If you are going to do one multi-day hike in Colorado – the hike from Aspen to Crested Butte and back again over West Maroon Pass and East Maroon Pass is absolutely the one you should choose. In my opinion (from the hikes I have done so far), it is the best hike in Colorado.
Big words, I know, but this stunning hike, which passes through the spectacular Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness – arguably the most beautiful place in Colorado which is, in turn, arguably the most beautiful state, was one of the best hikes I have ever done for a number of reasons.
The wildflowers were simply the best I have ever seen – the variety and sheer amount was incredible, the scenery was out of this world beautiful, and it was challenging – but not as crazy as my Abbot Pass Hut Hike! We also saw lots of cute critters and gorged ourselves on an insane amount of wild raspberries and strawberries.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
While it is possible to do the Aspen to Crested Butte hike over the West Maroon Pass as a long day hike (12 miles), if you have the time, I would strongly suggest that you spend at least a couple of days and hike back to Aspen as well. This also solves the problem of organising transport back to your vehicle, as it is a 3.5 hour drive back to Aspen from Crested Butte.
If you have even more time, spend a couple of nights in Crested Butte – it is one of the best little mountain towns in Colorado.
The great thing about this hike is that you don’t have to backtrack – you can hike over the popular West Maroon Pass, then hike back to the Aspen side of Maroon Bells via the longer and lesser known East Maroon Pass – this is what we did and I am so, so happy that we did.
We actually chose to split the hike up even more, starting in the afternoon on day one and hiking a few miles along the West Maroon Pass trail, camping for the night, then hiking the other (difficult) eight miles on day two. After a night at the hostel in Crested Butte (yay for showers and beer!), we hiked the East Maroon Pass trail for 13 miles, camped, then hiked the last three miles out on the last morning.
If you are a strong hiker, you can absolutely hike West Maroon Pass and East Maroon Pass in two days but keep in mind that they will be two looong days, and you will need to start early. Also remember that you will be carrying a heavy pack and that there is a significant elevation gain – going over the passes kicked my ass and I am a pretty strong hiker. Also, if you live at sea level and are just visiting Colorado – don’t underestimate how the altitude will affect you.
I found it quite difficult to source all the information that I needed to do this hike so I’m hoping this post will help others that want to tackle the hike from Aspen to Crested Butte and back themselves. You can find all the logistics at the end of this post.
Here’s a bit of a break down of each separate trail with my favorite photos from each hike. You can also hike this in reverse and the West Maroon Pass trail is actually meant to be easier when hiking from Crested Butte to Aspen.
What to Expect on your Hike from Aspen to Crested Butte
West Maroon Pass Trail: Aspen to Crested Butte – 12 miles
- Alpine wildlife including marmots, pikas, chipmunks, and bears and moose if you are lucky
- Abundant wildflowers, especially on the Crested Butte side of the trail
- Stunning mountain views
- Bragging rights for making it over West Maroon Pass – it ain’t easy!
The West Maroon Pass trail – along with many other Maroon Bells hiking trails – starts at Maroon Lake, at the end of Maroon Creek Road in the Maroon Bells Scenic area, just outside of Aspen.
Within minutes of setting off from the Maroon Bells trailhead, you will be treated to sublime views of gorgeous Maroon Lake. Take a right and follow the shore of the lake to the official start of the trail, making sure to sign in if you plan to backcountry camp.
The trail then starts its steady climb – it’s pretty much all up hill from here, climbing 3,000 feet over nearly seven miles to 12,500 foot high West Maroon Pass.
This often crowded first section of the trail is through Aspen forest and up a steep and rocky path. A couple of miles in you will reach pretty Crater Lake, the perfect spot for a break.
From Crater Lake the crowds thin out, and the climb begins again in earnest. As you rise above Crater Lake, the views will really open up behind you of the lake, valley and surrounding red peaks (hence the name Maroon Bells) so make sure to turn back to take it all in as often as you can.
This section of the hike, until you enter the high altitude tundra after a few miles, will wind you upwards, following the creek, through sections of forest and rock piles dotted with colorful wildflowers. Make sure to look for marmots and pikas – two of my favorite alpine critters – hanging out in the rocks.
There are a couple of river crossings which were very easy when we did the hike, although, depending on the season, they can be more challenging at times.
