Disclaimer: we did this hike in mid-June, so our experience is likely going to be different than someone looking to do it in July and August.
So you are thinking of hiking from Crested Butte (CB) to Aspen, or vice versa? Great! Get ready for a beautiful, exciting mountain adventure. This hike, which measures in at just over 10 miles (from trailhead to trailhead), while not crazy difficult, is definitely still worth taking on - if only for the stunning alpine scenery!
The cross-over hike can be done either as a one-way (just CB to Aspen or just Aspen to CB) or as a round trip (hike to Aspen from CB and then back again). This decision kind of hinges on your transportation options (see more below) and how much you are looking to hike.
We hiked from CB to Aspen and then met up with friends at the pass who were going the opposite way and just switched cars. This allowed us to not have to worry about shuttling cars or doing the hike back over - though by the end we were seriously considering doing the whole hike again because it was that beautiful.
Once you figure out the whole transportation thing then you can start planning the actual adventure. Below are five things to know before lacing up your hiking boots.
\\ Getting to the Trailheads
As we mentioned, this is the first thing you will need to figure out when planning this hike. Luckily, there are a couple of great options depending on your situation.
If you are starting on the CB side and don’t want to drive up to the trailhead you have the option to get a shuttle to drive you up instead. The two shuttle services available are Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle and Alpine. Dolly's charges $35 (per person) to get up to the West Maroon Trailhead, as well as $35 for a pick-up at the trailhead once you finish the hike. Learn more about the shuttle service here.
If starting on the Aspen side, you are more likely to have to take a shuttle up to the trailhead because the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area is way busier than the CB side. If you are planning to start early (really early) or are planning to go during the early season - as we did - or late season, then you might get lucky and find a spot in the parking area. Note: you can drive to the parking lot anytime before 8 AM or after 5 PM, between then the road closes to private cars.
If the parking lot is full, then your best option is to park at the Aspen Highlands Ski Area and take a shuttle up. As of Summer 2021, it costs $16 per person round-trip or $10 for a downhill ride (which is great if you are doing the cross-over from CB to Aspen). Check out the Aspen shuttle page here for more information.
if starting on the CB side you do have the option to drive to the trailhead whenever you want. A couple of things to know about heading up to the West Maroon Trailhead (or East Maroon Trailhead) is that the road is not paved and it can be a bit rough.
To start, head out of the town of CB towards the ski resort on Gothic Road. Keep going past the resort until you reach the Snodgrass Trailhead (on the left), from here the road turns into dirt and it starts to meander through the valley. It is another 3.7 miles to the town of Gothic (the only service is a coffee shop), and then another 5.6 miles to Schofield Pass. The road between Gothic and Schofield is popular for OHVs and people heading up to go mountain biking, so pay attention when going around narrow curves. We drove the road in our big 1995 Dodge Van and while there was one tight section, and a couple of rough, rocky spots, in the end it handled just fine.
You can park at Schofield Pass, but be warned that this is a popular mountain biking spot and it will likely be full. Otherwise, head another mile or so down the road (now downhill) to the actual parking area for the West Maroon Trailhead. Altogether, the trailhead is about 14 or so miles from the town of Crested Butte, with the majority of it on dirt roads.
If planning to drive from the Aspen side, make sure to head out early to give yourself the best chance of grabbing a spot in the Maroon Bells parking lot. Our friends, who started the hike on that side, got there around 6 AM and had no issues grabbing a spot. Similarly, even though they made a reservation for parking beforehand, no one ever checked as they drove in, or as we drove their car out.
while taking a shuttle or driving are the most common and popular ways to reach the trailhead, there are other options. You can hitch a ride (especially on the CB side since the dirt road is quite popular for other outdoor activities), bike to the trailheads or camp nearby and just walk. On the CB side there are camping restrictions in place so make sure to read up before heading out there. Read more here.
\\ Snowmelt and Water Crossings
The amount of snow and the intensity of water crossings on the trail entirely depend on the time of year you are doing the hike. When we did the hike in mid-June we found a fair amount of snow near the pass (about half a mile on either side), though it was never too challenging to get through. In general, when planning to hike at higher elevations in Colorado, plan to encounter snow and/or high water levels. Below are a couple of things to keep in mind.
even in the middle of summer you might still come across a bit of snow when hiking at higher elevations; therefore, make sure you bring the right gear. Some great items to have with you include sturdy, waterproof boots, long pants, and an extra pair of socks to change into if your feet do get soaked from the snow. If you are going early season, when there is likely to be even more snow, then consider bringing snowshoes, a set of yak-trax or gaiters.
Hiking in the snow is not impossible, it is just a lot slower. So be prepared to add on a fair amount of time to your hike when heading out to higher elevations, and especially during the earlier months.
