On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
WaterGirl asked for submissions, and I live to serve! In addition to our trip to the Chicago Basin detailed in a previous set of OTR posts last Fall, we did a series of trips to the Elk Mountains outside of Aspen to climb the 14,000 ft peaks.
The Elks, especially the Maroon Bells and their close neighbor Pyramid Peak, are some of the most photographed mountains anywhere in in the US, and they are a major tourist draw in the Aspen area. As such, the area at the base of the peaks has been loved nearly to death, with thousands of tourists coming to see them on a daily basis. In response, the Forest Service has, quite understandably, significantly limited access by restricting cars from parking without permits, and utilizing a very efficient bus service to take most of the tourists to the lake at the base of the peaks.
The one group that is poorly served by the buses are climbers. In order to climb the peaks before the typical afternoon thunderstorms hit, most people want to begin climbing before 5 AM. Parking to climb requires parking permit for the day, and the permits for the entire summer sell out in a matter of hours when they go on sale in the Spring. Taxis and Uber/Lyft are not permitted to take climbers up, so if you don’t have friends who can drive you up before dawn, access is difficult.
Climbing in the Elks reminded us that tackling peaks requires patience and the wisdom to turn around when necessary, and to come back another day, if needed. This summer we successfully climbed Pyramid, Snowmass, and the Maroon Belles. Each of these climbs in the Elks required two trips to successfully climb each set of peaks.
In October of 2020, my wife and I decided to try and get a late season climb of Pyramid Peak before the snow flew. We couldn’t get a parking permit, and couldn’t find a friend to drive us up to the parking lot, so we took a different tack. The beautiful paved road to Maroon Lake begins just outside of Aspen Highlands ski area, and climbs 8 miles and 1600 ft on paved road. We decided to try the climb by parking at the ski area, then riding our bikes to the trailhead, changing into our boots, and climbing from there. We looked forward to coasting down to the car after our climb.
Riding a road bike up a long steep climb is a challenge, but it is even more of a challenge when you have a mountaineering pack with boots and jackets, as well has 3 liters of water and food for a day on your back. We go to the trailhead just after 7:30, and began our planned climb.
It was a beautiful Fall day, cold, but sunny. Initially you climb through trees and meadows, then climb steeply to timberline, entering a massive Amphitheater (a hanging valley, a remnant of the massive glaciation from the last Ice Age) at 11,400 feet. Beyond the amphitheater the trail disappears, and you are faced with a mile of talus hopping, hiking from boulder to boulder, before reaching the base of 2500 feet of steep climbing. At this point it was late morning, and we decided that finishing the climb in the dark, followed by a ride down in the dark was not a good idea, so we turned around, saving the climb for another day. This photo is looking out of the Amphitheater at peaks across the valley.
The ride back to the ski area was exhilarating.
We returned July of this year. We found a friend who was able to take us to the trailhead for an alpine start at 5:30 AM. The climb to the Amphitheater went quickly, and we were cheered on by the first of many mountain goats as we began the long hike across the boulder field, followed by a slog up a steep 1000 ft high slope to a saddle at 13000 ft. After the saddle, the real fun began!
The final climb up Pyramid involves 1100 feet of technical climbing up steep slopes separated by short 10 ft high cliff bands. There is also a an exciting ledge that traverses a cliff, narrowing to 6 inches wide at one point, and also including a gap, known as “The Leap of Faith” to jump across.
The Leap of Faith
We reached the summit around 10:30, and were agains amazed by the views. Looking across the the Maroon Belles was, as always amazing. In addition, the views beyond the Belles to Capitol and Snowmass were incredible. We began our descent, and made quick work getting off the peak, hurried along by gathering storm clouds.
From the summit, looking at our descent. In the valley far below you can see the road to Aspen Highlands
All through the day we had seen numerous mountain goats. Watching these mamboing creatures bound across ledges and cliffs that we found intimidating was hugely entertaining. We also learned that climbers are an important source of salt for the goats. If there are goats nearby when you stop to pee, the goats will come right up and lick the rocks before you are finished. We were glad to be able to contribute to their diet, but were also a little weirded out by the experience, as well. As always, it was a pleasure to share the goat’s home, if only for a few hours.
Beautiful and inspiring, ty so much for posting!
Outstanding. Thanks so much for this shared adventure. The pee lick was a fine way to end your story.
Thanks, that was fun to read, looks like great fun to be there.
As a flatlander who moved to the mountains and could never get the hang of riding up hills/negotiating turns in traffic, I’m pretty impressed that you rode up the mountain to the trailhead and then climbed the mountain. Now to read the rest of the story!
Awesome. I would love to climb that high someday. Lots of work and prep but I bet the payoff if worth it.
Such colors! And great tale.
