East Fork of West Maroon Pass Trail to Crater Lake (10 miles)
Last week, the night before I was supposed to fly to Washington state to hike the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile hike that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier, my plan came to a screeching halt. Nearby wildfires had come close to the park and while they never touched it (thankfully), the smoke from them filled the air, causing hazardous air quality. Living and breathing what was probably akin to a campfire blowing smoke in your face didn’t sound fun or healthy, not to mention half the trail was closed indefinitely because of the risk. I had been planning this adventure with three great hiking friends for months, and it was a huge disappointment to pull the plug. I wasn’t about to waste my “mombatical” though–the week was mapped out in great detail for Larry and the kids to survive without me, and I knew I’d come home a better mom and wife, just like I did last year after my Tahoe Rim Trail thru hike.
After some deliberation, involving both trail research and airline points I could use without depleting my stash for a last minute flight, the Maroon Bells Wilderness of Colorado seemed a perfect fit–the aspen trees would be blanketing the hillsides in gold, I could sneak in a visit with two dear friends, and the weather was forecasted to be sunny with no burning fires nearby. The most difficult part was wrapping my head around going solo–I had really looked forward to being with my friends while I hiked. But you can’t have it all and life’s too short to not jump on a fun adventure, so I boarded a plane and was off!
I drove to Gunnison after landing in Denver, to visit my good friend, Keith, who was my friend and coworker in Yellowstone National Park (if you want to recommend a great experience to a college student, working in a national park during their summer breaks is it!). Keith knew the park trails as well as any ranger, since he had spent several summers working there, and he was a hiking machine. A treasure in my life, then and now, and I loved meeting his son, Riego, and getting to know his wife, Gwen, better during my short visit. I even got to see him in action with his students and I brought them Double Stuff Oreos for “band practice magic”, just like Keith would bring them on hikes for us to share back in the day. 🙂
I set out the next morning for Crested Butte, a quaint and stunningly beautiful mountain town just up the road from Gunnison, and kept heading into the mountains beyond until I reached the East Fork of the West Maroon Pass Trailhead.
The hike starts at around 10,400 feet in elevation, and I’m fortunate that I’ve never suffered from altitude sickness, but it doesn’t prevent what felt like breathing air through a straw as I climbed higher. No matter though, the day was dry and clear with lingering snow on the peaks from a passing front the day before–I was too excited to care what I felt like!
After 2-1/2 miles I came to the trail junction that would begin the loop portion of my hike which is dubbed the “Four Pass Loop” since it traverses four high altitude passes. In this article, Backpacker.com wrote, “In a state that’s chock-full of mesmerizing mountain ranges and superlative vistas, it might seem ambitious to name one hike the best—yet this is unquestionably it.”
Both Keith and my friend Steven, a.k.a, “Twinkle,” who is an accomplished thru hiker and mountaineer, highly recommended it too. It didn’t take long to figure out why and the pictures speak for themselves.
I encountered lots of other day hikers and backpackers. It was fun meeting people who were doing the loop in the opposite direction, since it was likely we’d cross paths again in a couple of days.
Towards the top of West Maroon Pass which sits at an elevation of 12,490 feet, I started counting my steps, willing myself to take 100 of them before stopping to catch my breath! The reward for my efforts was well worth it though–the Elk Mountain range sprawled out before me, a vista worthy of a postcard.
From that point on, it was a downhill cruise to my campsite beside Crater Lake. The Maroon Bells started to make themselves visible from their lofty perch as I descended, and they did not disappoint.
This wilderness area does not require a reservation (yet) but there are designated campsites you must use. I set up camp near an aspen grove, which excited me to no end because they’re one of my favorite trees and I love to hear their leaves rustle (the petiole or “leaf stem” is wide and flattened and attaches to the leaf perpendicularly which is why they make their unique noise, giving them the nickname, “quaking aspen”).
My timing was perfect, because no sooner did I set up camp and it started raining, then hailing, and even snowing some too! I made dinner under my hiking umbrella (still one of my favorite items in my pack, hands down) and ate quickly so I could pack up my bear canister before it got dark (they are required here which stinks because they’re heavy as lead and annoying to fit in a backpack easily, but worth it to protect the bears from becoming habituated).
I am tucked away in my cozy sleeping bag, safe from what was undoubtedly some form of frozen precipitation falling on my tent. So much for that perfect weather forecast!