Journal: Electric Pass, Maroon Bells Wilderness

The Maroon Bells Wilderness Area is one of my favorite places in all of Colorado. The view of the Bells from Maroon Lake is obviously the most well known, but exciting and beautiful hikes await if you are willing to get off the beaten path and try a few new places. Even Crater Lake is an easy two mile walk from the parking lot, and it also provides an up close vantage point of the majestic 14ers.

Recently, my best guy friend and I headed back towards Snowmass and Aspen in hopes of exploring the Cathedral Lake Trail and hiking up to Electric Pass. We’d attempted this hike several times, but each time the weather thwarted our efforts, and we didn’t want to be anywhere near a place called “Electric Pass” when a storm was nearby!

We always start early – usually well before sunrise because the photographer part of me wants to be somewhere near tree line when the sun appears, and in part to get up and down before the afternoon showers roll in. After our arrival in the area in the evening, we decided the to enjoy the walk from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake and back. As soon as we left the views of Maroon Lake, the tourists seemed to disappear. Up and over a rocky path, and soon Crater Lake and the famous Maroon and North Maroon were in our view, and we were able to enjoy a nice sunset, as well.

Maroon Lake at Sunset 2

On a walk from Crater Lake back to Maroon Lake, I climbed up a small, rocky ridge to photograph the fading light of sunset as it spread across the Maroon Bells Wilderness area. Light was still clinging to the distant mountain tops, and below, Maroon Lake was calm. Behind me the massive Maroon Bells, two of Colorado's 14,000' peaks, rose into the Rocky Mountain evening.

Off to bed, then an early rise saw us driving up Castle Creek Road ~ 12 miles to a turnoff for Cathedral Lake Trail just after the old ghost town of Ashcroft. We couldn’t see it on the way in, but on the flip side of our journey, the aspen along this road were amazing, filling the Castle Creek Valley. As a sidenote, I hope to return to this area in the fall when the leaves are turning.  We hit the trail (Cathedral Lake Trail) while it was still dark, heading for the junction of this trail and the Electric Pass Trail. The path to Cathedral Lake wastes no time as it immediately starts ascending and follows Pine Creek through groves of aspen and forests of fir and spruce trees. The last .2 miles of this trail before the junction is steep, covering the headwall of the basin in a series of breathtaking (literally) switchbacks. Just before the top of this uphill slog, the view looking back at the valley is amazing. I stopped here to shoot the sunrise.

Sunrise on the Trail to Cathedral Lake 1

After climbing several switchbacks, I paused to look back on the trail to Cathedral Lake in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. This image shows the moment the sun breaks over the distant mountains and brings a start to the day. This path leads up higher, eventually connecting with the Electric Pass Trail that takes you to a commanding view of the Elk Range, including several 13ers and 14ers such as North and South Maroon Peak and Pyramid Peak.

At the end of this mini-grunt is the connection with Electric Pass. Go left and you’ll find the lake.

We headed right – and up. Through meadows of Colorado wildflowers and long, sweeping switchbacks, the trail covers another 2.5 miles to the saddle between Peak 13635 and Leahy Peak. As we neared this saddle, I thought this was the pass we were seeking. Mentally, I was rejoicing that we’d made the 3,600’ ascent. When my buddy said we were not there yet, it was, to say the least, disheartening. Still, we were close, and the last portion of trail awaited us.From the saddle, the trail wraps around the left side of the small mound on the west side of the saddle. Another .35 miles of trail found us on an exposed, very loose portion of scree as we made our way towards the pass. A slip on a few portions of this part of the trail meant death. No way around it. This section brought out my fear of heights. If the rock had been solid, this part of the trail would not have been nearly as freaky, but the rock was not solid; I was sweating! Nevertheless, we both inched our way around and up and finally reached the payoff – views of the Maroon Bells Wilderness. Looking northwest, Maroon Peak (14,156’), North Maroon Peak (14,014’), Pyramid Peak (14,018’), Snowmass Mountain (14,092’), and Capitol Peak (14,130’) came into view. The panorama of mountains in all directions left us satisfied after several hours of hard work.



Electric Pass Panorama - Maroon Bells Wilderness 1

From 13,500' in elevation, this is the view Electric Pass offers as a reward for enduring the 3,500' elevation gain and countless sweeping switchbacks. The trail follows the Cathedral Lake trailhead before branching off before the actual lake. Turning left at the split heads a half-mile to Cathedral Lake. Taking the path to the right leads up higher until you are on the rocky and sketchy dirt trail that lands you in a tiny notch with breathtaking (literally) views of the Elk Mountain Range.
In this panorama, the peak to the far left is an unnamed 13er. In front are Hilliard Peak (13,409'), Keefe Peak (13,516') and Hunter Peak (13,497'). Behind these are Pyramid Peak (14,018'), South Maroon Peak (14,156'), and North Maroon Peak (14,014').
This panorama of the Maroon Bells Wilderness from Electric Pass is available in larger and custom sizes.

At the top, feeling good, the worry of the descent still lingered in my mind. After all, it doesn’t matter if you make it to the top if you don’t make it down! For me (I have a fear of heights that I’ve worked hard to overcome), I did a little butt-scooting on the scree, making sure not to start a slide that wouldn’t end for 1,000 vertical feet. But quickly, the sketchy part of the trail was complete, and we were on our way. After a few stops along the way to photograph wildflowers as well as Cathedral Lake, we were back at the car and headed over Independence Pass and back to Dillon for some well deserved lunch. A ten mile round trip and 3,600+ vertical feet made for a great morning.

I don’t take lightly these opportunities to witness such beauty in the Rocky Mountains. Both my buddy and I are getting older, and we both have two little girls, as well. We know our chances for outdoor adventures is a bit rarer these days than in the past. But we can still do it!

And there are more adventures that await!

~ Rob

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If you have any questions about these photographs of Electric Pass and and the Maroon Bells, please do not hesitate to contact me.