This stunning photograph demonstrates why the landscape of the Maroon Bells mountain peaks is the most photographed location in the state of Colorado.
In 1964 Congress passed the monumental Wilderness Act. The Act designated about 50 federally managed land areas as “wilderness” and placed them within the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Act also defined wilderness: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”* as written by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society conservation organization (*the author recognizes the non-inclusive verbiage of the definition and is aware the outdoor recreation industry that relies on the existence of such places is working on being more inclusive).
The Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness area was one of the original areas delineated by the act. Situated in the Gunnison and White Mountain National Forest outside of Aspen, Colorado, its 181,602 acres encompass six of Colorado’s fourteen thousand foot peaks, over 100 miles of trails, and 9 passes over 12,000 feet (3,700 m).
In 2003 my wife Wendy and I decided to do a multi-day backpacking trip in the mountains. For me, it would be my first significant mountain backpack venture. Wendy was an experienced backpacker, with her most recent (at that time) long-distance trip having occurred two years prior. That trip included a summit of the highest point (14,505 ft) in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, as part of the 221-mile long John Muir Trail. It was a formidable hike that lasted 19 days along a trail that lies almost entirely at or above 8,000 feet (2,400 m) in elevation. She was in excellent shape at the end, and when she shed her 70-pound pack to hike up Whitney’s summit at the conclusion, she did it with ease. Upon her return to Kansas City, I picked her up at the airport. She was noticeably thinner, and when I hugged her, I was a little shocked at how prominent her ribs were when we embraced.
The trip that we planned to hike together would not be so arduous. We decided to hike a part of the Colorado Trail. This 485-mile high altitude hiking trail begins (or ends, depending on which way you’re headed) in the Denver area going in a southwesterly direction to the city of Durango, Colorado. Luckily, Wendy’s cousin literally lived within a few hundred yards of the Waterton Canyon trailhead (near Denver), and she graciously allowed us to park the car at her house, where the trip would finish.
Wendy had two weeks of vacation, but I only had one; therefore, we decided I would leave the trail before she would continue on to the Denver area. We planned to start our hike in the town of Leadville and head north. A good bail-out point for me would be in the town of Frisco, about 58 trail miles from Leadville. Frisco sits on Interstate 70 (I-70), and a daily commercial bus service was available to take me back to Kansas City. Wendy would continue hiking the remaining 101 miles north to return to her car.
Transportation to our starting point was also facilitated by one of her relatives who lived in the Denver area. Wendy’s Uncle Neil agreed to drive us to Leadville, the highest mountain city in the United States at an elevation of 10,152 feet.
Uncle Neil liked to talk. A lot. Wendy’s dad, on the other hand, does not talk a lot. Not that he doesn’t like to talk, instead because his older brother Neil talked so much, Kent was not able to get a word in edgewise. Our trip to Leadville would be an informational and memorable one. In part because Uncle Neil was a very intelligent person. He was a civil engineer that worked for many years for the US Geological Service. He headed up the earthen dam construction, monitoring, and inspection program when he lived in D.C. and was called to testify before a Congressional committee at least once on the topic of earthen dam safety. Little did we know his knowledge would transform our shuttling to the trailhead into a rolling pronouncement of facts and trivia along the way.
As we headed west from Denver on I-70, we made our way into the heart of the Colorado Rockies. We traveled up and down the slopes, and all along, Uncle Neil informed us of the various reservoirs, water diversions, and other engineering undertakings that dotted the landscape. I was surprised at the number of projects that had been developed to quench the thirsty needs of Denver and other mountain towns but also learned of the efforts to supply other human needs and the ecosystem as well.
The Eisenhower–Johnson Tunnel
Sixty miles west of Denver, we approached the highest transportation tunnel in the United States, The Eisenhower –Johnson Tunnel, located at a maximum elevation of 11,158 ft. The tunnel takes motorists under the Continental Divide and is an engineering marvel in and of itself.
The dual-bore, four-lane vehicular tunnel is the longest mountain tunnel (about 1.7 miles) and the highest point on the US Interstate Highway System. Initial engineering estimates for the first bore (called the Eisenhower bore) were $42 million dollars. The actual construction costs climbed to over $108 million dollars. A big reason for the cost overrun was due to the geology of the mountain. Engineers discovered several unstable faults bisecting the path of the excavation. As a result, as the bore commenced and encountered the cracks, the unstable ceiling rocks caved in, and three workers lost their lives. The solution, according to Uncle Neil, was the use of an engineering method not used before. They would freeze the rock. By drilling many pilot holes above and around the pathway of the borehole, pipes with liquid were inserted then chilled below freezing to solidify and stabilize the rock.
On average, the tunnels accommodate an average of over 33,000 vehicles a day. The flow of traffic is constantly monitored, and systems are in place to halt traffic due to accidents or trucks/trailers that are too tall to safely travel through the tunnel (or not at all!). Huge amounts of power are needed to run the ventilation systems and to light the development. The electric bill for the tunnel complex is about $70,000 a month, and a staff of 52 full-time persons is employed in the operations 24/7.
