July and August are the peak months of the wildflower bloom in the Colorado high country, and this year they are off the charts! During my travels I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing landscapes, but I’ve never experienced anything like the fields of wildflowers that awaited us on the hike from Aspen to Crested Butte. The towns are actually only about 24 miles as the crow flies, but due to the spectacular mountain landscape, it’s at least a 130 mile circuitous drive taking about three hours by road. Fortunately, for those in reasonable shape and with a little extra time to spare, there’s a beautiful 6 hour, 11 mile hike that connects the two towns over West Maroon Pass.
The hike begins at the Maroon Lake trail head outside of Aspen. We suggest getting there early, especially on a weekend. You’ll need to park in the overnight lots, and they fill up fast. We arrived a few minutes after 6:00 am and just snagged the last spot. If you can’t get a spot, or if you get there after 8 am, you’ll need to take the shuttle bus from the Aspen Recreation Center (8 bucks every 20 minutes). From here you’ll head to the trail head proper where you’ll see the timeless view of the Maroon Bells at sunrise looming over Maroon Lake. This is a classic photo opportunity that appears on countless calendars, postcards and other Colorado souvenirs, and I’d be willing to bet real money that you’ll find at least four or five photographers (more during aspen season!) taking their turn to capture the shot. Grab your version now, because chances are when you return to get your car it won’t be during the amazing morning light!
You’ll start out circling Maroon lake on the north side till you hit the Crater Lake trail. Follow this for 1.8 miles and you’ll come to Crater Lake. Take a few minutes to relax and enjoy the views, because the soggiest part of the trail is coming up. Depending on the time of the year, you’ll cross West Maroon Creek several times, and these crossings range from anything to a minor puddle to a full raging river. We came the day after a fairly significant rainstorm, so the creek was definitely on the higher side. Take your time finding a good spot to cross when the trail comes to one of these obstacles. Bringing a pair of Tevas or Chacos isn’t a bad idea! Be careful if you take your shoes off….one of the guys in our group accidentally dropped his hiking shoes in the river and was lucky that I happened to be in the right place downstream to catch them! Don’t even worry about getting muddy when hiking through the willows lining the trail…just revel in the filth and enjoy feeling like a kid again! You definitely won’t mind when you’re surrounded by the views of Shoemaker Ridge on your left and the Bells to your right.
Once the stream crossings are conquered, the steepest ascent is still ahead. From the bottom of the valley there is about a 1000 foot calf-burning ascent over a distance of one mile, but the views at the top of the pass at 12,500 feet are worth it! For extra credit run up to the top of the unnamed peak on the ridge to get another couple of hundred feet of climbing. This is a busy pass, and you’ll be joined by not only through hikers, but day hikers coming up from either end. It’s a good place to socialize and enjoy some lunch, and you’ll always have plenty of people who are happy to take the perfect Instagram photo for you.
When you’re ready to head down, be sure you’ve got your camera at the ready, because you’re about to see wildflowers like you’ve never experienced. Sure, there were some pretty ones on the way up the pass, but once you get down the first half mile or so, the explosion of color will blow your mind. I’ve seen fields of flowers before, but one of the things that sets Schofield Park apart from anything else is the height of the flowers. It’s not at all unusual to find species that would normally top out at a foot tall grow up to two or three feet high here. I don’t know if it is the altitude, the humidity, or just a little bit of Crested Butte magic, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. You’ll find pristine examples of multiple varieties of yellow sunflowers, blue elephantella, purple fringe, scarlet gillia, purple and yellow fleabane, the familiar blue and white of the columbine, (the official state flower!), magenta Indian paintbrushes and dozens more that I’m not even remotely qualified to name. It’s definitely no wonder that Crested Butte has been named the wildflower capital of Colorado.
Take your time down this part of the trail. It will wind downhill for about three miles, eventually bringing you out of the meadows into a lovely evergreen forest. Here you’ll pass the remains of several old miner cabins on your way to the destination trailhead. If you’re hiking on a typical Colorado day, you’ll be breaking out your rain gear right about now for the afternoon monsoon storm that always tends to pop up around 2 or 3 pm. From the trailhead it’s another 13 miles to Crested Butte itself, but we’d arranged with Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle for a pickup and ride back into town. To get back to your car in Aspen, you can either hike in reverse the next day after a relaxing evening in Crested Butte, or you can take Dolly’s again back over Kebler Pass to your car at the trailhead.
Max elevation: 12700 ft
Total climbing: 10354 ft
Total Time: 07:11:35