July 21-23, 2017
I’ve been wanting to do the Aspen/Crested Butte hike for some time. It thrilled me when I saw a meetup group called “Bold Bettie’s” post this hike as it takes some coordinating and surprisingly, for this famous hike, the information is not that forth coming. I signed up to go even though I had just returned from Mongolia five days earlier and was still worn out and playing catch up.
Since I need time to acclimate to the altitude, I arrived in Crested Butte a day earlier than the planned outing, and hiked a simple 6.4 mile loop near town and then explored Downtown Crested Butte with one of the members of Bold Betties, Barb.
The hike began just from the edge of town on Lower Loop Trail. The signs as well as the description of the hike suggested to park in area about 200 yards up Peanut Road on the right hand side.
If I had to do it over again I would have gone to the Woods Walk Trailhead, also located at the edge of town and hiked from there or driven 1.2 mile up Peanut Road to the Lower Loop Trailhead as walking up a road, all be it dirt, isn’t terribly appealing to me. Having said that, the parking up the road is limited so arriving early is crucial, In addition, I suppose I would have zipped by the Gronk, an old mining structure as well as the Peanut Lake with a lovely reflection of Gothic Mountain in its calm waters, and would have missed spotting two lovely bucks and the ducks, geese and heron who hunted for food in the tranquil setting.
Upon reaching the actual trailhead, I continued on the lower loop which was very flat and a favorite trails among the locals who ran with their dogs off leash. Though I believe in following leash laws, I have to give credit to the dog owners. Not one dog ran up to me, jumped on me or anything. They just ran right by. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs but they aren’t for everyone, and if they are out of sight or voice control they shouldn’t be off leash.
Anyway, the trail wound past a “commercialized area” for lack of a better word which included benches and signs about bugs. I don’t find these sections of trail terribly enjoyable, but I understand why they exist, so I hurried through the area to get to the less traveled section.
For a good while, the trail paralleled the river and led me through intermittent forest before I took a left at a junction called Gunsight Bridge. This section turned out to be a narrow, 4 wheel drive road that zig-zagged up the mountain. After only a few switchbacks, I found a sign the pointed up the road to Gunsight Pass and another that pointed to left at a single track called Upper Lower Loop.
I took a left onto Upper Lower Loop and followed it until it connected back with Lower Loop. I would have liked to taken it farther toward Wood Walk Trail as it would have cut off most of the road walk, but it was under construction.
The Upper Lower Loop was flush with wildflowers which I really enjoyed. When I wasn’t admiring the wildflowers and losing my prescription sunglasses in the process (boo), I was delighting in the intermittent aspen groves. I really took pleasure in this part of the hike and finished it soon enough to keep from burning in the sun as I entered the exposed valley.
Upon returning to the parking area a mile down the road, the once empty lot with only my car was overflowing. It’s always nice to hit the trails early, simply for tranquility, much less the avoidance of heat and afternoon thunderstorms.
I finished before lunch and met Barb about 3 miles down the dirt road which led to Oh Be Joyful Campground, not far from town. We needed campsites for twelve ladies, and Oh Be Joyful was full, so we resorted to River Flats just where I had propitiously parked. At first we weren’t too enthused about having to carry our stuff down to the sites from the road which provided limited parking for about six cars, but then we realized it would be tranquil.
We purchased four of the six sites for $5/night and had the space to ourselves until a family with kiddos and uncontrollable dogs showed up. Eventually all our group joined us and by 10pm all parties in the campground had turned in for the night.
The shuttle was picking us up at the visitor center at 6:30am to take us to Scholfield Pass. As such we gave ourselves 30 mins to get ready and 30 mins to make it to town. We piled in the large van operated by Dolly’s which dropped us off around 7:30 after we bounced along the dirt road between the forested mountains. Our early departure provided many deer sightings and even two moose!
So the signs on the road were similar to the ones on the yesterday’s hike near town. They basically encouraged people to park well before necessary. In this case, the road appeared to be blocked and closed. Our drive swerved right around the signs and kept going! We finally stopped at the third roadblock where avalanche debris impeded the way.
From here we walked along the road and across a few patches of snow to Schofield Pass. Across from the Schofield Pass sign where Rebecca added a Bold Betties sticker to the collection, we took the trail. Come to find out, we didn’t hike up the road to miles to Schofield Park Trailhead and mistakenly took Schofield Pass Trailhead. For the most part, it paralleled the Schofield Park Trail and eventually intersected it, though we wandered why there was hardly any signage on such a popular trail. Now we know!
