Colorado Fall Color 2013 Part I: Birthdays and Bells (September 26-30)

Two days of heavy rain followed that late-night drive up Hwy 36. Reading news of the impacts of the 1000-year flood then checking our basement for water consumed us for the next two weeks. Fortunately our only loss was sanitary sewer service.

Flooding damage along Fish Creek Rd near Estes Park

Once we felt comfortable that the elevated water table would not create an issue at our home, it was an easy decision to take a fall color trip. Anywhere that had fully functioning plumbing sounded great!

A first stop in Idaho Springs was convenient now that our main road out of town was to the south, Hwy 7, a route shared with many trucks transporting equipment and supplies to be used in Estes Park’s infrastructure repairs. After an early birthday dinner with Susan's son Steve at the perennial favorite, Beau Jo's, we headed west as far as Silverthorne.

The next morning we headed for Aspen via Leadville, Twin Lakes, and Independence Pass, but it was cloudy, rainy and snowy, but still very dramatic and very beautiful.

Aspen turning in the clouds near Twin Lakes

Independence Pass was very snowy

A hawk sits out the snowstorm

Crossing the Divide

A wet grove of aspen trees west of Independence Pass

Maroon Bells in autumn is a sight we both were anxious to experience and photograph, and it was a superb way to celebrate Mike's birthday. The friendly folks at the Aspen Visitor Center helped us find affordable and comfy in town accommodations at Hearthstone House where we stayed for three nights.

Arriving in the afternoon of the 28th, we first drove up Castle Creek Road and had a nice meal at the Pine Creek Cookhouse, a great suggestion from the VC staff. The area along Castle Creek Road was beautiful and the trees were on the leading edge of peak color. And the best was yet to come!

Aspen along Castle Creek Rd near Aspen, Colorado

Maroon Bells is accessed via shuttle bus only between 9AM and 5PM so we arrived right at five to drive up ourselves. The late afternoon had turned rainy and unfortunately our first look around the Bells was totally socked in by both clouds and snow. But at least we got our bearings and felt prepared to be there for sunrise at 7:02 the next morning.

Our first look at Maroon Bells

Early starts are not our forte, so we congratulated of ourselves for getting out the door by 6AM. On the way we made guesses about how many people would already be there this early... 12? 25? Way off! The parking lot was full when we arrived half an hour later, and we were directed to a roadside parking spot by flashlight-waving government workers who insisted that we pull up uncomfortably close to the car ahead. A steady stream of headlights squeezed into place behind us.

It was about 20 degrees and icy, so we walked carefully along the slick asphalt road and then onto the Maroon Lake Trail anticipating the beauty of a fresh dusting of snow at dawn. In spite of the metal millipede of tripods lined up and completely filling the lakeshore, the scene was beautiful in the pre-dawn light. 

Photographers along the shore of Maroon Lake

It was challenging to find a spot to set up, but all the photographers were collegial and seemed happy to accommodate newcomers and respect the rights of all to get a good look or capture a good image.

With one exception. A guy with a camera walked directly in front of our field of view and started snapping pictures. Mike politely said, “you're kind of in my shot.” The guy responded with an air of entitlement that he was photographing for a magazine and suggested that Mike would just have to miss that shot. Sheesh! He went on to describe the article to no one in particular. It would be called “Battle of the Bells”, and would tell about photographers elbowing their way to the best spot at the expense of others. Ironically, he was the only one behaving that way, and we joked that he was inciting people in order to create the material for his article. Whatever. There was too much beauty here to get irritated by this clown.

Morning light on the Maroon Bells

We enjoyed watching sunlight descend on the peaks of the three Maroon Bells and light up the aspens in the valley below. 

Inspired to get a closer look at the Bells in a less crowded setting, we took an unplanned hike up to Crater Lake about an hour later. It was only 3.6 miles round trip and described as moderate in the park brochure, but was made more difficult by ice and snow, and then by mud on the way down.

On the snow-covered trail to Crater Lake

Along the trail towards Crater Lake
Mike "working" on the lake's shore
Maroon Bells reflected on icy-edged Crater Lake

Looking for interesting photographic perspectives of Crater Lake and reflections of the Bells, we worked our way to the left, crossing over driftwood near the icy shore, then up and around snow-covered rocks and boulders. We could see trail number 1970 on the far side of the lake so we figured we could bushwhack through the meadow ahead and hike all the way around the lake. It was a little trickier than it first looked, but eventually we found a way to cross a meandering stream and rejoin the main trail.

Susan takes a break in the sun at Crater Lake as we walked around it

A park service mule train heads in to pull out a trail maintenance camp

As we completed our loop around the lake, the sun came out and warmed us up. And many more people showed up to check out the lake.

A group of young women having fun at the edge of the lake

An excellent shot Susan "commissioned" on the return part of the hike

A pika came out to see us as we hiked back

When we came out, the Bells and aspen were in full sunlight

Our short sunrise photo shoot had morphed into a 9 hour outing. We returned tired and ready to shower and enjoy the Hearthstone House wine and cheese with a few other guests. Happy to be able to walk to a choice of many restaurants in Aspen, dinner at the cute White House Tavern was a perfect end to the day.

On Sunday we took a scenic drive back over Independence Pass as far as Twin Lakes. The Aspen groves in Twin Lakes were just starting to turn on our way to Aspen, and Independence Pass had been in the clouds, so we were looking forward to seeing the area again under better conditions. We ate lunch at the Twin Lakes Inn then strolled around the trails behind the visitor center for a better view of the water. 

Twin Lakes

Another dense grove of young aspen trees along Independence Pass

Viewpoint near Independence Pass

After a beautiful drive, we explored Aspen a bit then returned to our room, again taking full advantage of the afternoon wine and cheese. Tomorrow was time to move on, but we went to bed without a plan further than revisiting the Bells on our way out of town.

Another beautiful morning, and we walked all around the waterfall trail at Maroon Bells, and checked out the adorable amphitheater often used for weddings. The valley has 360 breathtaking views and we can't wait to come back in Summer for wildflowers.

A beautiful little pond on the scenic loop above Maroon Lake

Who wouldn't want their wedding at this easily accessible amphitheater?

As we tore ourselves away, we didn't realize that the next day Maroon Bells would be closed due to the government shutdown.

It was hard to leave this view behind!
Continued in Part II... 


  1. Beautiful! I never tire of Maroon Lake photos.

  2. Thank you Mike & Susan! The photos were beautiful every one!