It was early afternoon and cloudy when we arrived in Leadville. The trailhead was located on the north side of this hilltop hamlet. We knew we might encounter some snow on the trail as we began our trek during the latter part of June. There was no snow lingering around as we headed out. We would hike for a few hours then start looking for a place to camp, preferably near a source of water.
Colorado and Continental Divide Trail makers affixed to the same tree
Side note: Parts of the CT and CDT are open to mountain bikes and horses
One of the many alpine meadows along the 485 mile Colorado Trail
Portions of the Colorado Trail (CT) shares tread with the more well-known and longer Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Along these stretches, the pathway is more worn and visible. In addition to the groove in the earth, both trails have markers identifying the route. Posts, signs, emblems, and tags attached to various human-made and natural objects highlight the way. The Colorado Trail Foundation sells the CT plastic markers at a bargain rate of $4.95 for those that want a memento of their trip. We navigated our hike the old-fashioned way (sans GPS) using a guidebook we purchased, a topo map for the respective section we were on, our compass, and by following the signs and trail markers. Not always did that provide foolproof support as a couple of segments had been rerouted (and were not well marked yet), and snow covered another.
Colorado Trail guide, map and souvenir trail marker
On day four, we encountered the frozen white stuff on the way down a slope. At first, we were successful in crossing the intermittent snowfields and locating the trail on the other side. However, the lower we went, the drifted snowbanks were more expansive, and we lost the trail. Neither the guidebook nor topo map was much use because they did not provide us with the amount of detail we needed to navigate further and to pick up the trail. We decided to stop and talk out our options. We decided that Wendy would stay put and I would go straight down the mountain. Knowing that many trails have switchbacks on sloping terrain, there was a chance I would bisect the trail. Within fifteen minutes, I did just that as I made my way through several fields of snow and picked up the trail. Plus, the lower I went in elevation, the less snow I encountered, and we were relieved that the trail continued to descend.
However, our predicament caused us to reevaluate our route. Examining the guidebook, the trail would have us go back up in elevation and cross over an 11,000-foot pass before dropping us down into the town of Breckenridge. Considering we had challenges with snowfields near 10,000 feet, we decided to play it safe and stop at the Copper Mountain ski area after a five-day trek.
Coming upon the community of Copper Mountain was quite the experience. We passed through several openings in the trees that revealed ski slopes as well as a disc golf course that snaked its way through the timber. Once through the woods, we saw the extent of the ski town development and a return to civilization.
We learned of the free shuttle bus system linking the Summit County towns of Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Dillion, Frisco, Copper Mountain, and others. The towns were filled with ski resorts, hotels, condos, restaurants, and other amenities. As we made our way to the bus stop, we had to cross several large parking lots that catered to the Copper Mountain ski crowd. On the last lot we transited, we did not initially notice the hard, white balls that littered the pavement. It wasn’t until one of the balls came rolling our way that we realized the area had a secondary purpose. We heard off in the distance a muffled apology as a golfer was probably just as surprised as we were that the trail traversed the multi-purposed lot that served as a driving range as well. The tail guide failed to mention helmets might be in order when entering Copper Mountain. We safely boarded the shuttle to our evening destination.
On our first night, we would lodge at a family-owned Breckenridge Bed and Breakfast. Our first order of business would be to shower off the five days’ worth of trail grit and grime before we would act as tourists.
We learned quickly why Breckenridge has the ritzy reputation that it does. Window shopping would be the extent of our exploration as we walked about town, avoiding the fashionable stores like Gucci or Prada. Who knows, maybe they do make trendy, rugged backpacks. We did not check! Regardless, it was interesting to see how the more affluent part of society lives.
The next day we would shuttle over to Frisco and bed down in a Forest Service campground at the edge of town. But before we left Breckenridge, we discovered a paved cycling/walking trail that connected Breckenridge, Frisco, and Copper Mountain. It was a beautiful, warm sunny day and we decided to rent mountain bikes from a local outfitter, to check out the trail. It was a nice change of pace from carrying a pack through the mountains.
Frisco was more to our liking. The town embraced the other elements of outdoor recreation, which seem to appeal more to the local Coloradoans than the out-of-state tourists. There is a Nordic center and trails for skinny skiers (cross country), numerous singletrack trails for mountain bikers, canoe and kayak rentals at the marina on Dillon Reservoir, and a host of other activities. The shops and restaurants are not as pretentious, and local history is highlighted at the Frisco Historic Park and Museum with its collection of old buildings and artifacts. It is a very walkable community, which we found pleasing. Our only complaint was not all the businesses and attractions were open, as we were there during the shoulder season. The forested, rustic campground had running water and flush toilets but lacked the amenities of a shower house or hookups, which was fine by us. My only regret is that I did not take any pictures of the campground or of our hike. Little did I know on our next stay, the scenery would be different and that the reason for the change was creeping on its way.
We would cap off our stay by utilizing the shuttle system to go to an outdoor store in Silverthorne. Our camp stove had malfunctioned on our last full day on the trail, and a new one would be needed for Wendy to finish her weeklong push to Denver.
Fast forward to 2014. Kansas City summers can be brutally hot to me and on several occasions, we have used vacations to escape to the mountains. In 2014 we decided to continue our streak of backpacking or hiking as the previous two years we took Amtrak to Glacier National Park and hiked around.
