Photo Blog: Maroon Bells And Summit County Exploring - 7/19/18

In some of my blogs, I’ve mentioned my life-long friend, Matt, and the adventures we’ve been on. Every summer, we receive permission from our wives to hike and explore about once a week. Some of those trips are long day-trips and some turn into overnighters. This past week, we were granted the chance to spend a fair amount of time traveling around, and we attempted to make the most of this opportunity.

Our original plan was to take an easy 5 mile walk to Upper Piney Lake in Summit County, then head over to hike in Buckskin Gulch or even summit two 14ers – Castle and Conundrum – and that would be a game time decision. So we met around 5:15am at our appointed spot, left his car and drove mine to Summit County. The trailhead to Upper Piney Lake is about 20+ miles off I-70 on a fairly smooth dirt road. At the end of the road, there is a ranch/guest quarters. We parked at the gate, and were hiking on a trail around the ranch by 7am.

As we gained slightly in altitude on the trail, a picturesque lake was down to our right. We enjoyed walks through wildflower-lined trails and through small groves of aspen trees glistening in the early sunlight. Over the next hour, we gained about 700 feet in altitude over the next three miles and arrived at a waterfall.

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Upper Piney Trail Waterfall 1

About three miles into the Upper Pine Trail, a small waterfall, more of a cascade, falls across smooth rocks on the way down to Upper Piney Lake. This cascade makes for a nice walk - about six miles round trip on an easy trail. It is located in Summit County just outside of Vail.

In reality, it was more like a small cascade, though pretty nonetheless. We hung around here for about two minutes, then moved on towards our goal. According to Matt’s research, the lake was about 2 miles further, but the total altitude gain was 700 feet, so we were feeling pretty good about an easy hike.

However, easy was not the case. Very quickly, we were going uphill at a steep incline. Some spots seemed to be Class 3 scrambles as we had to use hands and feet to make it up. At one point, the trail led through a marsh of willows and muck. A few errant steps placed my hiking shoes three or four inches into a brown mire. We retraced our steps from the marsh and found our error, then continued up. The climbing was slow because the trail was sketchy at best, but we finally arrived in a beautiful cirque that contained some golden wildflowers and a small stream running down from snowmelt – but no lake.

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Summit County Wildflowers 618-1

Aspen Sunflowers and Purple Asters line a small stream flowing down from the peaks of Summit County. These wildflowers were found about five miles up the Upper Piney Lake Trail outside of Vail in mid July.

On the map of my GPS, no lake was evident, either. Exhausted, we faced two options – scaled the cirque or turn around. I opted to stay low and photograph wildflowers. Matt wanted to reach the ridge to see what was on the other side. And off he went – fully supported by me as I sat on a rock and drank some Gatorade while munching on a protein bar. Go Matt! I watched his progress – slow and steady – and also worked my camera with the wildflowers. Eventually, I lost sight of him.

Forty-five minutes to an hour later, Matt came back down, admitting he didn’t make the top of the ridge. Tired and a bit disappointed that we didn’t find a lake, we headed down the long five-mile slog. Here is a view of our return trip.

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Upper Piney Lake Trail, Summit County 718-1

At the end of five miles along the Upper Piney Lake Trail in Summit County near Vail, this is the view looking back. In the distance, the lake can be seen under a nice morning sky of blue and clouds. The hike to this point is strenuous and sketchy - not clearly marked, but the cirque at the five mile point is beautiful and in summer filled with wildflowers

On our way up, we never say another person. On the way down, after passing the waterfall, we saw a lot of folks. We would later discover that Upper Piney Lake was the body of water at the ranch house – and there was no lake after the waterfall except for one on the other side of the ridge another five miles away.

So we drove onto Glenwood Springs at had a nice late lunch at the Smoke Modern Barbecue. For Colorado barbecue, this place is pretty good. We’ve eaten here before and it hasn’t disappointed. The pulled pork, brisket, smoked chicken, and mac-and-cheese are all crowd pleasers. We’ll be back another year.

As we headed to our condo in Snowmass, we passed through Basalt along Highway 82. The mountain to our left was on fire and smoke rolled across the highway. Thinking this might preclude us doing any hiking the next morning, we sought alternate plans. After a few calls, we were assured the smoke was not affecting the Maroon Bells nor Independence Pass. Hesitantly, we continued on, settled in for the evening, and rested after our earlier excursion. After much discussion, we decided to forego our ambitious hiking plans, instead opting for a high alpine lake hike up and over Lost Man Pass and down to Lost Man Lake. The trailhead started near the top of Independence Pass, but before that we’d (I would) photograph the Maroon Bells.

The next morning, we were up around 4am, packed and heading out the door to Maroon Lake. After parking close to the lake, I went over to find good places to shoot while Matt waited patiently in the car until sunrise. Canada Geese were honking and, surprisingly, there were a few folks already out there to enjoy sunrise (but no other photographers that I noticed). The sunrise over this iconic location was pink and blue and glorious.

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Maroon Lake Morning 719-1

One of my favorite places to shoot in Colorado is at Maroon Lake. With the famous North Maroon and Maroon Peaks, both over 14,000 feet, in the background, the still water of Maroon Lake is calm and clear. This image from the Maroon Bells Wilderness near Aspen was taken about 5:30am on a crisp July morning.

Soon we were back in the car driving up Independence Pass. Thirty minutes later, we were on the Lost Man Lake Trail. This turned out to be an uneventful hike, pretty in places, that led to the pass that overlooked both Independence Lake and Lost Man Lake. At one point on the hike up, I dropped into a rocky gully to photograph columbine growing by the stream.

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Columbine near Independence Pass 719-1

Beautiful Columbine, Colorado’s state wildflower, fill in the rocky crags of a small stream flowing down from Independence Pass. This area, while not in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, is a short drive from Aspen on the Lost Man Lake Trail. The July morning was amazing and the flowers were prolific.

Atop the pass, we had a great view of Lost Man Lake, but the winds were howling (at least 50mph-70mph), so we opted to head back down and call it a morning.

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Lost Man Lake, Independence Pass 719-1

From Lost Man Pass, this landscape looks down at Lost Man Lake, an easy hike from Highway 82 just west of Aspen, Colorado. The trailhead starts high up on Independence Pass, takes you by Independence Lake, and up to the pass, then back down to this lake - all in a stunning alpine setting.

Two hours later, back in Summit County, we had an early lunch at Smashburger, then a while later headed our separate ways – back to our respective families and daughters who were ready to play.

I am sentimental about these times. I know they are fleeting and never seem to last long enough. I also know we are getting older and eventually won’t be able to do some of the things we love – hiking, exploring, adventuring. For now, I’ll hold on tightly to these times – memories of good conversations and beautiful mountains with a good friend.

That night, exhausted, I headed over to Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph an old barn. It turns out the sunset was brilliant. That blog is next.

Thanks for reading!

Safe Travels, everyone.

~ Rob

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If you have any questions about these photographs from Upper Piney Lake or Lost Man Lake, please do not hesitate to contact me.