It was on this section of the trail that we camped for our first night – in one of the pockets of forest above the creek. It was absolutely freezing due to the high altitude, and I was so happy that I packed my down jacket.
The last mile up to the top of West Maroon Pass was the hardest part of the whole hike by far, with steep switchbacks and a thin, gravelly trail through the harsh environs of snow-pocked tundra.
I took my time on the switchbacks, resting often, as the thin air really effected me. Once I reached the pass though, it was 100% worth it – the views are outstanding, and I recommend sitting at the top for a while, basking in the glory of your accomplishment.
Now for the easy part – it’s all down hill from here.
The last five miles are through a gorgeous valley that is chock full of wildflowers. You will come across the trailhead to Frigid Air Pass about a mile down from the pass – don’t take this turn, make sure to keep straight on the trail down to Schofield Pass.
You will be hiking through the lush wildflower meadows of the valley for a while, before finally seeing the ruins of an old cabin, which is where you take the trail down into the forest – it’s less than a mile before you will reach the car park at Schofield Pass.
This is where you will wait for your shuttle to Crested Butte if you booked one – it’s about a 45 minute – one hour drive into town on a crazy gravel road from here. Alternatively, if you are planning on camping rather than staying in the hostel or a lodge in Crested Butte, you can arrange a shuttle to take you to the start of the East Maroon Pass trail, which is a little less than half the distance into town – the trailhead is Judd Falls. You can backcountry camp just in from the trailhead.
Overall, the West Maroon Pass trail is epic – a classic Maroon Bells backpacking adventure with killer scenery, loads of wildflowers – especially on the Crested Butte side of the pass, lots of wildlife and incredible views. It is one of the most popular and best Aspen hikes you can do.
East Maroon Pass: Crested Butte to Aspen – 16 miles
- Hardly any other people on the trail
- Stunning Copper Lake
- The best wildflowers I have ever seen
- Loads of wild raspberries and strawberries to eat along the way
The East Maroon Pass trail starts at the Judd Falls/Copper Creek Trailhead on the Crested Butte side, which can be reached using Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle or by taking the free Gothic Bus. The bus/shuttle takes half an hour to reach the trailhead from town.
Start the Crested Butte to Aspen hike by following signs to Judd Falls and Copper Creek. After only a mile you will reach the viewpoint over pretty Judd Falls, and from there follow signs to Copper Creek/Copper Lake.
The trail is wide as it is an old wagon route, and the four miles from Judd Falls to Copper Lake is a mostly gentle uphill hike which winds in and out of the forest with multiple river crossings.
The last short section up to Copper Lake is pretty steep and I was literally pulling myself up the mountain at times, but luckily that didn’t last long before suddenly, we were at a gorgeous alpine lake surrounded by mountains. There is a small peninsula that juts out into the lake, so Toby and I climbed to the top of that for a snack break with a view. Totally worth it, despite the bugs.
There were a couple of people fishing off the far shore of the lake, but other than that we were alone, as we were for most of the hike along the East Maroon Pass trail.
My favorite part of the whole hike was the rocky path up to 11,824 foot East Maroon Pass from Copper Lake because the views were outstanding, it wasn’t very difficult (unlike West Maroon Pass!) and the wildflowers once we reached the top of the pass were the best I have ever seen in my life – and we couldn’t believe we were the only ones there enjoying them.
I have done a number of ‘Best Wildflower Hikes in Colorado’ now, and the East Maroon Pass trail tops all of them. It boggles my mind that this trail isn’t more well-known.
Once I was done frolicking in the wildflowers, we started our descent down from the pass and were rewarded with epic mountain views of East Maroon Valley. Eagles soared above us and it was incredibly peaceful.
From the top of the pass the trail follows a rocky ridge line before dropping down into a beautiful meadow and then into the forest.
We were trudging downhill in a dark forest for what felt like a really long time. This was the only part of the hike that I found a bit monotonous as there wasn’t really anything to see and we were getting pretty tired by this point.
The forest finally started to break up and things got more interesting as we could see the surrounding mountains again. There were a lot more Aspen trees the lower down we got, and I imagine it would be a spellbinding sight in fall.
This is also when we first started coming across large patches of raspberry bushes in clearings along the trail. We also found small vines of wild strawberries close to the ground alongside the trail.
At one point, we came across a clearing with hundreds of raspberry bushes and we spent ages there, eating as many raspberries as we could. I have never seen so many wild raspberries in my life and it was wonderful.
