There are so many stunning places in Colorado, but if you want iconic as well, Maroon Bells hits the spot. After seeing pictures of the two scenic bell-shaped mountains and hearing about it from our Colorado friends, we just had to make a stop to see this beauty for ourselves.
Our 12-day Itinerary
To summarize our trip, we did a big loop clockwise starting with Denver and drove over 500 miles.
Here’s how our itinerary ended up. We only booked the first four nights in hotels before arriving, and played the rest by ear based on our tentative plan.
Location (by letters on map)
|1-3||A, G) Denver – starting and ending point|
|3-4||B) Colorado Springs|
|4-6||C) Buena Vista|
|7-9||E) Glenwood Springs|
If you want to visit Maroon Bells, you can stay in Aspen or Snowmass, which are the two closest towns.
Without further ado, here are five reasons you should add this place to your travel bucket list!
1. The scenic drive to Maroon Bells sets the stage
Getting to Aspen/Snowmass
We came to Aspen/Snowmass from Buena Vista, our third stop in the beautiful state of Colorado. To get to Aspen, which is the closest city to Maroon Bells, you can go through the Independence Pass. This road is very curvy, all along the mountains, and has some history, as well as amazing views. At the peak point of the Pass, you can safely pull over to read about the Pass, take a bathroom break in a porter potty (part of the adventure!) and snap some stunning pictures. The drive from Buena Vista to Aspen took us about two hours. With all the curves and cliff drop offs, this is not a road you want to speed on. 🙂
2. Affordable lodging nearby won’t break your budget
As I mentioned, you can either stay in Aspen, which is a ritzy and pricey town, or Snowmass, which is more affordable for FI-minded individuals like us. You are looking at a difference of about 10-15 minutes in your commute to Maroon Bells, which we felt was worth the discount we got on our lodging.
We decided to stay only one night, so when we arrived in the late afternoon to Snowmass, we only had enough time to shower, relax, walk around and grab dinner. The goal was to go to Maroon Bells the next morning in time for the sunrise.
We stayed at the Pokolodi Lodge, which is a clean and cozy place for only $97. It was perfect for a short stay, and was only a 30-minute drive to the Maroon Bells Welcome Center.
Room tip: If, like us, you decide to see the Bells at sunrise and only stay one night, you will not be able to check out, as reception opens only at 7 a.m. So, we pre-arranged to leave the key in our room. However, we didn’t realize they’d close the door between rooms building and reception, which was an easy way to get luggage in and out of the place. As a result, we had to take the stairs and go around. So, either ask for a room on the ground floor or travel light.
The location of this hotel is right in downtown Snowmass, which is a typical ski town. There were shops, restaurants and bars within a block from us, which was convenient. Since we were visiting during the low season in mid-September, many of them were still closed, but we made do.
3. You get a 5-day pass with your $10 per car ticket
Here is an important tip we got before coming here: you can only drive up to Maroon Bells in your own car before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Otherwise, you have to take a bus from Aspen. The bus only runs mid-June through early October though.
We drove for a few reasons: we wanted to get there in time for the sunrise anyway, we wanted to leave anytime we wanted, and we didn’t feel like arriving with a bunch of other tourists. By going early, you beat the crowds and can enjoy the scenery more intimately.
When you arrive at the Welcome Center, you pay $10 per car, and your pass is good for five days. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take advantage of this bonus, as we were leaving to our next Colorado stop after this visit. We met a couple at the Lodge who was staying for a week and went to see the Bells every morning. They said that since the weather changes daily, you get a very different view each time you come.
4. The stunning views are worth the runny nose.
We arrived at the parking lot shortly after 7 a.m., and, luckily, got a spot right near the park entrance. The sun was already hitting the tops of the peaks, but we still got to see the transformation of shadow to sunlight in most of the valley. Even in mid-September, the temperature was quite chilly this early in the morning, so be sure to bundle up. We hung out in front of the lake, walked around the little paved pathways first, and went back to the car periodically to thaw out.
Food tip: Bring a thermos with a hot beverage and food, as there aren’t any restaurants or shops here.
5. The hikes will make you work for the gorgeous views.
We waited until around noon for the weather to warm up before setting off on our hike. There are a couple of hikes you can take in the area. There is a short and easy one along the Maroon Lake, and then a moderate intensity one to Crater Lake.
Having broken in our hiking boots back in Buena Vista, we were ready for a challenge. This hike was supposed to be moderate. And it is, if you stick to the real trail. We, along with some other random hikers, happened to veer off course about 30 minutes into the ascent, and ended up doing a more intense hike off the grid. While it was quite an adventure scaling rocks and going through bushes, it was a lot more intense than it was meant to be. Also, for safety, it’s always best to stay on the actual trail.
So, how did we veer off?
Well, at some point, the trail made a sharp right turn around a tree, and whoever was leading the pack, missed that and went left instead. To be fair, there was a little path in the soil that we followed. However, know this – the trail is always wide, made up of hard soil and stones. So, if you happen to step onto something that looks like a little trail among grass and without stones, turn around.
Another sign that you veered off is that you stop seeing people coming back from Crater Lake. When we first started ascending, we saw some folks coming back. At some point, it was just our pioneer trail-blazers and us, which should have been another clue that something was off. Oh, well, all is well that ends well, and after about 1 hour and 45 minutes, we made it to Crater Lake and didn’t become someone’s lunch.
The actual trail is about 3.9 miles to the Crater lake, which was more like a giant puddle at the time we came. However, you still get the scenic view of the Bells from a closer distance, and it’s the journey that counts.
We brought our favorite to-go lunch with us, consisting of tuna, tomato and avocado on a croissant and it was extra delicious after the intense hike we ended up doing. Yum! On the way back, we stayed on the actual trail and the descent only took about 40 minutes.
Apparel tip: this trail had a lot of pointy rocks, so I strongly recommend wearing hiking boots with hard soles for this hike. Otherwise, you puppies will be screaming before you make it to Crater Lake.
Another tip for beginner hikers like us: dress in layers. With the dry air, you feel cold at time, like in the dessert at night. Then, when the sun comes out, you are sweating and you need to peel off the layers. Thankfully, we got some practical apparel at REI before our trip, so we were fully prepared for a striptease on demand.
Indulging and savoring
Since we came during the low season in September, fewer restaurants were open. Not too worry though! This is the U.S. and you can always get a meal. 🙂
This Mexican restaurant was right around the corner from our hotel, in the ski town’s mini mall section. We had fish tacos and tried a few drinks there.
Yumminess score: 7/10. It’s not my favorite Mexican place, however, it met the standards of a good meal. We sat at the bar, due to the place being packed, and the bartender took good care of us.
Overall, we felt very safe in Snowmass. It’s a tourist town, and we felt comfortable walking around at night as well. We didn’t spend any time in Aspen, as we knew it’d be a pricey town, and when we drove through it, it didn’t look particularly special. It’d wager that it’s a very safe town as well.
There you have it: there are many reasons to visit this stunning place. While we tried to capture the beauty of Maroon Bells, the pictures still don’t do them justice. So, we recommend you go and see them for yourself when in Colorado. You won’t regret it!