In 2014 Wendy did some research with the following vacation parameters. One it had to be in or near mountains and two, it had to be no more than a week to ten days in length. Her internet search resulted in a backpack trip through the most photographed outdoor natural landscape in Colorado, the Maroon Bells, outside of Vail. The “Bells” are two peaks of the Elk Mountains each one over 14,000 feet in elevation. They lie within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area of the White River National Forest. The Wilderness was one of five wilderness areas in Colorado that got established with the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. This 181,535-acre wild area attracts over 300,000 visitors a year, due in part to its ten-mile drive from downtown Vail. With over 100 miles of trail to choose from, a popular option is the Four Pass Loop. Each pass of the route eclipses the 12,000 mark in elevation and the distance is a doable (if you can handle the elevation and steep climbs) twenty-seven-mile circuit.
The ”Maroon Bells” are reddish in color due to the iron bearing mineral hematite present in the rock
Photographs of the area looked incredible and the trip itinerary she suggested provided some extra time to accommodate sightseeing in Vail (where I had never been before) and possible delays during the hike. I easily bought into the proposal.
The drive from Kansas City to Vail is about 700 miles in distance. The driving time and the waning days of sunlight in mid-September caused us to consider making our trip to the trailhead a two-day affair. Most of the route would be familiar, and we planned to camp in western Kansas.
- Side note: A great option we discovered a couple of years ago is a “no fail” primitive camping option at Cedar Bluffs State Park in Kansas. They have over 150 primitive, dedicated and unassigned campsites. Recently on one beautiful holiday weekend visit, there were plenty of sites available. The park is located 13 miles south of I-70 near Ellis, Kansas. So if you are headed that way but worried about having a primitive campsite available for the evening, Cedar Bluffs is the place to go.
We left on a Sunday morning, which pretty much ensured us a camping spot since the weekend crowd would be gone. We made it to Goodland, Kansas, before we called it a night. On Monday, we headed west and had a fascinating surprise. Sixty miles west of Denver, our ears were crackling as we gained altitude and approached the Eisenhower Tunnel. Suddenly a “pop” occurred, and I immediately tightened my grip on the steering wheel, anticipating the car veering off one way or the other from a ruptured tire. The car stayed true. Within a few seconds, the cabin of the auto was filled with the smell of popcorn. The elevation change was enough that our stash of snack popcorn burst open. We laughed in amazement.
Once through the tunnel, the cloudy skies gave way to rain. At times the rain was intense, and visibility was limited. We were approaching Frisco when we decided to pull over and take a lunch break. We took our time dining, and by the time we finished, the rain had diminished, and visibility was acceptable. The forecast did not bode well for the rest of the day, and we knew it would not be an enjoyable start of our backpack trip in the rain. We altered our plan and decided to check out the Forest Service campground in Frisco. The forecast for the next day was sunny, with temperatures in the low 60’s.
Arriving at the Frisco campground provided the second surprise of the day. However, this surprise would not be so pleasant. We pulled into a devastated landscape compromised by a force that does not receive the fearsome headlines of the all too common western wildfires. Averaging from ten to twenty miles of spread a year, the mountain pine bark beetle infestation that started in Colorado in 1996 had made its way to Summit County in 2006-07. The biological attack was formidable and not that unusual, as such episodes occur naturally ever so often. The mountainsides were brown, with many of the dead conifers still standing. The Forest Service elected to have the affected trees in the campground removed, leaving behind a terrain of many tree trunks cut near the ground.
We did not recognize the campground at all. Some new trees had emerged, and a few others were obviously not affected or damaged enough to die. The sight reminded me of my firefighting days, seeing a fire-ravaged mountainside with a few trees that somehow escaped the wrath of the inferno. There are some events in nature that just escape explanation or logic. We wondered how this epidemic, which attacked the campground about four years from our last visit, would affect our foray into the mountains outside of Vail.
On the mountain slopes in the background, swaths of standing dead trees are noticeable.
It was a glorious afternoon when we passed through Aspen to reach the Forest Service parking lot and trailhead to the Maroon Bells. The ravages of the mountain pine beetle were not apparent. Although the weekend was over, the autumn colors drew a significant number of people to the Bells, causing the upper parking lot to be so full, a forest ranger was directing cars to the overflow and lower lot. Our timing was near perfection as the glowing yellow of the aspens screamed for attention. The weather the day before had intermittent rain showers that were prolific at times. The forecast suggested that beginning on Tuesday, the skies would clear, and the rest of the week would be free of precipitation.
The starting altitude from the parking lot was just over 9,000 feet, with the treeline maybe another 1,000 feet higher. The predominant tree species was the quaking aspen, awash in various shades of bright yellows. The tree got its name due to the shape of the stems of the leaves. Unlike most trees whose leaf stems are round, the quaking aspen has flat stems allowing the slightest breeze to move the leaves as a flutter, flap, vibrate, or “quake.” We treated the shaking as an applause to us having finally arrived.