There were a couple of river crossings on this section of the trail and the water was exceptionally cold, and quite deep and fast flowing in parts. This is where hiking poles really come in handy – as do water shoes.
As we weren’t going to make it out to Maroon Creek Road in time to catch the bus back to our van at Aspen Highlands, we found a beautiful meadow and set up camp for the night – it was a lot warmer than our night near the top of West Maroon Pass.
The last three miles of the East Maroon Pass trail the next morning involved a couple more minor river crossings, and a gentle trail through aspen forest. There is a fork where you can choose to hike to the East Maroon Portal Picnic Site or to Maroon Lake – we chose the picnic site as it is a slightly shorter trail and we had started our adventure at the lake a couple of days earlier.
And then we reached the road – and the end of our Maroon Bells adventure. We flagged down the next shuttle bus and caught it back to our van.
The East Maroon Pass trail was quite a contrast to the West Maroon Pass trail, it was a very peaceful hike – we only saw three other groups the whole time we were on the trail – and it may not have had quite as spectacular mountain views as the West Maroon Pass trail, but the lack of people, abundance of wild berries, and the best display of wildflowers I have ever seen certainly made up for it.
I highly, highly recommend taking the East Maroon Pass trail back to Aspen – you won’t regret it.
Even though it took a while to plan everything, especially because finding detailed information for the elusive East Maroon Pass trail was like pulling teeth, I am so happy that we decided to do both trails, and to spend a night in the lovely mountain town of Crested Butte: It is now one my absolute favorite mountain towns in Colorado, right up there with Telluride.
There are lots of other Crested Butte hiking trails that are pretty legendary, especially the Crested Butte wildflower hikes, but it would be hard to beat West Maroon Pass and East Maroon Pass.
West Maroon Pass trail is definitely more difficult than the East Maroon Pass trail but is shorter by approx. four miles, which is why most people choose to take this route to hike from Aspen to Crested Butte. Scenery wise, the West Maroon Pass trail did have more spectacular mountain scenery as it was higher altitude and we saw more wildlife, but the East Maroon Pass trail had lots of wild berries and the wild flowers were even better. I really loved Copper Lake too.
In my mind, they are equal but different, which is why you should do both.
My first encounter with the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado’s fourth largest wilderness, completely exceeded my expectations, and I can’t think of a place that epitomizes the beauty of the Colorado Rocky Mountains better. I would go as far to say that you haven’t fully experienced Colorado until you hike in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
Everything You Need to Know About Hiking West and East Maroon Passes
West Maroon Pass Trail to/from Aspen
To reach the start of the West Maroon Pass trail from Aspen, you have a couple of options.
1. Overnight Parking in Maroon Bells Scenic Area
If you are driving to Maroon Bells, you can enter the Maroon Bells Scenic Area before 8am or after 5pm, and try to get a park in one of the 35 Maroon Bells parking spaces in the overnight parking lot at the end of Maroon Creek Road – no private vehicles are allowed to drive Maroon Creek Road between 8am and 5pm, although you can leave the area in your private vehicle during those times.
It will cost you $10 to enter which has to be paid by cash or cheque, or it’s free if you have one of the National Recreation passes that are accepted such as the America the Beautiful pass. This is a risky option because these spots are highly coveted so you would probably need to get there by at least 6am, if not earlier, to be able to nab one.
People do sleep overnight in their cars here, but you are risking a $150 fine to do so. You would be better car camping at the East Maroon Portal Picnic site a bit further back on Maroon Creek Road, or booking a Maroon Bells camping ground along Maroon Creek Road the night before you are hiking, and then make your way to the overnight parking super early.
2. Parking at Aspen Highlands
Another option is to park at Aspen Highlands Ski Resort which is at the entrance to Maroon Bells Scenic Area, and to catch the Maroon Bells Shuttle from there. The cost has increased dramatically from last year when it was $5 per day on weekdays and $10 per day on weekends – it is now $20 per day on weekdays and $25 per day on weekends to park here. The car park has covered spots and 24 hour security so your vehicle will be safe there while you are gone. You pay at the end so if you don’t know exactly how long you will be gone for, it’s no problem.
You can purchase your shuttle tickets from Four Mountain Sports at Aspen Highlands. It costs $8 for adults and $6 for children and it includes the return on the way back out – and the return doesn’t have to be on the same day. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes from 8am – 5pm (the last bus returns to Aspen Highlands at 5pm from Maroon Lake).
