Crater Lake. I can’t describe this feeling, seeing a place I never thought I would love so instantly and so deeply to my core. Ancient, blood red mountains piercing the sky, shedding heavy cloaks of snow into hundreds of creeks and lakes that swell through forests of aspen, spruce and fir. This is what fresh smells like; rock and snow and conifer warming into summer. I am rooted to the spot in this moment, fairly certain my mouth is hanging open to the elements. The only thing that can pull me away is my neverending curiosity, my perpetual need to explore and see, see, see more.
I see you, Aspen.
We made camp in Silver Bell, nestled at the foot of the Elk Mountains in White River National Forest next to the icy Maroon Creek, at an elevation of 8,460 ft. Special doesn’t even begin. It doesn’t get much better than this. We had direct access down to the creek from our individual site, our own mini grove of aspens and a breathtaking view of mountains and forest on the other side of creek.
After gathering supplies, our first outing was a simple wander around Maroon Lake, jaw-dropping in itself. We had a dinner of tuna, broccoli, pasta and mayo, made the best s’mores of our lives over our campfire, glazed at the stars (aha…) and hit the sacks. We got up at 6 to catch the sunrise over Maroon Lake, broke our fast, then headed out on the Crater Lake trail beginning from Maroon Lake.
The climb was ideal for a first hike, about 2 miles up to Crater Lake. The first half or so was a pleasant gradual climb through aspen and spruce, and we caught glimpses of a giant moose crashing through the forest. The land opens up on the next half to mixed patches of forest and rock, and we hit the remaining snow, still several feet deep in places but manageable (at least at that time of day…more on that in a moment).
By about 10am, we surfaced over a hill to the view of Crater Lake, backed by the infamous Maroon Bells, still dozing under a few blankets of snow. Downhill, at the lake’s edge, I had my moment. Eyes wide, mouth drooling, searing the image into my soul for eternity, etc. While Maroon Lake was stunning, there’s something special about earning a view.
After a few moments of taking it in, we carried on. The original plan (and by original, I mean decided as of that day, because planning ahead is not entirely our thing) was to hike the West Maroon trail loop, a day hike of about 11 miles. We carried on around and past Crater Lake over packed snow and creek beds, aiming for West Maroon Pass between the mountains beyond, but the snows became treacherously slushy by mid-morning. We cut our losses, snacked with a chipmunk in a copse of trees (No feeding! He just happened to be snacking at the same time as us.), then headed back the way we came…only to realize that solid snow we had originally crossed on was actually not very solid at all and was hiding a deceptively wide creek beneath that had decided to come out to play.
We had to watch our steps like mice braiding a lion’s mane. Took a few wrong turns, even, in hopes of a shortcut across the slushy treachery, but that ended with my ass in the mud and us backtracking with our tails between our legs. Fortunately, I had found a Trusty Stick for the day, as I do without fail, and it helped me escape the snow-covered creek with my life and a few scraps of dignity (if I ever had any to begin with).
In celebration of our survival, we dined on turkey sandwiches Crater-side for lunch, taking a longer moment to appreciate the scene before us under a beautiful but harsh midday sun. Though the temperature was beautifully temperate, we made sure to cover ourselves in sunscreen, hats and sunglasses.
On the way back down, the sudden snow slush slowed us and fellow hikers down, but after some slipping and sliding and ‘oofing’ we made it back to Maroon Lake. (I bravely snapped my stick and gifted it to a struggling little girl, which thrilled her to pieces. The stick was thereafter named Child Support and hopefully lived happily ever after.) Will had the brilliant idea to give his feet an ice bath in the creek, which at the time I thought was insane but have since learned is worth the temporary pain.
I’ve seen many spectacular and breathtaking places in the world, mainly in Europe and Peru, but none have quite lit up my soul the way the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness did. I thought my desire to explore was a fire before – it was only an ember. Now it’s a raging, untamable blaze, burning me out of my desk job faster than I can say ‘Ouch, alright alright already!’ Sprinter, here we come!
This is not the place that I was born in
But it doesn’t mean it’s not the place where I belong
–Bees, The Ballroom Thieves