Wilderness areas are to be a respite from the everyday rigors and noise of society. A requisite is not that they be beautiful, but many are. Innumerable are beautiful in their own special ways. Visiting a wilderness, one hopefully experiences a primeval sense of natural wonder, complete with stunningly wonderful scenery. The Maroon Bells did not disappoint. We checked the information kiosk about trail conditions and other warnings. A black bear sighting had been reported recently at Crater Lake, about two miles from the trailhead. Both of us have lived in bear country, and each of us has had numerous non-threatening bear encounters. We were very familiar with proper etiquette backpacking in bear country habitat, and we brought our own bear-resistant food container.
We often will take our BFC in non-bear country as well. Rodents and other critters with sharp teeth have been known to gnaw through packs and other soft-sided containers to get food.
Our senses were heightened, but we were not afraid. Also listed at the kiosk were the “Leave No Trace” principles, which provide good low impact protocols to follow, to help maintain a more pristine environment and enhance the experience of current and future users of the area. We took in the information and used the restrooms, which would be the last of such facilities for the next four days.
Within a couple hundred feet from the parking lot, one encounters Maroon Lake. The initial multitude of visitors we witnessed was accommodated on the broad beginning of the trail. This allowed those to enjoy the weather and the magnificent views. On a calm day, the water reflects the sight of the Bells, perfectly framed by the shape of the long, narrow body of water. For many persons, the sight is enough to fill their quest for a magnificent photo opportunity, provided they can get a picture without a throng of people in their view. (It has been said that this mountain view is the most photographed mountain scene in the United States). After a few clicks, they may hang out for a while before heading back to their vehicle. The trail skirts Maroon Lake before going to Crater Lake, about another 30-minute walk. Those that are a little more adventuresome will make the trip as the trail begins to narrow. The crowds diminish on this section with a further dwindling for those that take the side trail headed towards Snowmass Lake, a significant hike of more than five miles from the intersection. Studies have shown the further from the trailhead, the fewer the visitors. Also, after about 50 feet on either side of a trail or from a developed area, the presence of humans greatly subsides. Therefore, just a hundred feet or so up the trail and within fifteen minutes from our second lake rendezvous, we were met by less than 10 others. We would not see another person until the next day when we had crossed the crest of Maroon Pass.
Such scarcity is nice when approaching a place to pitch a tent for the night. As we ambled up the trail, we wanted to put some distance behind us and where the last bear sighting occurred. We were following West Maroon Creek and gaining altitude. As a result, the trees were beginning to thin out as we approached the tree line. The map indicated we would cross the creek at about mile four, as the creek would take a dog-leg to our left. We didn’t want to be in an exposed location and not near a water source. The wind had picked up, and clouds had moved in, so we were at a good point to select a spot to pitch camp and settle in for the night. Because we were within the wilderness area, there were no developed or designated campsites. Luckily, we came upon a couple of significant clumps of trees before the stream juncture. It took us a little bit of checking several locations before we agreed upon a site. It was nicely wooded, and the creek was the required 100 feet from camp, with the last 30 feet being down a slope. There was a nice viewpoint overlooking the rambling water. On the opposing side, the mountainside was more deliberate and steeper, with few, to no trees. We would return to the spot after dinner.
We were in the “Land of Many Uses,” which is the motto of the United States Forest Service. National Forests provide for many benefits, services, and commodities, from recreation to mineral and lumber extraction. This multiple-use approach leads to conflicts. But to the average recreationalist, those confrontations can be avoided by doing a little research before a visit (for instance, hunting is permitted in most forests, and a backpack trip during hunting season may not provide a very relaxing experience to hikers). Cutting of firewood is permitted in many cases, and such practices were evident during our trip, as revealed in the environment surrounding our camp. We chose to use a backpacking stove, which is quicker, more convenient, and doesn’t scar the landscape in a noticeable way.
Many backpackers use the standard approach of a hot breakfast and dinner and skip using a stove at lunchtime. This reduces fuel consumption by a third and usually requires less set-up and cleaning time after the afternoon meal. Instant, buttery mashed potatoes and a package of Madras Lentils is one of our favorites for supper.
I filtered some water from the creek below our mountainside vista, and as I looked upslope, I noticed some white patches on the hillside. Not so strange, but I didn’t notice any snow earlier. Then the spots began to move. At that point, I realized I had my first noteworthy wildlife sighting of our trip. I slowly made my way back to camp to alert Wendy of my observation. We returned to our vantage point and watched a group of three mountain goats grazing on the mountainside about a half-mile across the way. It was a great way to cap off our day.
The next morning clouds held low, and the temperature was crisp. Ice formed at the edges of the stream when I went to gather water to fill our pot. Looking around, there were no mountain goats nor animals of the two-legged kind either. After our standard hot breakfast of flavored instant oatmeal and hot tea, we embarked on our trek to West Maroon Pass, another 2 miles and 1,500 feet in elevation. Soon we were above treeline and encountering some open patches of tundra. I was disappointed to see some trash, toilet paper, and human feces at the edges of one of the open areas. In one instance, it did not appear that the person even made an attempt to bury their waste. Obviously, an example where the impacts of humans were highly noticeable versus the goal of “Leave No Trace.” Such deposits at a higher altitude do not degrade as quickly as at lower elevations, and the only good thing may be that such actions may be covered by snow a good part of the year. Regardless, it definitely took away from the wilderness experience.
