Since moving to the Aspen area of Colorado in 1994, I’d long wanted to make the 11-mile hike over a 12,000+ foot pass to the ski town of Crested Butte. It took me almost 20 years to get to Crested Butte on foot, but I finally did the trek this summer with a good friend of mine amid the most glorious display of wildflowers I’d ever seen. We definitely timed our hike perfectly on July 26, when the colorful blooms were peaking for the season.
Was the hike tough? Yep. It took us a total of 8 hours (8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. from trailhead to trailhead), when the suggested hike time is 5 to 8 hours – and this moderately fit hiking enthusiast is usually on the low end of the spread! Elevation gain is almost 3,000 feet; the traverse to the top of West Maroon Pass (12,480 feet) is a sludge; and on the other side of the mountain, when we were heading downhill with just a couple miles left, we just wanted to be done.
That all said, I’m so thrilled we completed the legendary hike. I’m not sure I need to do it again (I have friends who make the trek every year), yet highly recommend it at least once to anyone who’s in reasonably good shape.
The trail: If you were to drive the 104 miles from Aspen to Crested Butte (via Carbondale and McClure Pass) it would take at least 3 hours. But, as I noted, by foot, the West Maroon Trail is only 11 miles (there is also a longer, 14-mile route over East Maroon Trail, but West Maroon is more popular). It’s about 7 miles to the top of West Maroon Pass, and then another 4 miles “down” to the end of the route at Schofield Park, which is actually 14 miles from the town of Crested Butte, so you’ll need to arrange transportation on the other side if you want to get into town or to the base of the ski mountain, where you’ll find lodging.
The shuttle: Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle ($15/person) is the way to go for a pick-up in Crested Butte, if you don’t have a friend (or spouse) planning to meet you with a car on the other side. We were fortunate enough to have Erica Reiter, who handles PR for Crested Butte Mountain Resort, pick us up in Schofield Park. We told her we’d be off the trail around 3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m., and she kindly and patiently waited for us until after 4 p.m., as we were a couple of the last hikers off the trail for the day. (There was no way for us to call ahead to say we’d be late; cell phones don’t work on the trail. A little nerve wracking!)
The start: My husband dropped us off at the beginning of the West Maroon Trail at Aspen’s Maroon Lake (at the base of the Maroon Bells) at about 8 a.m. Friday morning, July 26. There’s a parking lot there, so you can leave your car and pick it up later, but since we were getting a ride back from Crested Butte, and not returning to Maroon Lake, this made more sense for us (see “The Return” below). It’s important to get up to Maroon Lake before 9 a.m. in the summer months, as the road closes to car traffic then (bus tours are available to the picturesque Maroon Bells from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). It’s also key to start hiking early, as afternoon thunderstorms, with accompanying lightning, are common. Ideally we would have gotten on the trail at 7 a.m., but, frankly, we didn’t want to get up that early to start our day! Thankfully, we lucked out with the weather – not a raindrop in sight all day.
The return: Some hardy souls, will hike over from Aspen, get a shuttle ride into Crested Butte for a shower, massage, celebratory adult drink and delicious restaurant meal, and then hike back to Aspen the next day. That wasn’t us. My husband agreed to be our return ride, so he met us at the Grand Lodge Crested Butte, where we stayed for two nights, eating and drinking our way through Crested Butte – and loving the historic and laid-back vibe of the ski town in the summer. Another option: hire Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle to drive you back to Aspen. This will cost you $360, but split among a group of hikers, it’s not that unreasonable a fee. You can also arrange to have your clothes/toiletries sent to Crested Butte on an earlier shuttle, so you don’t have to hike with extra gear. (My husband, again, kindly took our luggage for us to Crested Butte, so we didn’t have unusually heavy loads in our daypacks.)
Gear: Both my pal Kristina and I used trekking poles on the hike. I’d never hiked with them before, but on the steep downhill descent after reaching the top of West Maroon Pass, I was sure glad to have them. I also used them for stream crossings. We’d been told to pack “river shoes” for crossing streams that might be knee deep; after all, we didn’t want to get our hiking shoes wet and then have to slog through the rest of the hike with them. But, turns out, the stream crossings weren’t deep at all, and we never changed into our second set of shoes, since we could cross them by stepping on large stones. I started the hike in a pair of comfortable, sporty capris, moisture-wicking T shirt, long-sleeve shirt and fleece – plus sunglasses and a visor. But again, we totally lucked out with the weather, and I found myself shedding layers quickly, hiking most of the day in just a T-shirt. With me I had an extra pair of socks, rain pants, rain jacket, knit hat and knit gloves. I carried a 2-liter Camelback bladder and one additional water bottle, and I had water leftover at the end of the hike. To eat, we had lots of nibbles, but I particularly appreciated my hummus sandwich, Honey Stinger energy chews and tropical trail mix. I had a small first-aid kit with me (really, just a baggie filled with band-aids, first-aid cream, Advil); we did use some all-natural bug spray along the way. Cell phones don’t work on the trail, but definitely pack your camera!
The views: The definite highlight of this hike from Aspen to Crested Butte is the incredible mountain vistas. From the gorgeous pine-covered valleys to the high-alpine lakes to the jagged peaks, the views are incredible, and we stopped a ton to snap photos (our excuse for taking 8 hours to complete the hike). And as I said, we hiked at what may have been the most perfect day all summer long – not only for the temperate weather, but for the rainbow of wildflowers that blanket the hillsides along the trail. We thought the flowers were pretty on the “Aspen side” of the hike (before the top of West Maroon Pass), but they are utterly spectacular on the “Crested Butte side.” It’s no wonder Crested Butte is called the “wildflower capital of Colorado.” Truly, jaw-dropping.
If you have any questions about hiking from Aspen to Crested Butte, please fire away in the comments! Though it’s late in the season now to make the trek, I highly recommend penciling it into next summer’s agenda – particularly in mid to late July.
Thanks to Crested Butte Mountain Resort for arranging my stay at the Grand Lodge for our fun weekend in Crested Butte. Check out my Denver Post column to see where we ate and drank during our stay in Crested Butte.