3. Park in Aspen and Take the Free Bus to Aspen Highlands
If you are coming from Aspen, you can take a free bus to Aspen Highlands, then catch the shuttle from there ($8 Adults/$6 Children). From Rubey Park Transit Center in Aspen, the bus leaves every 20 minutes from 6:20 a.m. – 2:00 a.m.
You can park at Rio Grande Parking Plaza overnight in downtown Aspen – it is $10 for 24 hours and it’s a secure, covered parking garage. You pay by card on exit from the Parking Plaza, or pay cash at one of the pay stations before exiting. If you are going to be parking there for over 72 hours, speak to the parking attendant – you may be able to get a better rate.
West Maroon Pass Trail to/from Crested Butte
If you want to do the hike in reverse and hike from Crested Butte to Aspen on the West Maroon trail, you will need to either drive your own vehicle the 45 minutes on a rocky road from downtown Crested Butte to the trailhead, just past Schofield Pass (4WD recommended), or you will need to book a shuttle through the Crested Butte Shuttle – Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle.
Dolly’s Shuttle costs $25 per person and they can pick you up from your accommodation in Crested Butte at either 6am or 8am to take you to the trailhead. You need to call them to book and you are recommended to do so as far in advance as you can because they book up.
Pick up with Dolly’s Shuttles from the West Maroon Pass Trail cost $25 as well and the pickup times are 2pm and 4pm.
You could also try hitching but may end up waiting a while for a ride.
East Maroon Pass Trail to/from Aspen
Please see ‘West Maroon Pass Trail from Aspen’ – the details are the same.
East Maroon Pass Trail to/from Crested Butte
You can either book a shuttle through Dolly’s Shuttle to get to the Judd Falls trailhead for East Maroon Pass – $25 per person and departing from Crested Butte town center at 6am and 8am – or you could catch the free Gothic Bus to the Judd Falls trailhead, but the earliest one leaves town at 8.30am so I would only recommend this if you are planning to break up the hike into a couple of days – it takes half an hour to reach the trailhead and 9am is too late to start if you are planning to hike the full 16 miles in one day.
If you want to organise a shuttle from the Judd Falls Trailhead to Crested Butte town center, call Dolly’s Shuttle to check if they have availability – as this is not a popular trail, there aren’t booking options online. Alternatively, try hitching on Gothic Road from the trailhead – it’s a reasonably busy road in summer and I’m sure someone will pick you up.
Getting Transportation Between Crested Butte and Aspen
If you do decide to just do one of the trails, you can arrange either a Crested Butte to Aspen shuttle or vice versa through Dolly’s Mountain Shuttles. Keep in mind that it is a 3.5 hour drive.
Accommodation in Crested Butte
If you are on a budget, I highly recommend staying at the flash-packer chic Crested Butte Hostel. The beds are comfortable, the showers are hot, and it’s only a few minutes walk to town. There are dorm rooms and private rooms available with dorm rooms starting at $35 per night and private rooms from $109.
The Nordic Inn Crested Butte is another cheaper accommodation option (relatively speaking – no accommodation in Crested Butte is cheap) with rooms starting around $130 per night. This is a great option if you want to stay on Mt Crested Butte rather than downtown. There’s even a jacuzzi to rest your hiking-weary bones.
Where to Eat and Drink in Crested Butte
After another longer visit to Crested Butte recently, I now have a number of recommendations of where to eat and drink in this awesome little mountain town.
My favorite cafe is Camp 4 Coffee which has awesome coffee and breakfast burritos. I also loved the tea at T-House, the big breakfasts at McGill’s, and the hot apple cider at Rumors Coffee and Tea House.
The best breweries and bars are The Dogwood for incredible craft cocktails, Brick Oven Pizzeria and Pub for their excellent beer selection and sunny patio, and the local beer at Elk Avenue Brewing Co. I didn’t get to check out the historic and quirky Kochevar’s Saloon, or Montanya Distillers that offers craft rums – next time.
For food, don’t miss the mini specialty donuts from Niky’s – the strawberry cheesecake donut is to die for – and we loved the affordable meal options at Pitas in Paradise; the Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian offerings at Sherpa Cafe; and the pizza at Brick Oven Pizzeria. I definitely want to try Secret Stash Pizza next time, and the curries at The Ginger Cafe also looked awesome.
