(Summer/Fall 2015) Due to recent problems with black bears, the US Forest Service requires bear canisters when camping in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. This order is in effect from July to December, 2015. More info...
Drive to Aspen and locate the start of to the Maroon Creek road at a roundabout just west of town. Measuring mileage from there, drive 3.2 miles where you'll pass a ranch - this is where the road is closed in winter. At 4.7 miles, reach the entrance station to the park. During summer, there are restrictions to general travel on the Maroon Creek road. The road is closed to cars during the day (people ride buses to reach the lake) unless you are an overnight hiker. Overnight hikers are allowed to proceed any time of the day. Continue to the end of the road at 9 miles. If you're hiking in for a high camp, there's an overnight parking area on the left. The Crater Lake trail starts near Maroon Lake.
Leave the Maroon Lake trailhead and walk west onto the trail near the lake - Photo #1. Pass the lake and take the trail indicated for Crater Lake to begin your hike into the forest. Hike approximately 1.75 miles to reach another signed trail junction. Turn left and continue on the West Maroon Creek trail to Crater Lake where you can see The Bells and West Maroon Creek to the southwest - Photo #2. Follow the trail along the right side of the lake and eventually into the trees where you may need to cross some small streams. Exit the trees near the south end of the lake and continue south through heavy ground cover. At 10,200', ascend onto a talus field, down and over a small ditch/stream, and back into the bushes. Continue south for approx. 0.5 mile (Photo #3) to reach a cairned trail junction, near 10,400' - Photo #4. Turn right, leave the creek trail and hike southwest up the Maroon Peak trail.
The next 2,800' of the route ascends Maroon's east slopes to reach the South Ridge. Traverse for approx. 0.5 mile and near 10,900', the trail begins climbing west up the slope - Photo #5. Taken from Pyramid Peak, Photo #6 is another look at the area. Near 11,600', approach some rock outcroppings and small cliff bands. Follow the trail as it swings left and zigzags along (and through) the rock outcroppings - Photo #7. The remaining hike to the ridge gets gradually more difficult and hard to follow. Look for cairns and trail segments as you continue on grass, scree, and rocky sections (Photo #8) to reach the crest of the South Ridge, near 13,250'. If the weather is brewing or you have some very tired party members, this is a good place for a decision on whether or not to proceed. Speedy climbers will take at least 1.5 hours to reach the summit from here. If you're not one of those climbers, plan on 2 or more hours to reach the top - then there's the descent.
The remaining route requires careful route finding and the description below may not be the only way to go. Take your time to study the terrain and look for the safest route possible. Taken from the ridge, Photo #9 and Photo #10 show the remaining route to the summit. It can be confusing and the view from this area does not show all of the terrain. In short: Staying on the west side of the ridge, the route traverses through complicated terrain for approx. 0.4 mile, around Point 13,753', up a large gully, and continues on the west side a bit longer before gaining the south ridge, near the summit. Follow a cairned trail on the left (west) side of the ridge and after over 0.1 mile, turn right to find a chimney between some rock towers - Photo #11. Climb the chimney, turn left, and climb up through a large crack - Photo #12. Now above 13,400', continue for a bit to reach easier terrain where the next section of the route is visible - Photo #13. Photo #14 looks back on the route from this area. Cross the easier section, pass below a notch in the ridge and climb to a large, white rock band. Continue across ledges and around a corner to a point where you can see Point 13,753' - Photo #15. Continue on more ledges to reach ugly terrain before the side of Point 13,753' - Photo #16.
The route gets even more serious here and some difficult route-finding is ahead. Study the terrain and look for cairns in the distance to avoid backtracking. As seen in Photo #16, there are two obvious gullies in this area and either one can be climbed - both may have cairns leading into them. Your goal is to climb about half way up either gully to reach cairned ledges before continuing left around the west side of Point 13,753'. Note: There is an alternative here and it may be cairned: Before reaching the first gully, climb steeply up to the right and look for cairns which lead across the first gully. If you choose to climb one of the gullies, both are plugged with loose rock and care must be taken during the ascent. Drop a bit to reach the base of a gully and begin climbing. Climb to about 13,550' and take the time to locate cairns to the left. If you climbed the first gully, climb onto and over a rock rib between the two gullies to reach the second. Photo #17 looks down the second gully from the exit point. Continue on ledges around the west side of Point 13,753' and eventually round a corner where you can see the next section of the route - Photo #18. Climb steep, loose rock to the right and turn left on some ledges seen in Photo #18. Round another corner to find the large gully that separates the summit and Point 13,753' - Photo #19.
Enter the gully, turn right and ascend (Photo #20 and Photo #21) to a notch in the south ridge. Turn left, climb onto ledges and continue over an exposed rock rib (Photo #22) to find more ledgy terrain - Photo #23. It's not over yet! Pass under some cliffs, climb steep terrain above 13,800' and turn left to reach another corner ledge - Photo #25. Round the corner (Photo #26 and Photo #27) and turn right to finally gain the ridge crest - Photo #28. Scramble up the ridge to reach the summit - Photo #29, Photo #30 and Photo #31.
This route holds some dangerous terrain and plenty of tedious route finding. Attempt the route only if you are in good shape, have ample time, and a favorable weather forecast. IMPORTANT: This route enters the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness area. Wilderness areas have special regulations and restrictions for party size, dispersed camping, campfires, etc. Also, dog owners should read the wilderness information carefully because some wilderness areas prohibit dogs to be off-leash and/or limit how close dogs can be to lakes and streams. If you have questions about the Wilderness area, please contact a U.S. Forest Service office for the National Forest(s) listed above.