Day two would take us over two passes as we planned to camp at a lower elevation near a stream. Once we crested West Maroon Pass, we would descend less than a thousand feet to the floor of a high alpine valley. From the pass, we could see the trail snake through low-lying meadows and the treeless terrain. A mile from the high point, we would make our ascent to the next pass, Frigid Pass. The distance between the two passes was a scant 2.5 miles, and Frigid Pass was a couple of hundred feet lower in elevation. As the name would imply, it was a little cool on top of Frigid. However, that can be said of most high altitude passes that have a tendency to funnel cool air through the mountain openings. Our spirits were buoyed on the ridge as the clouds gave way to sunshine and the warmth soaked into our soul. Also, we encountered our first set of hikers headed in the opposite direction. In another four miles, we would reach a somewhat harbored enclave nestled in plenty of aspen and cottonwoods within a short walk to the flowing source of water.
The site indicated it was a popular site for other backpackers as well, which was not surprising because it checked off many of the attributes a backpacker would want. The trees provided shelter from wind, the terrain was relatively flat (enough for a tent and then some), it was close to water, and it was relatively secluded. It didn’t hurt that it was beautiful as well. Some fire scars existed from previous users, and others seemed to be thoughtful enough to reuse the pits cordoned off with the round stones that permeated the area. We would camp for the night about 13 miles from the trailhead.
The weather remained clear, and the morning was not so brisk as the one before. We were about 500 feet lower in elevation, but the previous afternoon sun and the protection of the trees seemed to be the difference-maker for our second morning out. Our itinerary for the day included another nine-mile traverse that included one pass over 12,000 feet once again. The “Land of Many Uses” provided some surprises along the way as we noticed something ahead of us to the right of the trail and going up the slope. At first, we thought it might be an animal, but as we got closer, it continued to move perpendicular to the trail going in a northerly direction. It turned out it was an archer, apparently seeking game during an archery season. I believe he may have seen us, but we were far too distant to strike up a conversation. The Forest Service generally does not regulate hunting, in part because wildlife traditionally are wards of the state, and hunting is a permissible activity on most Forest Service land. I was not put off by his presence; he had just as much right to be in the wilderness as us. What did make us wonder is where he came from. From the Aspen trailhead, it would have been a good 14 miles at that point, but there were three other trailheads within reason, but each would have been ten miles or more. Perhaps he had a spike camp nearby. If he was hunting large game and required to pack out all the meat, he would have had a hefty haul; however, he might just have to transport it to the wilderness boundary where he could possibly use a four-wheeler to get the animal to the road system (the Wilderness Act prohibits the use of mechanized transport). Regardless, at that point, I wish I had worn my hunter orange hat, coat, and backpack (just kidding). Just beyond our encounter, we had the option of taking a shortcut that would have shaved off a couple of miles to our next destination. We decided to take the more scenic route and loop around Geneva Lake. The melted snow depression was a tranquil, picturesque scene, and we had it all to ourselves. We took a break above the glistening surface and had a snack. When we crossed over the outlet stream, I noticed a darting motion in the clear water. I stood to examine, and after a short while, a trout came into view. When I moved, the fish went back to the cover of the shadows. I saw several others and pointed them out to my wife.
The emerald green waters of Geneva Lake
Mention fish around an angler, and you are likely to get a fish story. So if you don’t like to read about fish stories (believable or not), you may want to skip the next few paragraphs.
My dad loved to fish, and he was good at it. Dad would sometimes take my brother and me fishing when we were kids. On our fishing outings, it would be a good time, provided the fish were biting. However, on many occasions, we were not so lucky, and our attention span was not that great. Dad would often get two dozen nightcrawlers and hand a dozen to us boys and send us down the bank away from him. We figured that once the bait was gone, we were done for the day. When we would get bored, we would make sure we were out of dad’s sight. Then, using our spin-cast reels, we would sling the rod as hard as we could. Mid-flight, we would hit the button to stop the line and then wait for the plops. If we did it right, there would be two splashes, one being the hook and bobber, and the other would be the worm further in the distance. We would finish off our allotted enticement in record time. The only problem was dad would still have another eleven or so worms to go. So much for that strategy!
Years later, I had an alpine fishing experience in Alaska. A co-worker knew of a mountain lake about ninety minutes from Anchorage. We had to hike a couple of miles up from the road to reach a small series of connected lakes. We both had waders but didn’t bother to bring a net. When we got to the first lake, it seemed a little small and perhaps not many fish, but we decided to try our luck anyway. After about a half-hour and no action whatsoever, we headed to the next body of water. The scenery was what you might picture in an Alaska postcard. The water was still with a few tall trees around it. We spread out and went to work. We weren’t having any success, but we were enjoying the wildlife. There were a pair of osprey, and they had a nest in one of the trees, probably with a couple of chicks. We witnessed a sight you’d expect from a nature tv program as one of the parents hovered, then swept down on the lake and caught a fish. A little while later, another catch. The osprey were doing better than us! By observing the birds for a bit, we discovered the reason for their quick success. We watched carefully and noticed a few patches of rippling that occurred on the lake’s surface. The osprey would dive into the ripple and snatch an arctic grayling. (Grayling are a small fish of the salmon family with an unusually large dorsal fin). The grayling were traveling in pods of sorts near the surface, and their actions were wrinkling the glassy surface. Lucky for us, these pools of fish were going back and forth along the shoreline. All we had to do, was wait for one of the groupings to come within reach of our tackle and cast in the middle. Within an hour, Glen had caught fourteen fish, and I caught ten. It was a lot of fun. What was just as fun was what Glen did with the fish once he caught them. Instead of using a stringer and fastening it to the bank to hold his bounty (which would take too much time), he would simply take his catch and put the salmonids down in his waders. Using that technique, he could collect three or four fish within minutes.