This is another thing you will need to think about when doing this hike because there are a couple of water crossings - though luckily, none of them are too bad. On the CB side, most of the water crossings are just streams (easily jumped across). Even with all of the snow runoff, the trail was only muddy in a couple of areas and the dozen or so stream crossings were not too crazy.
Now on the Aspen side, we found more stream crossings, including two that went across a pretty wide, fast-flowing river. The first big one occurred about a mile or two down from the pass. While it was definitely passable (we just walked across in our sandals), it was by far the most challenging of the crossings. The second water crossing had a sketchy snow bridge that likely won't be there much longer. Either there is a bridge hiding under the snow or you will also have to walk across as well. Similarly, the trail on the Aspen side was much, much muddier and in parts it felt like we were hiking down a small stream. We recommend bringing sandals and just wearing them through this section (it is between the first big river crossing and Crater Lake).
While the water crossings can be a bit tough (luckily the big one was not slippery), it also means you don’t have to worry about bringing tons of water with you on the hike. Instead, bring a water filter and a bladder (or water bottle) and fill up at the various streams and rivers.
By far one of the biggest draws of this hike is the absolutely stunning mountain scenery. Vibrant green hillsides. Colorful wildflowers. Snow-covered mountain peaks. This hike truly just wows you at every turn.
In mid-June, the Crested Butte side was super lush and full of flowers - though we expect come a couple of weeks later (July) the number of wildflowers only grows. Still, it was a beautiful hike up the valley towards the pass, especially towards the north around Frigid Air Pass.
On the Aspen side of the West Maroon Pass, the landscape was more forested - especially in terms of aspen groves - and more rocky. You could easily tell that you were hiking into a lower elevation and away from the alpine tundra. Towards the last couple of miles you also reach your first mountain lake, Crater Lake. This spot was absolutely stunning, and if you can, try to spend a bit of time here either grabbing a quick snack or filling up your water. The views behind you (back towards the pass) are absolutely amazing.
But, very likely, the one vista you are most excited to see are the Maroon Bells themselves. Luckily, no matter which way you hike you will get an awesome view of them: if coming from Aspen first you will likely see them at sunrise (where they appear more “maroon”) and if you are coming from CB you will see them at sunset when the light is a bit less harsh.
Some other key spots you are able to see along the hike are Belleview Mountain, Pyramid Peak (a 14-er like the two Maroon Bells), Crater Lake, Maroon Lake and Sievers Mountain, the beautiful blood red mountain right across the parking lot in Maroon Bells.
\\ Lack of Shade and Sun Protection
One thing we definitely didn’t fully plan on was the lack of shade along the hike. For most of the 11 miles, you will be out in open meadows, especially on the CB side, or climbing up to the pass. The alpine tundra biome - which the majority of the hike is in - is mostly made up of small, low-lying plants so the option to take refuge under trees is not common.
Now on the Aspen side, once you get farther down the trail from the pass (probably about 2-3 miles) you do start to hike in and out of the forest, and by the last two miles you are pretty much entirely in trees (especially towards the very end when you hike through a lovely thick aspen grove).
With all of that being said, come prepared to be in the sun for most of the day - and as anyone who has hiked at high elevation knows, the sun up there is brutal. Make sure to bring a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, plenty of sunscreen and maybe light sun-protectant clothing.
Tip: also, consider packing some sandals because during the heat of the day, wearing light sandals through the cool streams is absolutely heavenly.
\\ Overall Difficulty of the Hike
Maybe the one thing people are most curious about when looking at doing this hike is how challenging it actually is. So, here are some basic facts on the route.
10.2 miles one-way
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN
From the CB side you will climb 2,357 feet and from the Aspen side you will climb 3,265 feet.
MAX ELEVATION REACHED
12,490 at West Maroon Pass (about 4 miles from the CB side and 6 miles from the Aspen side).
While the hike from Aspen to CB is supposedly harder (just because there is more elevation gain overall), neither way is super strenuous. As long as you go at a good pace, wear sun protection, and bring plenty of water and food, you definitely should be able to make it to the pass - and then from there it is all downhill. Also, consider starting early to make sure you beat a lot of the heat and any incoming afternoon storms.
The hike from CB to Aspen, or vice-versa, is a magical adventure in some of the prettiest mountain scenery Colorado has to offer. While it is around 11 miles long, in truth, once you get out there and just see the scenery you will forget how far it really is. We highly suggest heading out either early season or on a weekday if possible, if only to allow you the chance to do the hike without tons of people.
So, if you are looking for an absolutely amazing hike in the CB or Aspen area, then we highly, highly suggest taking this one on. We promise you will love it!