wilderness Act, special attention will be given to this topic.

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



Craig Woodcook has been backpacking and camping for most of his life. He has backpacked with the Sierra Club on the Appalachian Trail and Rocky Mountain National Park. Craig tries to take at least one extended backpacking trip each year and greatly enjoys meeting every participant. He is very excited about hiking 50 miles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Maroon Bells’ inclusion in the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Assistant Leader:

Glenn Gillis recently retired from the U.S. Postal Service and backpacks, bicycles, and kayaks extensively throughout the entire United States. He has considerable outdoors knowledge and has himself led a tremendous number of trips for the Sierra Club and numerous other conservation-and preservation-focused organizations.

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