I was lucky enough to climb these peaks in the days before shuttle busses and permits. We typically arrived at the Maroon Bells parking lot in late evening, slept next to the car, and got up at dawn for a leisurely start. Signs at Maroon Lake warned of The Deadly Bells due to a rash of fatalities in previous years. It was possible in those pre-internet days to make a poor choice of route, which my high school buddies and I did on more than one occasion. My most memorable trip involved a circumnavigation of Capitol Peak while climbing Snowmass, getting caught in a deafening thunderstorm, and arriving in camp after midnight, to the relief of worried parents.
What a top! Photos are stunning! At least the ones that aren’t terrifying. :-)
@Netto: Of course in the days before cell phones, GPS, or any other means of communication. That would have been a n absolutely brutal day.
You guys are animals. I’m way too old for that stuff anymore.
Grumpy Old Railroader
Beautiful diversion from the everyday grind
My husband and I vacationed in Crested Butte about 4 times. He would mountain bike, I would go horseback riding, and we both would hike. We talked about making the Aspen-Crested Butte hike, but never did it because it would involve either an expensive overnight in Aspen to hike back the next day or an expensive taxi ride back to Crested Butte.
Many beautiful photos. I especially like the one in black and white and the goat. About that leap, I’m not sure whether me of little faith would take it. Probably never going to find out since the only way I would know would be to stand there and confront it and see what I did.
Ah, memories of the Western Slope. I used to live in the North Fork Valley, between the West Elks and Grand Mesa, in Paonia. Still miss it. I currently have a stunning view of the Sangres from my deck, but it just ain’t the same. Thanks for the photos!
Wow! The Belles certainly earn their name. What gives them that gorgeous color?
Thanks for sending these in and climbing fourteeners so I don’t have to. ?
@Hoosierspud: The Aspen-Crested Butte hike is on our bucket list Hopefully this summer if we can work out the logistics
@Miss Bianca: Your Wet Mountain Valle is one of my favorite places in Colorado
@HinTN: The Maroon Formation is a Permian sedimentary rock laid down about 300 million years ago. Sediments from the Permian are oftentimes deep red, possibly due to an influx of oxygen into the atmosphere. Other examples of Permian Red Beds include the red rock canyon country of Utah, the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, as well as other geologic formations of similar age across the world.
@BretH: my husband and I used to hike in the Maroon Bells every summer. The views are indeed extraordinary, with the bonus of columbine blooming profusely along the way.
Wonderful story and photos. Thank you!
J R in WV
OK — so I told Wife today’s On the Road photo set was extraordinary while still on the first few photos. Then I paged down to that last photo and did an outburst of verbal emotion. How amazing. And I’ve seen Mountain Goats climbing the opposite side of the box canyon we were in, just 50 or 60 feet away, horizontally, but with several hundred feet of straight down in between.
And there was that guy, right there OMG. I’m not sure what I said but it was awesome. Like LOL only not laughing, just… awed. And that leap of faith, shouldn’t you be using a rope belay for that? Really!? You obviously all made it, so I guess how you did it was fine…
Great photos and story! The mountain goats are such a pleasure, and seeing them with their surefooted babies is a huge treat.
That’s one of the peaks we didn’t get to while still living in Colorado, but we did ride bikes to the top of Mt Evans two different times, both when it had closed for the season in the fall due to snow, but most had melted off; it’s a narrow window if you can swing it time and weather-wise. No way I’d attempt it during the period when the road is still open to cars; too narrow, too busy. The last time we saw several other bikers who had rented electric-assist bikes to get up there, but the funniest thing was how the marmots had just plain taken over everything because the tourists hadn’t been around due to Covid closures. They would barely get up from laying on the warm asphalt as you rode by, sometimes just a couple of feet away.
Stunning. And terrifying… Especially the ‘Leap of Faith’ (I lack the mountain goat gene.)
@StringOnAStick: My first couple times up Evans was on my bike as well. Doing it on a weekday the traffic wasn’t too bad. And the descent was a kick.
@J R in WV: I love the goats. So surefooted, even the babes. And the Leap of Faith was more mental than anything. The leap was like jumping across a 4 foot gap in the sidewalk, just with a substantial amount of air beneath. Both sides were flat and well swept, and there was a cliff face with abundant holds on each side to steady yourself on after the jump. Doing it the second time on the descent was much less intimidating.
Great story and pics. Sad to see the outdoor getting loved to death, it’s an issue in Oregon too. Don’t know what the answer is.
Would it be possible to bike up the day before, camp, then make the climb in the morning?
@JustRuss: Possible, but you’d need a trailer for your bike to bring up the necessary equipment. Some people get a bus ticket up the day before they climb and bring the camping gear on the bus, and get another ticket down for the afternoon following their climb. Might be easier doing it that way.