I do like fishing. My approach has changed since being a kid, though. Nowadays, the purpose to me is to enjoy the outdoors, and if I catch a fish, that’s icing on the cake. Besides, I’ve become a little bit spoiled since fishing in Alaska. It’s just not as exciting in the Midwest as in the Last Frontier. In Alaska, you may have a fish on your line, and a grizzly bear decides the catch belongs to ursus arctos horribilis!
One might wonder how do fish populate an alpine lake? The lake we fished in did have an outlet stream, and at some point, fish may have swum upstream from a connected river. However, there are a prodigious number of high altitude lakes where there is no link or evidence that at one time such passage had occurred. One theory is that eggs were transported by birds that had waded through a mass of eggs from another lake with fish, and some of the eggs stuck to their legs. Another possibility is that a raptor grabbed hold of a female fish full of eggs, carried it to the lake devoid of fish, and the eggs came out of the carcass and survived the journey. In a similar but human fashion, there is speculation that Lake Trout were introduced into Yellowstone Lake. Situated at 7,733 feet (2,357 m) above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest (132 square miles) high elevation lake in North America. The non-native Lake Trout have decimated the Yellowstone Cut-Throat Trout population in Yellowstone Lake. When discovered in the lake in 1994, it was thought that an angler had illegally released Lake Trout that were taken from nearby Lewis or Shoshone Lake. However, an alternate theory based on the five-year-old age of the fish was that eggs or fry (young fish) were sucked or scooped up in an airborne water tanker during the devastating 1988 Yellowstone wildfire season and dropped on an area with a stream that drained into the lake. Currently, Yellowstone National Park is spending two million dollars a year on a Lake Trout eradication program. (A more scientific discussion of the Lake Trout situation can be found at the following link https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/faq-invasive-lake-trout-yellowstone-lake?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects)
We watched for a while and decided to continue on as we had a formidable pass to climb over and several miles to trek before we would decide where to camp. The sun was glorious, and the temperature was just right for backpacking.
The Four Pass Loop elevation profile
Pass number three of our trip was also above twelve thousand feet. At 12,420 feet, Trail Rider Pass presented a 2,100 foot gain over 4 miles, and approaching it as we were doing, many would consider it to be the toughest of the four climbs we would ascend. The diversion around Geneva broke up the slog towards the top. I don’t remember much about the segment other than we moved to the side of the trail to allow a couple of trail runners to pass us, going in the opposite direction. They were making pretty good time and were wearing shorts, t-shirts, and running shoes. We were miles from the nearest trailhead, and it was still morning. We were amazed but not totally surprised, knowing that a significant number of Coloradoans take their fitness and training very seriously.
We persisted and got to the ridgeline by early afternoon. The panoramic view was picture-worthy, and we took several shots. In the distance down below, we could see Snowmass Lake and the greenery surrounding it. It looked like a good place to possibly stop for the night. Going downhill isn’t always an easy endeavor, especially with a 40 to 50-pound pack on your back. Often your toes get jammed against the front of your boot. And your knees are flexed and under constant stress.
The switchbacks were long and many. Once through that section, we hit a boulder field. Climbing over and around the dishwasher appliance size rocks was considerable effort. In addition, it was hard to follow the trail as there were no markers or a worn path to travel by. It took us much longer than we thought to cover the distance to the other side of what was a rock slide of long ago. Regardless, on the other side, we hit the path in a wooded area, and we were near Snowmass Lake.
Soon we hit interwoven social trails where people had obviously been camping. It was getting a little late in the afternoon, and if we continued, we would be going upslope towards the next pass and an uncertain future concerning acceptable camping spots. We would call it a day.
Another backpacker came by, and he was a friendly, spirited individual. He was in his fifties and an annual visitor to Snowmass Lake, he told us. He was wearing knee braces and carrying two hiking poles. He said as long as his knees hold out, he would continue his eight-year tradition next year. He had started in the morning at the Maroon Lake trailhead, and he had a harder climb than we did. To get to the lake, he had to cover five miles, with the first three miles ascending 2,800 feet at up to a 17% grade at times. We were glad that we would be traversing that slope going down.
