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Things to Do in Aspen, Colorado: Maroon Bells

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Shelly, Byron, Whitman and the Wax Poetic Chime of Maroon Bells

The view of Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake. Photo by Ashley KlettThe view of Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake. Photo by Ashley KlettIn summer of 1816, famed Romantic poet Percy Shelly penned the words “The secret Strength of things / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!” about the sublime grandeur of France’s 15,400-foot Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe. As a symbol of nature’s majesty, mystery, and awesome power, Mont Blanc became somewhat of a meat-cleaver for the Romantic literary movement. Other acclaimed writers of the time such as Samuel Taylor Coolridge, Mary Shelly, and Lord Byron followed lead by scribbling rhapsodies about the mighty mountain. Lord Byron even declared Mont Blanc as “The monarch of mountains.”

In elevation, Mont Blanc towers of Colorado’s Maroon Bells by over a thousand feet. Yet the splendor and magnificence of Maroon Bell’s– a stately 14,000-foot mountain and major tourist draw to Aspen during the summer - is certainly worth spilt ink in its own poetic hymn. The sterile wholesomeness of a John Denver lyric lacks the necessary intensity in describing the brittle mudstone slopes of the “Deadly Bells.” Rather, an earnest passage from American poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass crescendos into a worthy psalmody for this mammoth mountain:

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come.”

- Pioneers! O Pioneers!

Whitman’s chime can be applied to the timelessness of Maroon Bells, a protected alpine wilderness and recreation area on Maroon Creek Road, past Aspen Highlands and the T Lazy 7 ranch. The road ends at Maroon Lake, where the sister peaks of Maroon Bells tower majestically above serene emerald waters.

In a claim difficult to verify, multiple tour books and Wikipedia announce Maroon Bells as “the most photographed mountain in North America.” It’s easy to understand why. The postcard-worthy panorama of mountain vistas captures the imagination as a quintessential Rocky Mountain experience: azure lakes and statuesque peaks, evidence of avalanches and rockslides on the steep hillside, the occasional sighting of a big horn sheep or mule deer teeters like an acrobat on a fragile outcropping of rock high in the distance, and a chilly high country wind that roars through the glacial basin, swishing aspen groves and lodgepole pines.

Protected by the 1964 Congressional Wilderness Act, The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is an idyllic place for a variety of summer activities: a family picnic, solo fly fishing, wildflower gazing, or a lazy afternoon sunbath in a high alpine meadow with a good book and amiable company. Over 10 miles of trails make for wonderful hiking opportunities in easily accessible terrain suitable for all ability levels. A scenic loop wanders by a roaring waterfall of snowmelt and gurgling mountain springs. Though parts of the trail are considerably rocky, the jaunt is tame and wonderful for a leisurely stroll. A popular summer adventure is the hike to Crater Lake. A narrow trail switchbacks up the basin past a cascading creek, tundra, wildflower meadows, and aspen groves to a secluded glacial lake at an elevation of 10,076 feet. The four-mile, two-hour loop has considerable elevation gains, so prepare for an altitude adjustment from the thin air. Because Crater Lake is sequestered above the heavily used trailhead and tourist area of Maroon Lake, the setting offers an almost ethereal calm and solitude in addition to the intimate views of the peaks and the Maroon Creek Valley.

In conquest of Colorado’s “fourteeners” (mountains with an elevation above 14,000), intrepid mountaineers attempt to tickle the heavens with a trek to the top, above the tree line. Yet Maroon Bells is dramatically differently from Colorado’s other sturdy granite and limestone mountains; the twin peaks comprise of a downsloping strata of glacial mud hardened into sharp, brittle rock over millions of years. Thus, the mountains have earned the nickname “The Deadly Bells” from the lives lost in attempt to champion delicate slopes and difficult climbing conditions on the north and south peaks.

In order to preserve the wilderness area, there is a five-dollar charge at the Forest Service tollbooth for each car driving to Maroon Lake. Visitors staying in downtown Aspen will find the RFTA buses shuttling back and forth to be a convenient and affordable alternative for accessing the wilderness area in the summer. The first bus leaves Aspen at 8:30 am and the last bus leaves Maroon Lake at 5:00 PM. The bus can be picked up from Aspen Highlands for three dollars round trip. The destination is popular with spandex-clad cyclists riding from Aspen. Free guided hikes are available from the bus drop-off throughout the day.

While interloping between his east coast homes in Brooklyn and Camden, New Jersey, Walt Whitman temporarily moved to Georgetown, Colorado, a mining and railroad community located in the Front Range along I-70. It’s unknown if the bard ever made it a few hundred more miles west to gape in awe at Maroon Bells, though one certainly can speculate after reading his poem “Pioneers, Pioneers!” Scenic to the point of being sublime, first time visitors to the Bells may be inspired to wax poetically about the untamed natural wilderness. Who knows? A casual hiker to Crater Lake could quill an ode that makes “Rocky Mountain High” look like a paltry nursery rhyme.

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