September 5, 2020 · Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
The trek to Copper Lake by Crested Butte in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was one of the most interesting treks of the season. I have wanted to get some trail time in the Crested Butte area and this trail was spectacular. The weather was perfect, the sky was an incredible blue and there was not a cloud in the sky until mid-day, and then they were only scattered puffy white clouds. This was a long trek and took all day, but it was worth it.
The trailhead is close to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, which does interesting work and has an incredible view of Gothic Mountain and the surrounding peaks in the Elk Mountain Range. Though Elk Mountain Range seems to be a misnomer, a more appropriate name for this area would be Cow Range. I have never seen that many free-range cows inside of a Wilderness area. There are cows everywhere, on the trail, in the bushes and along the river in the valley.
The first cow I came across was just before the Wilderness boundary and perched on a ledge above the trail, grazing away as if that was the natural place for a cow to be. Shortly after crossing the Wilderness boundary, there was a larger group of cows spread across the trail, and in a meadow leading down to a Beaver pond. They are used to people and take their sweet time moving off the trail, if they move off the trail. It is a very strange experience to be on the trail in a Wilderness area and be able to walk through a group of cows. The cows range in age from calves to fully grown big fat cows, and they all look very healthy.
After passing this group of cows, the trail follows a gentle glide through a V-shaped valley that eventually opens into a U-shaped valley that is obstructed by thick conifers along the trail. It was early when I was in the V-shaped valley and it took some time for the sun to crest over valley walls and for the sun to hit the valley floor. As such it was a big chilly, but the colors of the valley walls are a rich color at this hour. The pale granite and iconic mudstone layering of the peaks in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are darker and dramatic.
You an always tell you are about to come up on a group of cows because you can hear and smell them before you see them. It was kind of humorous, walking in silence on the trail, only to have the silence broken by one or more cows mooing somewhere out of sight. The next group of cows that I came across was on a narrow part of the trail and they did not seem interested in moving to let me pass. I decided to take a detour up off the trail in into the trees to try and pass them. This was a bad idea, the sound of me moving through the underbrush in the trees spooked the cows and they became very noisy and clearly agitated by the sound I was making just behind the trees.
I made my way back down to the trail and got back onto the trail and got into a position where the cows could see me, and we stood there for a while so everybody would calm down. They still would not move so I started to walk at a normal pace towards them in the hopes they would spread out, they did not, so I had to walk through the cows. They were no more than an arm's-length away as I passed them. That was interesting, I have never been that close to a cow without a fence in-between us. Once I cleared this group of cows, I turned back and what did they do? They started to walk down the trail. Which was funny, because when I first encountered this group of cows, they were all facing up hill. Such is the way a cow's mind works.
The next group of cows that I came across were making their way up a gully from the river by the side of the trail. The trail was starting to get a little lumpier, but that did not seem to deter this group of cows. I passed them before they all got onto the trial, but after a while I heard something behind me, and when I turned back, they were following me up the trail. This continued for about five minutes. The only discerning part of this was, they were gaining on me. I was being out-paced, by cows, going up-hill on a trail in the mountains. However, the trail began to get too lumpy even for the cows and they stopped to ponder their next move. That was the last of the cows I would see on the way in, though not the last of them for the day.
The thick conifers begin to thin out right as you reach Copper Lake. Copper Lake is breathtaking, and at this hour, there were only a couple of people at the lake. It is a popular destination as I would find out on the way out. By this time, the sun had hit the valley floor and the pale scree-covered peaks to the west were lit up and vibrant with contrasting colors. The lake sits in a massive bowl with Precarious Peak in the background, and just to the South is a cone-shaped mudstone peak that at this hour was dark, almost coal-colored; it looked like a volcano. I can see why this is a popular destination to go camping. Everything about this area is a picture-perfect postcard.
The plan was to continue past Copper Lake and on around to the Copper Pass Spur, also known as Triangle Pass. When I reached the saddle just above Copper Lake, the view of Copper Lake and the valley below is breathtaking. The next leg of the trek was a descent down to the headwaters of the East Maroon Creek. This small meadow was beautiful, I do not know if this area is as popular a destination as is Copper Lake, but the views from this side of the saddle are equally impressive.
From this side of the saddle, there are spectacular views of the traditional red-colored, mudstone, layered peaks that people think of when they think of Aspen and the Maroon Bells area. The trail from here continues to down-town Aspen, though that would be a long, multi-day trek.
As I began to make my way up the Copper Pass Spur, it was clear this was not a common trail. The trail faded in and out often. Then at the foot of a waterfall that is the origin of the East Maroon Creek, it became painfully clear that the next leg of the trail was interpretive and required working your way up through a very large boulder field. It was here that I had lunch and pondered my next move. It was so peaceful and quite at the foot of this waterfall.
After reviewing the map and checking the time, I felt it was best to go back out the way I came in, rather than attempt the scramble through the boulder field. Making my way back to the saddle overlooking Copper Lake, I could see a lot of people at the lake by now, some where even swimming in the lake.
Once back in cow country, I felt more comfortable walking within an arm's length of the cows. I walked past one calf who was feeding. When the calf looked up at me, it had the biggest milk mustache I had ever seen. The last group of cows I had to walk through was a group of adolescent cows who were a bit jumpy as I got closer and they ran through the field to their bigger protector cow. The bigger cow did not seem to be amused and turned and started to walk towards me but stopped once it reached the trail.
This 16.2-mile roundtrip trek came in around 11 hours on the trail. I had a great time on this trail, and the cows on the trail added some levity to the trek. Copper Lake is stunning, and the views of the iconic mudstone layered peaks that make the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness were fantastic.