(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text. Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions. I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.)
Sunday, September 20: We left Estes Park and drove southwest to Aspen, which we also found to be very crowded and not trailer-friendly. There were no unreserved campsites available in the Maroon Creek Valley. That turned out to be a good thing; otherwise, we would have had to drive through Aspen to get to many of the hikes in the surrounding area.
Instead, we found a site at "Difficult Campground," a funny name. (It is near Difficult Creek.) Our campsite (several miles east of Aspen) was not far from the stream, and there was almost no road noise (even though Highway 82 passes on the cliff overlooking the campground.) The only real difficulty that we encountered at Difficult Campground is that there was a breakdown in communications between the Internet reservation agency and the local camp hosts, which meant that we had to change campsites after a couple of days (even though we were assured that we wouldn't have to). No big deal, but an unnecessary and time-consuming inconvenience.
Late on Sunday afternoon, after we set up camp, we drove up the Roaring Fork River toward Independence Pass and found a small cascade set in a gorge that had been sculpted by the flowing water:
Monday, September 21: We caught the shuttle from Aspen to the famous Maroon Bells area. Unlike the shuttle system at Rocky Mountain National Park, the shuttles were crowded, not free, infrequent, and rigidly scheduled. Hikers had to be out of the valley by 5 PM, which is a little too early for us.
But despite all of that regimentation, the trip was absolutely worthwhile – don’t miss it! There is a darn good reason that the Maroon Bells are so crowded: this is an astoundingly beautiful area. This is the classic view that greeted us not far from the trailhead, complete with changing aspens, a deep blue sky, a vivid reflection in a calm lake, and a little snow on the peaks:
With every turn in the trail, the 14,000 foot mountains were framed by the brilliant aspens:
Given the limited time available to us, we were able to hike up to an area just above Crater Lake; we would have gone further, except that we had to turn back to catch the last shuttle at 5 pm.
Tuesday, September 22: To quote Monty Python, “And now for something completely different!" Hoping to get away from the crowds, we took the Independence Lake trail up near Independence Pass, with a trailhead at 11,500 feet. The hike was almost entirely above treeline, and we didn't see anyone else all day long – mission accomplished! The weather was chilly, dark, and overcast, which completely suited the stark arctic landscape of willow and tundra – very wild and pseudo-adventurous. To provide a sense of the grand scale, note Felice standing on a rock on the right side of the shot:
The trail reached the pass at about 13,000 feet, the highest we have ever been on foot. (By this point in the trip, we were completely acclimated, and I no longer had "heavy legs" above 12,000 feet.) Independence Lake was just south of the pass -- Felice is on the south shore of the lake:
Lost Man Lake was just north of the pass, in a rocky barren valley:
That afternoon, after the hike, we drove up to Independence Pass. We could see a great above-timberline trail along the Continental Divide, which we will have to save for another trip.
On our way back down to the campground, we scouted around for potential camping or boondocking sites but found almost nothing suitable. Weller Campground was set in a shady aspen grove but was right by the highway. Lost Man Campground was much quieter and more spacious, with lots of evergreens, but was really far up the highway, away from everything. Lincoln Creek wasn't easy to get to, and the campsites were too close together. The biggest problem was that Highway 82 is simply too narrow in places for safe towing, although lots of people have towed trailers on that road. There are various stretches where two passenger cars can barely pass each other; I would not want to be towing a trailer up the road when another trailer is coming down.
Wednesday, September 23: We drove back up Highway 82 to the Grotto and Weller Lake. The Grotto area was really interesting, with elaborate rock formations carved into the granite. (Most of the Rockies are metamorphic, so a big patch of granite was like finding an old friend from the Sierras.) The "ice caves" were actually a slot canyon cut into the granite; they would have been more photogenic in another season with more water flowing through them. The cascades, however, were terrific. After lunch, we took our obligatory "boot shot:"
We then spent quite a while clambering around the various waterfalls:
Felice spotted this intricate little sculpted cascade, with the water vaulting over the rocks. Surprisingly, this shot is a quarter of a second exposure, completely handheld! Lest anyone think that I am a super-steady photographer, I must disclose that my new camera has image stabilization built into the lens. (Also, I was sitting down, with my arms braced on my knees -- but even so, a technological miracle.)
Later that afternoon, we hiked up to Weller Lake, which was completely unimpressive. We then drove down into Aspen (difficult parking!), because I needed to use the Internet. While I worked, Felice explored the trails by the Roaring Fork River and discovered that there is a whole network of trails within the town.
That night, the sky was very clear, so we drove back to the Maroon Bells. (After dark, the vehicle access is no longer restricted.) Since it was a clear and calm night with just a little moonlight, I expected there to be crowds of photographers seeking to capture the aspens and the stars; instead, we were practically the only people there (except for one wedding photographer):
Thursday, September 24: We drove up Castle Creek Road to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead. That valley was even more beautiful than Maroon Creek, with wide swaths of color spreading all over the hills and the valleys. It looked like a gaudy green and gold 1970s style Berber carpet had been thrown over the mountains. We came across an abandoned log cabin in the woods – note the interlocking dovetail joinery at the corner of the cabin:
The hike to Cathedral Lake, although fairly short, was very steep, almost at the limit of our abilities. The trail passed through bands of multicolored aspens:
The guidebook described the final approach to the lake as being up a "couloir," which we later learned was a French word for “steep gully.” As we climbed the tricky switchbacks, Felice said, “Couloir? Ha! I know a headwall when it bites me on the behind." (That quote is slightly altered.) From the top of the headwall, we could see far to the east, into the Collegiate Wilderness and beyond:
Coming down that difficult headwall, we met an 82-year-old man hiking up with his wife – very impressive! (His wife told us how old he was – she was obviously proud of him.) Down near the trailhead, we passed through a grove of ancient aspens – we were in shadow at ground level, but the tops of the tall trees were still catching sunlight: