Route options for the summer pilgrimage
Summer is here. The valleys are green, the wildflowers are blooming, and the snow is disappearing from the high passes. So, it’s time to start planning those fun summer outings in the mountains. And for many people in the Roaring Fork Valley, a hike over to Crested Butte is at the top of the list.
This unique adventure has become increasingly popular for several reasons. First, the two towns are just far enough apart that a hike between them is a challenging yet achievable goal. And unlike other outings, which are more about exercise, there’s an added sense of purpose to the trek — you’re going somewhere fun.
Aspen and Crested Butte are two iconic Colorado ski towns. They both have storied histories dating back to the mining days and communities dedicated to the mountain lifestyle and ski culture. But through the years, they’ve also evolved to have unique characters. Traveling between the two with their differing vibes makes for a fun adventure.
But the most significant appeal for me is that the two ski towns — 40 miles apart as the crow flies — are separated by some of the most beautiful mountains in the state. The routes you can follow to connect them pass through dramatic landscapes and topography.
Most Aspen-to-Crested Butte hikers opt to follow the route over West Maroon Pass. It’s the shortest hiking option available — 11 miles in length between the two trailheads — and the most expeditious way to go. It also brings you through the heart of the Maroon Bells region. You hike right below the dramatic pair of 14ers.
It starts at the picturesque Maroon Lake and follows a good trail for nearly 7 miles and 3,000 vertical feet up to West Maroon Pass at 12,400 feet. It finishes near Schofield Pass, about 15 miles from the town of Crested Butte.
Detractors of this route say it’s too crowded. The Maroon Lake scene can feel overrun with visitors, and there are challenges to get to and from the lake with its restricted parking and bus reservation system.
Those are all valid reasons. And if you’ve done the West Maroon route before and wanted to see something different, there are a half dozen other options to consider.
The route over East Maroon Pass is a great alternative. It starts a few miles below Maroon Lake and follows a longer, 15-mile route over the 11,800-foot East Maroon Pass. The trail ends at Gothic, several miles closer to town than the finish of the West Maroon route.
The scenery is on par with West Maroon. The trail takes you through a stunning valley below the long, south ridge of Pyramid Peak. You’ll also pass by Copper Lake, which is a worthy hiking and backpack destination in and of itself.
If your group is considering the round-trip hike to Crested Butte and back over two days, it can be an excellent option to take West Maroon one way and East Maroon the other.
As a variation to East Maroon, you can start or finish at the Conundrum Creek trailhead and hike up and over Triangle Pass, joining the standard East Maroon route at Copper Lake. The total distance is 17 miles and 4,400 feet of vertical gain. This route can also be set up as an overnight backpack outing. Hike to the Conundrum Hot Springs for the night and continue to Crested Butte the following day.
The town of Marble offers options for getting to Crested Butte, as well. The four-wheel-drive road from Marble to Crystal continues to Schofield Pass, the terminus for the West Maroon route.
It’s a burly road and one that is not recommended for vehicles or drivers who aren’t experienced in off-road conditions. However, it is suitable for mountain bikers or dirt bikers, who can’t use the West/East Maroon options as they are in wilderness where motorized and mechanized travel is prohibited.
Another hiking option from Marble is to follow the Yule Creek trail to Yule Pass and continue to Paradise Divide and Schofield Pass.
If Ashcroft is a possible start or finish location for you, or if you’re a mountain biker or dirt biker, consider the Taylor and Star passes route. From the ghost town of Ashcroft, ascend Express Creek Road to Taylor Pass, and then follow a series of trails to Star Pass, the highest point of the route.
For the mountain bikers out there, this is your route. You cross two passes and are surrounded by incredible scenery in Taylor Basin. And the descent from Star Pass down Brush Creek is almost 15 miles and fun on a bike. It follows much of the same route the Grand Traverse races follow.
Pearl Pass is another alternative if Ashcroft is your trailhead. Follow the jeep road on foot, bike or four-wheel-drive from Ashcroft to the 12,700-foot pass, eventually joining the Taylor/Star route in Brush Creek. It’s very challenging in a vehicle. Many mountain bikers opt to walk their bikes at times rather than try to ride the rocks and talus that make up this so-called road.
Having explored all these routes, I can say there’s something to like about each of them. But I still prefer West and East Maroon passes. They’re located in wilderness, so there’s no OHV or motorized traffic, and the scenery is top-notch.
One logistical hurdle to your Aspen-to-Crested Butte trip is figuring out how to shuttle your vehicle or arrange a pickup and drop-off at the various locations. If you don’t have a willing volunteer in your group to drive your vehicle around to meet you, three services can help.
Dolly’s Shuttle can arrange for pickups and drop-offs on the Crested Butte side, and they can shuttle you between the two towns. Alpine Express is another service that can help get you and your group to and from various trailheads.
Maroon Bells Shuttles is another option that offers vehicle transport services. Its model is pretty unique. The drivers are uber-athlete trail runners who run over the pass in the morning to retrieve your car. They’ll pick it up from Maroon Lake or other predetermined locations and drive it around to Crested Butte.
It can be nice to have your vehicle when you arrive in Crested Butte, and you can also pack the car with your duffel bags and a change of clothing if you’re going to spend the night before returning to Aspen.
Whether you’re doing the standard West Maroon Pass trek, or a multi-day, multi-route adventure, there are many great options, and they’re all guaranteed to be fun. So, rally some partners and start organizing your trip. Summer goes by fast. If you’re not careful, you might miss it.