October 5, 2019 · Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
The hike to Snowmass Lake in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness inside of the White River National Forest is a long hike but is in a valley that follows Snowmass Creek. It's not a difficult hike as the trail is a gentle rise to the switchbacks just before Snowmass Lake.
The trailhead is close to Snowmass Village, but the few miles that it is from the Village does require a 4WD vehicle, if you don't want to leave parts of a 2WD on the road. I got an early start on this hike; it was a brisk 29 degrees at the trailhead when I started, and the sun had not crested the peaks of the valley. Given the time of year, it would take some time for the sun to peak over the valley walls.
There are a lot of Aspen trees along this trail and even in the morning without direct sunlight they are amazing. The trail is covered in Aspen leaves and from time to time the thick canopy of Aspens would thin out just enough to change the colors of the Aspen leaves in the trees and on the trail from a dull yellow to a bright gold.
Occasionally, the Aspens would thin out enough create a meadow and the valley walls and peaks unique to the Maroon-Bells Wilderness come into view. Even without direct sunlight on them they are spectacular.
The geological layering in this area and extending back through Glenwood Canyon has always been very interesting to me. It's not granite like most of the mountain ranges in Colorado. Here the distinctive layering is made from layer upon layer of mud to create cake layer upon cake layer of mudstone. It's a loose and flakey rock layer and erosion helps create dramatic shadows on the valley walls as the sun begins to reach the valley floor.
Just before the sun hit the valley floor the views of the West side of the valley are spectacular, there is a steep valley that opens up to spectacular views of Capitol Peak. As the sun became brighter the Aspens changed to dramatic shades of gold. The skies where big blue with a few Cirrus clouds, giving off the illusion of a bent-and-curved sky.
This illusion also creates a dramatic bending visual effect in the Aspen canopy set against a deep blue sky. Given that this is not a difficult trail lent itself to a lot of pictures being taken in this last bit of the Golden Hour which made the trail move a little slow. But that was okay. The views where worth going slow and taking my time.
Just South of Willoughby Mountain there is a series of lakes and the trail crosses Snowmass Creek. I'm sure last year this crossing was uneventful. However, the reoccurring theme from this Summer season is avalanche debris from the previous epic winter. The avalanche at this crossing must have been huge, the lake was filled with newly downed trees and has reshaped the lake and covered the now lake crossing with loosely packed valance debris.
There are several social trails at this crossing, and some go up around the East side of the lake and dead-end in thick conifers on a very steep wall of the valley. I think this dead-end social trail is so well worn because the crossing across the avalanche debris field is tricky.
Up until this crossing the only people I had seen on the trail were two women and we took turns taking the lead on the trail up to this crossing. They were very nice and very chatty. When we regrouped back at the avalanche debris field we were talking and then a large group of people out for a multi-day trek and two more women also out doing the multi-day loop gathered at the crossing.
We all spent an unusual amount of time talking here, I think it was to see who was going to go through the avalanche debris field first; someone in the large group eventually lead the charge. The crossing is very spongy and it's easy to post-hole in the debris.
I did end up post-holing in the debris field, it was up past my knee, thankfully it was slow and only up to my knee. If you end up post-holing in dead trees that is probably the best way to do it to avoid any serious injury. As it turned out my leg looked like I had run through barbed wire by the time I finished the crossing.
What made this crossing different and entertaining was that the two women that I had been trading the lead on were waiting for me on the other side and we talked for a while until the last two women who were on the multi-day trek made it across, then the first two women headed up the trail. I spent some time talking with these last women before heading out.
What I was doing, was waiting for everybody to get out ahead of me so I could take my time and not have to play leapfrog along the trail.
This was when the funniest and most flattering happened on the trail happened. All four of these women that I had talked to where all very nice and very personable. And one of the last two women made a joke saying that my wife and her friend left me in the dust...My wife? I let out a laugh and said neither were my wife, to which they both seemed very surprised and got a good laugh out of it too.
It is always nice to have light conversation with nice people on the trail, but this was the funniest conversation I've had on the trail. I think maybe the reason why everybody was so chatty is that up until this point the trail, while long is a not difficult. The trail from here to Snowmass Lake does pick up the pace in terms of elevation gain compared to distance traveled. After the first major switchback the Aspens give way to Conifers and the temperature begins to drop and the breeze picks up. This part of the trail was refreshing and felt good to get the heart rate up.
Before reaching Snowmass Lake I would come across my trail wife and her friend two more times and we would all reach the lake at the same time. The lake is beautiful, it is so clear, and the texture of the rock seems to change over to something that looks more like granite rather than the distinctive mudstone of the valley walls.
I had lunch along the shores of this crystal-clear lake with Snowmass Mountain and Hagerman Peak in the background set against a huge blue sky and not a cloud in sight. This would be a perfect place to go camping. I would have loved to say longer but I wanted to get some pictures of the Aspens I came through in the morning, but now with direct daylight on them; they were spectacular.
This 18.5 roundtrip trek was a beautiful Late-Fall trail full of Fall colors, great weather and some good humor. Well worth the long drive from Denver to Snowmass.