4 AM in the morning. It was pitch dark and covered in fog, so hardly can see anything. We are at the entrance station of Maroon Bells but the road is blocked by traffic cones leaving only a small gap. We have the reservation to enter at midnight and there is no other notice not to enter. So entered thru the little gap at the edge of the road. Driving less than 10 MPH, I am trying to focus hard to stay on the road. I sensed something on the road shining like stars and braked hard to only see deers. A few of them crossing the road.
If you are short of time and like to skip to actual details, click here. But believe me, the story is worth your time.
At this point, my wife, Sruthi is freaked out. She wouldn’t talk and only prayed that we reach safely. I ensured her that we will go back if we find no one in the parking lot. She ignored me and kept her eyes focused on the road. There is snow on the grass and making roads a little slippery which is making the drive tougher. After about 20 min or god knows how long we were silent, we saw a sign ‘Overnight Parking lot’. I continued our drive and found ‘Day use Parking lot’. We parked and saw there were couple more cars. We also saw a couple prepping for the hike and Sruthi is relieved that we are not alone.
Luckily there is no fog here but it is cold. Really cold. We quickly used restrooms which are neat, although there is no running water at this time of the year. Then we stayed in the car, had our to-go breakfast from the hotel, and kept ourselves warm until light breaks in.
Finally, I was relieved after Sruthi relaxed. For most others, this might not be a scary story but for someone who has never done any of this nor been with the people who did, it is really an ‘Evil Dead’ kinda situation. This can be a little exaggerating but I will take it.
The scene we have been dreaming of
More cars kept coming as we headed for the hike. Maroon Lake where the famous reflection of mighty Maroon Bells mountains can be seen, is only a few feet from the parking lot. This is one of the most photographed locations in the USA and like expected, there are tens of people lined up with their tripods to capture the epic sunrise.
These mountains are called Maroon Bells as they are shaped like bells and appear maroon with the right light. There are several mountains with at least 14,000 ft in this area dearly called 14ers and these two mountains are also part of that club. They are indeed pretty. As we settled down, luckily Sun broke the clouds and lighten the peaks of the Maroon Bells. It is definitely a pretty sight and worth all the effort.
We stayed there for a while, took pictures, enjoyed seeing sunlight on the peak of all nearby mountains. There are these small red rock mountains behind us that particularly caught our attention. As the sun shines, the color popped and they looked very beautiful.
As more Sun shows up, the aspen trees under Maroon Bells shined yellow. It is not total fall, as the recent snowstorm made some leaves drop. But still, it is a pretty scene. A scene that I haven’t experienced till now, snow combined with fall. The Maroon Bells landscape is so pretty at Sunrise. And in fall, it is more beautiful. The beautiful light on the Peak, the aspen trees all under the mountains is a postcard-perfect landscape.
We went back to the car to prep for a long hike. We dropped off cameras and other weights for the Crater Lake Hike.
Crater Lake is about a 3.5-mile round trip (RT) hike. We wanted to do this as we like to venture a little further into the mountains. But the hike is rough with elevation and the snow made it tough. We hiked for a while and found no colors but slippery rocks. So we returned back and did an easy Maroon Scenic Loop Trail.
It is about a 2-mile RT hike which took us about an hour. The hike is pretty easy, a flat one along the creek. There are a couple of bridges and small waterfalls as well. We found some fall colors along this hike. But the best part is we get to see deer and drumroll please, fox. This tiny red fox looked very beautiful on the snow-filled trail.
It came onto the trail so it is surrounded by people suddenly with nowhere else to go. This gave us a pretty view of this tiny fox. Searching for the food in the bushes and it eventually slipped into the woods. Those were exciting few minutes on the trail.
If you like to see the video, click here.
The original plan
Well, you might ask, did we fly from Chicago to Denver and drive to Maroon Bells for this? Actually no. Our initial plan was to arrive here at midnight, shoot some milky way pics, then hike along crater lake in the day, camp under a pretty fall color tree, take hundreds of the pics and return to the base in the evening.