No wonder Snowmass Lake is a popular camping destination
There were many downed trees where we planned to camp, and the standing trees were dense enough that we didn’t see any other campers other than our recent acquaintance. But we could hear others at a distance, and the area seemed to have a party atmosphere about it. The day was Thursday, and it felt like the early weekend crowd was arriving. Some shouting and laughing gave us the impression it was a young bunch descending upon us. Luckily they kept their distance, and later when we trailed off to sleep, we could hear the whir of human activity down along the lake.
Snowmass Lake provides an equally impressive photo op!
On our final morning, we rose around sunrise, and all was quiet. The revelers were undoubtedly still asleep in their tents. We lit our stove and made silent work of our breakfast and packing up. We crept out of the area without disturbing our nearest neighbor, who appeared to still be fast asleep. It was our warmest morning, and the weather promised to stay that way during our departure. In the next two miles, we would gain about 1,300 feet in altitude with an average grade just below twelve percent. We encountered a few hikers before we summited. They had camped in an open meadow near the ridgeline and were in the process of drying out their brightly colored tents and footprints. It has been argued that such flashy flavored gear detracts from the wilderness experience.
The autumn hues were almost as bright as some tents! Pretty wild.
Indeed when I was working in Denali National Park in Alaska, the unique situation at the park provides an example of how glaring the neon fabrics can be. At Denali, there is a dirt road that bisects the park for nearly 90 miles. Fifty feet on either side of the road or developed campsites, etc., is designated wilderness along all but the first three miles of road. Much of the road goes through treeless tundra and sparse taiga. A significant number of times, when I rode the shuttle bus into the heart of the park, I would see a tent in all its glory. Definitely not my idea of experiencing Alaska’s wildness.
Proponents suggest such sights are not that intrusive for a situation that is very temporary. In addition, the striking hues would be of benefit in the case of a search and rescue operation. Not all tents pop out when placed on the landscape. For those that favor a non-invasive impact, gear can be purchased that doesn’t scream out to other visitors. Plus, measures can be taken to camouflage one’s existence.
A small breeze and loads of sun greeted us on the pass. It was all downhill from there, with three miles remaining. The flood of visitors making their way to the crest signaled the weekend migration had begun. We were mesmerized at the number of persons making the worthy ascent up the mountain. The stream of humans slowed down our progress, and even though we were miffed by some of their trail etiquette, we recognized it wasn’t all that bad. Besides, the weather was fantastic, the fall colors were magnificent, and people were enjoying the outdoors. It would be a hearty hike for visitors to get to Snowmass Lake. Those that make it are worthy of the splendid scenery it provides. Not all are going to the lake are in it for the opportunities of solitude because that weekend, I could pretty much guarantee a quiet landscape would not exist. So what is the balance of enjoyment of peace of a single individual to the sharing of beautiful scenery with a group of friends? I’m not sure. But in the case of the Maroon Bells, we had an understandable “wilderness” experience. On the first day, we hiked beyond the crowds gathered at Maroon Lake and the smaller crowd further up the trail at Crater Lake. Again, the aspen trees were near or at peak color, and the weather was sunny with a pleasant temperature. Plus, the trailhead is about a ten-mile distance from downtown Aspen, so a mass of visitors was to be expected. Not long after Crater Lake, we encountered just a few more people. We did not have to compete with others for a suitable campsite and then we did not see another soul until the next day. The sight of the mountain goats from our first night of camping, offset to some degree, witnessing the trash, human feces, and toilet paper the following day. Another night of solitary slumber helped solidify a delightful backcountry evening. Our third night resulted in what could be described as a social, recreational experience. Not exactly an event typical of wilderness, in my opinion, and we agreed the impacts caused by the masses were a little overwhelming.
One approach the US Forest Service has used in the past to manage wilderness is the principle of “Limits of Acceptable Change” (LAC). The basic premise is if humans are going to be visiting an area, their use is going to change the area. A base is established, and the various attributes are recorded. A predetermined limit of “change” is set, and if the parameters are exceeded through use or natural incidents such as wildfire or flood, management can implement actions to try and restore the area to the pre-impacted condition. An example might be, vegetation around a campsite becomes compromised by a 15 percent decrease in the vegetated growth at the site, and that is 5% over the limit. Management might elect to harden the site with more robust vegetation, close the sight until the vegetation has grown back, or change the limit. LAC is only one approach, and others have evolved over the years.
We both felt that during our outing, some of the area had been “loved to death” and surpassed our interpretation of a reasonable LAC. We were hoping that the Forest Service would take some future action to help provide more of an “untrammeled” wilderness experience.
In college, I took a wilderness management class. The term wilderness can have many different meanings. A topic of discussion in the class was that of wilderness “management.” If it is wild, does it need to be managed? Is not the term “wilderness management” an oxymoron?
In a legal sense, there is “wilderness.” Congress is responsible for deciding what natural areas become part of the “National Wilderness Preservation System.” Roughly twenty percent of our public natural acreage is part of the system, and many areas not officially designated as wilderness are managed as de facto wilderness (for instance, two million of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres are managed as such). In every designated wilderness area I have visited, I have witnessed the influence and impact humans have had on the land. It is hard to escape. From a pure wilderness approach, on a clear day, one is almost guaranteed to look up in the sky and see a jet contrail. Air pollution is another reminder that human activity has touched all corners of the earth. Particulate matter has even reached the snowfields of both the Arctic and Antarctica interior.