If you want to pick up some snacks for hiking or if you want to cook something at the hostel, Mountain Earth Whole Foods is a great little market with lots of fresh and healthy options.
Trail Tips for Any Maroon Bells Hike
- Start each day as early as you can because, like most of the mountain areas in Colorado, Maroon Bells weather can be iffy and thunderstorms are likely on summer afternoons.
- Take plenty of layers and lots of warm clothing and thermals – especially if you plan on camping. It can get really cold at night, and when it rains too.
- Take hiking poles – they especially come in handy for river crossings, but are also really helpful for hiking up and down steep and rocky sections of the trails. I also recommend bringing hiking sandals or river shoes which are perfect for the river crossings on the East Maroon trail.
- Take lots of water and/or a water purifier like a Steripen or a Lifestraw – there are a lot of rivers along both trails where you can refill your bottle and it saves on weight not having to carry so much water.
- Take some high calorie energy bars like RX Bars and Lara Bars (my favorites) – they don’t take up much room and are great for an energy kick or an easy breakfast.
- Pack a waterproof poncho as well as a rain jacket – it is really helpful if you get stuck in a thunderstorm for extra waterproofing.
- Take it slow and easy – you are going to be going pretty high up. The Aspen elevation alone is 8,000 feet, Crested Butte elevation is 8,909 feet – and the passes are 12,500 feet and 11,824 respectively. As I said earlier, this will kick your ass if you aren’t used to it.
- Wildflowers tend to stick around to quite late in the season – I hiked at the end of August and they were in full bloom.
- A lot of the higher points of both trails won’t be fully accessible until at least the end of June, but maybe even as late as the middle of July. Be prepared to turn back if the snow is too deep to pass.
Backcountry Camping Rules in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
- Pack out all trash and bury human waste at least 100 feet from the trail. Take a small shovel to make this task easier.
- Camping is not allowed within 100 feet of any lake, stream or National Forest System Trail. Don’t camp anywhere where there are no camping signs. If you choose to camp near Copper Lake and Crater Lake, you must use a designated camp spot.
- It is mandatory to have a bear canister to store your food in if you are backcountry camping in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. You can hire them from Ute Mountaineer in Aspen for $8 per day + $5 cleaning fee.
- Each party overnighting in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is required to self-register at the trailhead and to carry a copy of the registration with them. There is no fee.
- Do not feed or try to touch wildlife – no matter how cute that little chipmunk is.
Total Cost of the Return Hike from Aspen to Crested Butte
This is the total cost (not including food and gear) for hiking the West Maroon Pass trail from Aspen to Crested Butte, staying a night in Crested Butte, then hiking back on the East Maroon Pass trail.
- $40 Parking – 4 days at Rio Grande Parking Plaza in Aspen
- $29 Bear Canister Hire for 3 days from Ute Mountaineer in Aspen
- $35 Bed in Dorm Room at Crested Butte Hostel
- $8 Shuttle from Aspen Highlands to Maroon Lake
- $25 Dolly’s Shuttle from West Maroon Trailhead to Crested Butte Hostel
- $25 Dolly’s Shuttle to East Maroon Trailhead from Crested Butte Hostel
TOTAL: $127.50 (for my half of costs)
I haven’t included food costs in this as that can differ wildly. The parking and bear canister hire costs I split with Toby. You could cut this down if you free camped near the trailhead for the East Maroon Pass trail instead of staying a night in town, or if you stayed at one of the Crested Butte camping grounds near town. You can also save if you manage to get a car park at the overnight lot by Maroon Lake in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.
So, have I convinced you to hike from Aspen to Crested Butte on the West Maroon Pass and East Maroon Pass trails? Do it!
If you enjoyed this post, check out my other multi-day hiking posts:
- Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit: One of New Zealand’s Great Walks
- Trekking Kalaw to Inle Lake: The Best Trek I Have Ever Done
- Pushing Myself to the Limit on the Kepler Track
- The Best Kauai Hiking Adventures
- Hiking to Abbot Pass Hut in the Canadian Rockies
- Hiking the Hillary Trail on Auckland’s Wild West Coast
- Hiking Between the Pueblos Mancomunados Villages in Mexico
- Dealing with Altitude Sickness on the World Famous Inca Trail in Peru