Anyway, I don’t think we missed much…maybe an old log cabin. Our trek took us up to a view, down through a meadow, and soon we found ourselves weaving our way through chest high wildflowers. After crossing a few creeks without bridges, we met up with Schofield Park Trail which connected at a junction to West Maroon Pass Trail where we prepared for our climb.
Prior to reaching the junction, the wildflowers on the open mountainside were absolutely spectacular. We were waist-high in Indian paint brush of all colors, blue columbine, kings crown and more. Colors just blanketed the terrain for miles. It was fantastic!
From the junction sign tucked beneath the willows, we ascended a mile to the junction for Frigid Air Pass. Here, we settled down for an early lunch and fuel intake as we prepared for the 1,000 foot gain over West Maroon Pass. It was not as bad as I was expecting, though we were only carrying day packs! The backpackers completing the four pass loop were trudging at a snail’s pace.
The trail to the pass was steep enough, however, to separate us into two groups. The ‘fast’ group included eight girls and the ‘slow’ group included four. We sat at the pass marveling at the view of vast green meadows with patches of snow and a few alpine lakes while we chatted with a few hikers from The Aspen side before continuing.
The common question was, “Is it muddy on that side too?”
We thought it was somewhat muddy on the Crested Butte side until hikers from Aspen referenced swamp-like terrain…Ugh! What we were about to slog through?
We slid along some snow patches as we descended the pass until we reached the meadow peppered in willows. Along with every willow patch came cavities of mud. No matter how hard we tried to stay to the side of the trail or completely detoured to keep from sinking in these mud pits, sooner or later we succumbed to the mire. The mud was slicker than the snow, and just about all of us ended up at least ankle deep in sludge as we struggled to keep our feet dry and remain partially clean.
I don’t know if the conditions are always like this in the summer since willows tend to grow around water or if the trail was overly saturated from late snowmelt and recent rainfall. Speaking of rain, somehow, despite cloudy skies and a forecast calling for an 80% chance of rain, we had succeeded in staying dry with the exception of our mud soaked feet.
The West Maroon Trail requires several creek crossings, none of which have bridges. Most of the time, we could hop from rock to rock and keep our feet out of the cold, mountain streams. One crossing, however, required wading in a strong, knee deep current. Knowing this in advance, most of us strapped on our river shoes and strided on moss covered rock through rushing water, though a few of the girls used the opportunity to clean their hiking boots and stepped right in the frigid creek.
Eventually, we met up with the masses near Crater and Maroon Lakes. These last three miles of aspen groves were pretty. I had considered hiking his trail again in the fall for the changing colors, but with aspens at only one end of a 11 mile day, I’m having second thoughts. I’ll have to do some more research because after today, we all felt we would have rather hiked from the Crested Butte to the pass and back as it was flush with wildflowers and much dryer.
Upon arrival at Maroon Lake we loaded the shuttle that ran every 15 minutes until 5pm. Our bus driver was an aspiring singer who crooned a few John Denver tunes until we reached the ski mountain. Here, we exited this shuttle in order to board another shuttle that took us to town. We stayed on the bus until the last stop at the station that was centrally located to the restaurants in downtown. We asked Information for the best burger in town. She directed us to Justice Snow’s that on had inside seating available, so we ended up around the corner at Hops Culture. Encrusted in mud, bug spray (the mosquitoes were vicious at times) and sunscreen, we plopped ourselves down at two outside tables.
Fortunately, I’ve never found Aspen to be as pretentious as they claim, and both the servers and tourists were very friendly. Most visitors wanted to know what crazy adventure our motley crew had just completed. People’s eyes widened when they heard we hiked from Crested Butte. Of course, we walked as the crow flies, so the distance was short compared to the 173 mile drive.
The nice part about a long hike is it is easily justifiable to get the biggest, juicy burger around. Almost all of us went with the Royale with Cheese or the Bison chili and some not so good triple fried potatoes. We even finished the meal off with S’mores before we piled into Dolly’s shuttle for the three hour return trip to Crested Buttle. The shuttle cost a total of $80. $20 for the ride to the trailhead and $60 for the ride home. I think the shuttle from Aspen to the trailhead is cheaper. I don’t know the price, as they only charge for one direction to Maroon Lake, thus it was free from the trail to Aspen. Overall, we had a long, but very nice day! The wildflowers were some of the best I’ve seen. ETB
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