In Carlsbad Caverns National Park (CCNP), there is Lechuguilla Cave. It lies within the designated wilderness section of the park. Scientists have yet to find the terminus of this second deepest of limestone caves in the US. Over 149 miles of passages have been surveyed as of 2020. Perhaps Lechuguilla is one example of wilderness, as pure as wilderness can get. Visitation is limited to permitted activities such as research or surveying. Also, vertical caving and rappelling experience are a prerequisite and required to be able to enter the cave as there is a 180-foot descent when entering the restricted area. There is a delineated path that must be followed, and on some routes, pools must be crossed wearing nothing but your helmet and birthday suit. A three-day journey is often needed to reach the far ends of the cave to spots not seen by humans ever before. In 1991 a caver broke her leg, and the rescue operation lasted four days to extract her safely.
Lechuguilla Cave – NPS Photo by Daniel Chailloux & Peter Bosted
Although I never set foot in Lechuguilla cave, I have been in other caves in total darkness. With no one else present or audible and in the pitch black, any influences of humans are un-noticeable. During those times, on several occasions, a little bit of fear crept into my psyche, followed by a shortness of breath. For me, in order for an area to be wild, a primordial sense of doom must be present. On a few backpack trips and hiking outings when there were few humans around and when I was miles from civilization (especially in grizzly country), I have wondered what would happen if I got injured or became ill and incapacitated. That is a wild sensation.
Maroon Bells is an example of what happens when an area gets too popular. Fortunately, The Forest Service was well aware of what was happening on the Four Pass Loop. During our visit in 2014, there already was in place a shuttle system to handle the hordes of tourists during peak visitation. The vast majority of those were wanting just to get to Maroon Lake, which was (is) a short distance from the parking lots. The lakeside vista offers an iconic mountain photo op, and its easy accessibility leads it to be the number one photographed location in Colorado.
Since our visit, the Forest Service alerted the public about possible changes to hiking in the backcountry. Public input was sought on how to mitigate the degradation that was occurring. As a result of the planning process, significant changes have been implemented. Changes since 2014 include entry to the Maroon Lake trailhead are subject to the Maroon Lake Scenic Area recreation fees. Overnight backpackers are required to self-register, and the free permit must be with the party during their trip. The purpose of required registration is to educate visitors about wilderness ethics and gather visitor use information so that USFS can better manage the area. Camping at Geneva and Crater Lake on the loop trail is limited to the designated sites only. Dispersed camping rules apply to the rest of the circuit. Campfires are prohibited in many areas and discouraged in the remainder. Overnight visitors are required to carry their food in a USFS approved bear-resistant food container. Additional restrictions can be viewed at the following links https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd542652.pdf and https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whiteriver/recarea/?recid=40555
Backpacking in a wilderness can be a great experience if you are well prepared. There are those that want an extreme wilderness adventure by going off-trail. Denali National Park and Preserve (DNP&P) in Alaska claims to be a “trail-less” park in its two million acres of designated wilderness. Managers of the wilderness have established backcountry units, and overnight visitors must have a permit. The units have been assigned carrying capacity limits restricting the number of persons that can be in a unit at any one time. This measure is to help persons obtain a wilderness experience and limit the contact users might incur with others. And if those circumstances don’t invoke a wild sensation, there are the natural elements such as crossing swift-running cold streams, encountering either or both black and brown bears, moose, and other wildlife that pose a threat to one’s existence. Human influences also are far and few between. Although the presence of a few airlines whose polar routes include Alaska airspace, foot-bridges, signage, and other human amenities are lacking.
Such experiences are not limited to the wilds of Alaska. Many road-less areas throughout the rest of the US can provide a peaceful, relaxing time or a challenging thrill. For wilderness purists, I would suggest finding an area without cellular service and away from developed areas, including trails.
Experiencing wilderness is not meant to be easy. As with many rewarding adventures in life, it takes effort to achieve. The Four Pass loop is worth it.
End of our hike
For more information on:
The Colorado Trail: visit the Colorado Trail Foundation website – https://coloradotrail.org/
The Four Pass Loop: visit the Forest Service website – https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whiteriver/recarea/?recid=40555
The library has a number of books on backcountry hiking –
Hiking Kansas City by William Eddy and Richard Ballentine is a useful guide where one can practice their skills and test gear on local trails.
For trails in Colorado, check these out –
- United States Forest Service – USFS
- Colorado Department of Transportation
- Colorado Trail Foundation – Used with permission
- Colorado Trail Foundation – Used with permission
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- Photo by author
- NPS Photo by Daniel Chailloux & Peter Bosted
- Photo by author’s wife
Elevation profile created by the MapMyHike.com website.
About the author – Main library associate Steve Oakes, is a former National Park Ranger at Denali, Carlsbad and Cuyahoga Valley National Parks. Oakes and his wife enjoy hiking and backpacking in “wild” places where his wife often leads due to her more advanced experience.
More information and photos will be provided during my Maroon Bells program, hopefully later in 2021 at the Main Library. Details forthcoming.
© Steve Oakes