By Dan Blackburn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
September 2, 2012
Maroon Bells, Colo. — As fall temperatures begin to cool in parts of the West, sightseers and photographers flock to the Maroon Bells in the Colorado Rockies, where the aspens deliver their autumn punch. The result is a spectacular burst of yellow, orange and red that rivals — or maybe tops — anything I've ever seen in the West.
The Bells are actually two mountains among Colorado's 54 "14ers" — mountains with summits that exceed 14,000 feet. South Maroon Peak tops out at 14,156, and North Maroon Peak squeaks in at 14,014; both are said to be among the most photographed peaks in the world. They rise above Maroon Lake, where their summits often are reflected in the water and set off by brilliant colors of fall.
Colorado photographer John Fielder told me these peaks "take the grand prize for creating an iconic mountain reflection. The symmetry of the twins framed by black-shadowed lateral ridges all reflected in Maroon Lake at sunrise is simply… sublime."
My longtime partner, Gloria, and I pitched our tent in the Silver Queen Campground; at 8,460 feet, it is the closest campground to Maroon Lake. There are only three campgrounds in the immediate area so reservations are recommended. At night, the sound of Maroon Creek lulled us to sleep.
Each morning, we slid out of our warm sleeping bags and emerged into a pre-dawn fall chill that was in the high 30s. Getting up early is crucial to getting a good spot at the open end of the lake to photograph sunrise on the Bells. There can be 100 or more enthusiastic photographers, using equipment as varied as point-and-shoot cameras, 8x10 view cameras and the newest digital wonders. They start gathering at 6 a.m., but some even spend the night in their cars in the nearby parking lot to ensure a spot at lakeside.
This is a recent phenomenon, though. Photos of the area started appearing more widely five or so years ago. The reaction was dramatic: Visitation rocketed to a quarter-million people a year, fully one-third of that in the fall. Most people arrive during a 4½-month window — spring through late fall — when the road to the Bells is not closed by snow.
This new attention has created issues.
"The biggest challenge is limited resources," said Aurora Palmer, the Maroon Bells program manager for the U.S. Forest Service. "If we had the resources, there is so much more we could do — expand the campgrounds and hiking trails and bike routes. There are a lot of people riding bikes up and down the road."
Despite limitations, the area is easy to access. The road to the parking lot is paved and well maintained. Unless you are staying in a campground, car access is restricted during daylight, and most people are required to take hybrid buses from near the base of the road. "The use of buses has improved air quality and reduced parking issues," Ranger Jim Stark told us, noting that the bus drivers provide commentary for the riders. "Parking is a perennial problem, and we don't have places to expand."
And don't let the beauty of the Bells lull you into complacency: They are nicknamed the "Deadly Bells." Unlike other mountains in the Rockies, the Bells are made up of ancient metamorphic sedimentary mudstone that during millions of years has hardened into rock. But it's weak and breaks easily. For that reason, visitors are warned not to climb them.
Our biggest challenge was not to be totally overwhelmed by the dazzling fall color. Our campground alone offered an array of golden aspen, besides the trees flanking the Maroon Bells and accompanying lake. We also hopped into our car and drove up to Independence Pass on Colorado 82 east of Aspen. The pass lies at more than 12,000 feet, and flaming foliage dresses up the road most of the way to the summit and down the other side. If there had been turnouts along the road every 100 feet, we probably would have stopped at every one of them.
The most popular Maroon Bells hiking path is Crater Lake Trail, which climbs nearly 500 feet in a little less than two miles so hikers and backpackers can watch the views unfold around them. Crater Lake is a great place to stop for lunch before heading back. We perched on a couple of rocks and were surprised by the appearance of a pine marten. This medium-size member of the weasel family is usually people shy; this marked only the second time I've seen one. The critter gave us the once-over but bolted before we had time to even think about reaching for a camera.
The best part of the hike occurred in late afternoon as we approached the bottom third of the trail. The sun was slowly setting behind the Maroon Bells, casting a warm glow over Maroon Lake and the surrounding aspens. By inching just a few steps off the trail, we were able to take in the entire view, which silenced all conversation except for some whispered "Wows." District ranger Scott Snelson summed it up for us: "It is one of the most breathtaking panoramic views in the nation, and it is so accessible." And it was the ultimate ending to an extraordinary stay.
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