It’s a rain story. Rain in its many forms – fog, downpours, downpours, sheets, torrents – that inspires deep respect for what Noah accomplished without a good waterproof/breathable jacket. A rain so persistent that it erodes the spirit, clouds the thoughts and molds the soul. The rain that makes a trip the worst and the best.
It’s also the story of friends, most of whom have never met before, united by the universal reach of the Internet and the fact that none of them immediately deleted an email from my asks me, “Does anyone want to backpack in the Elk Mountains of Colorado? As a result, we stand at the feet of three 14,000-foot Colorado giants, Pyramid Peak and the twin Maroon Bells, watching the sky turn so dark that noon feels like dusk. An hour later, the rain begins, accompanied by thunder that splits the air like an ax through a dry log. As Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells melt into a cauldron of bad weather, we get out the rain gear, an act we’ll be repeating many times over the next 4 days.
Our eclectic and accidental crew includes Gary and Mike, old high school buddies in their late thirties who have lived in Southern California for years and only see the rain in the movies. There’s Guido, 28, from Germany, PhD. economics candidate I haven’t seen since we first met while hiking in Utah 4 years ago. Beth, the 26-year-old girlfriend of a climbing buddy from Denver, makes her backpacking debut. Despite enduring endless ribbing from the rest of us, Beth proves she’s the toughest member of our soggy bunch. Then there’s Gerry, a 44-year-old obsessive marathon runner and Nordic skier from New England who covets strenuous adventures solely for the mental and physical toughness they impart. For the next few days, whenever it rains the hardest, the trail is steep and the air is too thin, Gerry bellows sharply, “I love it!”
We descend through a pastel splash of wildflowers that would have humiliated Monet – columbine, Indian paintbrush, bluebells.
Leaning into a wave of wind on our second morning, we cross our first high pass, West Maroon. Overcast skies and intermittent rain from last night briefly receded, revealing craggy, snow-capped peaks. A few years ago, I stood on the 14,130-foot summit of Capitol Peak, my breath robbed as much by the seemingly endless knife-shaped ridges, alpine lakes, and sprawling massifs as by the altitude.
We descend through a pastel splash of wildflowers that would have humiliated Monet – columbine, Indian paintbrush, bluebells. Raw beauty washes away the discomfort of past hours and invigorates us. We will cling to fleeting moments like this in the days to come.
We hike an approximately 26 mile loop through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of the Elk Mountains on the western slope of the Rockies, using some of the best maintained trails on the Lower 48. We will spend much of the trip above 11 000 feet and grunt over four cols at 12,400 feet. But the elks reward such air-sucking work with majestic views. Six Elk Peaks soar over 14,000 feet.
Now in the afternoon, we head to Frigid Air Pass, overlooking the Maroon Bells and Fravert Basin, an otherworldly valley of green grass dotted with wildflowers. We feel the physical toll of two passes long before we find a campsite. In the evening, the rain returns as an unwanted guest.
Heaven shows no mercy the next day as we ford the numb North Fork of Crystal River and make another long, arduous ascent to a meadow at nearly 12,000 feet, where we pitch our sodden tents. After dinner, we pile into the biggest tent to play cards, sympathize with our weather misfortune, and laugh at Gary’s jokes about his leaky tent (“You’ll find me tomorrow, floating in this valley”). From a cliff half a mile away comes the rumble of a rockslide, the sound continuing for a full minute.
Raindrops drum roll on our nylon roofs all night long. Come morning, I wake groggy from a vague dream involving the sun, a tropical beach, and a drink mixed with a piece of fruit the size of my head in a wide, shallow glass. The image smears and flows like a splashed watercolor as I realize that once again it is raining. I feel the humidity and its cold wraps me even in my sleeping bag.
A constant mist sprays our gear as we eat and pack up. It matures into a deliberate shower as we gasp through the clouds at Trail Rider Pass. From the fog, somewhere ahead, comes Gerry’s cry: “I love it! On the other side we see Snowmass Lake, an emerald oval heaped tightly between cliffs and evergreens like a jewel set in a crown.
Soon the monsoon downpour intensifies, turning the trail into an ankle-deep gully of slippery mud. We walk in silence, hooded heads, faces dark as the sky. Some of us start acting like people held against our will for years, liable to snap at any moment.
At the bend of a bend, I hear Guido swear, then Gary resonate. I look up to see Snowmass Creek crossing our trail in a deep torrent, moving with enough force to sweep a cow away. We test the water – freezing. It is only by crossing upstream of a beaver dam that one manages to negotiate the current. No one seems happy about the upcoming ice bath. Well, hardly anyone. Already thigh-deep, Gerry glances at me over his shoulder. He smiles from ear to ear.
Under a dripping pine tree, we agree to hike today, preferring a long, hard day to the prospect of another cold, wet night. We’ve had enough.
Like prisoners on a forced march, we cross the many bends of the slow bump to Buckskin Pass. But at the pass, the rain stops and we are treated to a breathtaking panorama of the Colorado Rockies made up of gigantic piles of broken rock and snow. As we descend—at one point, walking under a 20-foot-tall snow ledge that rolls over us like a frozen wave—the clouds dissipate, as if had been swept away by a giant hand. After 4 days of endless rain, we finally enjoy a warm solar glow.
We put down our bags to soak up the view. Gerry dances an impromptu jig. An hour later we rule out any possibility of missing the glorious evening now unfolding and park at a campsite overlooking North Maroon and Pyramid Peaks and the valley we’ll be descending tomorrow. As the stars slowly riddle a clear sky, we laugh at our pain and pledge to come back together. Our shared misery has bound us together in a way that 4 days of sunshine never could.
What we found in the Elks is a miracle, only witnessed when the sky opened up after days of rain.
Just before we go to bed, our cares washed away, we take turns yelling – you guessed it – “I love it!”
Explore it Maroon Bells-Snowmass Desert in Gaia GPS
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Elk Mountains, CO
- Getting There : The 181,117-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado’s fourth-largest wilderness, lies about 3.5 hours west of Denver. The Maroon Lake trailhead is at the end of Maroon Creek Road off CO 82, half a mile west of Aspen.
- Season: Weather conditions change rapidly. Summer weather is generally dry, but afternoon thunderstorms are common. Daytime highs range from 50s to 80s and nighttime lows from 20s to 40s, depending on elevation. Snow can occur any month at higher elevations. Trails and passes are often not plowed until mid-July.
- Trails: The wilderness area has 100 miles of trails and nine passes over 12,000 feet. Our 5 Day Maroon Lake Loop followed the Maroon-Snowmass Trail (#1975) to the West Maroon Creek Trail (#1970) through West Maroon Pass to the North Fork Fravert Basin Trail (#1974 ) through Frigid Air Pass to the north. Fork Cutoff Trail (#1976) and Geneva Lake Trail (#1973) via Trail Rider Pass. Finally, at Snowmass Lake, the road turns right (east) onto the Maroon-Snowmass Trail, follows it over Buckskin Pass, and back to the trailhead.
- Elevation: The route we took goes from 9,500 feet at the four pass trailhead to over 12,400 feet. If you’re coming from sea level, spend a night or two in a nearby town before your hike to begin acclimatizing. Plan to hike fewer miles per day than you would at lower elevations. Stay hydrated and walk at a pace that allows you to breathe deeply and easily. Treat any prolonged symptoms, including headache, nausea, loss of appetite, and especially decreased physical coordination or level of consciousness, downhill immediately.
Last updated April 2022