When I got an email from Scott’s Cheap flights for 50$ RT to Denver from Chicago in August, the first thing I did is check for reservations on aspenchamber.org. Found availability only on October 10 to enter by car which I booked immediately and then flights. This can be too late for the fall at Maroon Bells but I wanted to take chance. At least, that day would be great for the milky way, so I thought. More details about these reservations are below.
But most of the plans got scrapped after seeing snow forecast a few days before our trip and then fog on the day of the trip. I don’t want to put another soul in trouble hiking in snow already.
Are you like us?
Maroon Bells is always at the top of my list of places to visit. And I always wanted to go in the fall. The idea of reserving and going at midnight excited me. And I read a lot about it for several years. How the hike thru 14ers is one-of-a-kind, how the sunrise lits the Maroon Bells Peak, and how beautiful fall is due to aspen trees in Aspen, Colorado, and all that.
I am always adventurous and love to have these kinda situations. I won’t prep much so I have some amount of surprise. But after marriage, things have changed a lot. Sruthi is just learning to travel and she might get stressed easily. Anyone would, if in her shoes. So I am trying to get as many details as possible and trying to learn about the place. Can you believe I had researched for 3 months before traveling to Dalton Highway, the loneliest road in the USA? Still, on the day of travel, I have doubts and will reevaluate myself if I should drop the trip and let another soul live peacefully.
People from other countries like me may correlate to this. We have not done such things in our childhood, but the USA has given us those wings to fly free. And there are so many beautiful places that we want to experience them while we are here. But then we are just getting started, we don’t see a lot of people like us out there.
And if you are like us, don’t hold back.
Just go. Traveling to unknown places is the most beautiful thing. Especially for me, after working weekdays, it is the only thing that relaxes me and brings me back to my senses on Monday. And there are beautiful people out there who smile and help everything they can. True there are scary places and people sometimes. But you are not alone and you will make amazing memories like this in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
I felt I had to say this because this trip taught us to take that step and I know there are so many others who want to get out to explore but are scared of all the bad news floating around. Hope this helps you get out of your comfort zone but safely.
All you need to know before visiting Maroon Bells
- Maroon Bells can be visited by car or shuttle in the season.
- If visiting by car, you can only reach there before 8 AM or after 5 PM. But you can leave anytime after entering. Reentry needs a new reservation.
- Reservations by car can be midnight to midnight, day trip, evening trip and several days trip.
- Only one reservation needed for a car irrespective of the people.
- Carry snacks and lots of water, there are none in the area.
- If by shuttle, you can come only after 8 AM but need to leave by 4 PM.
- Reservations are available at aspenchamber.org
- Apart from these, you can also hike, bike or e-bike to Maroon Bells at any time of the day.
- Maroon Lake is only few feet from the parking lot. Very short walk.
- Maroon Lake Scenic Loop is about 2 mile easy RT hike.
- Crater Lake Trail is about 3.5 mile RT and is a medium difficulty hike with elevation.
- There are restrooms at the parking lot only.
- We cannot camp/sleep in the parking lot overnight.
- For more hikes that takes around 14ers which is called Four Pass Loop that can take several days, visit aspenchamber.org
- Campsites are available along Maroon Creek few miles from Maroon Bells. Reservations are available at recreation.gov
If you like to know anything else, feel free to chat using the messenger icon on this page. I will be happy to answer as quickly as possible.
At this time of the year, we found more colors along the highway that takes us to the Marble, Colorado. It is a beautiful small town that is specialized in, you guessed it, marble sculptures. You can meet local artists as well here. Upon suggestion from one artist, we also visited the marble quarry. The drive to the quarry is rough and along the cliff. If you are visiting, you need to be an expert driver with a 4×4 car.
But if you have 4×4, you can also visit Crystal Mill, another beautiful place 5 miles from Marble along another rough dirt road. But it is worth it. It is a private place and there are entrance fees.
When all this is done, we took a long soothing bath at Glenwood Natural Springs, Glenwood Springs. It is about 35$ on weekends but it is worth taking a hot relaxing bath. After that, we had an amazing dinner – Elk Burger which surprisingly tasted great, and Chicken with Potatoes at Co. Ranch. The food is absolutely delicious and the service is over the top. We couldn’t ask for any better ending.
Colorado always has a special place in our hearts. We would come back in a heartbeat.
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Cheers and Safe Travels!