If you have but one day to enjoy a slice of pristine wilderness, spend it in the shadow of Colorado's most iconic mountains: the pyramid-shaped twins of North Maroon Peak (14,014ft) and South Maroon Peak (14,156ft). Eleven miles southwest of Aspen, it all starts on the shores of Maroon Lake, an absolutely stunning spot backed by the towering, striated summits.
The surrounding wilderness area contains nine passes over 12,000ft and six fourteeners. Some jut into jagged granite towers, others are a more generous slope and curve, nurturing a series of meadows that seem to gleam from the slopes.
The most important thing to know when visiting the Maroon Bells is that you can't just drive in and park your car whenever you want – this area sees some 20,000 visitors each summer, so access is strictly controlled. The road in is open to outside traffic only from 5pm to 8am ($10 access fee) from mid-June to September; the majority of visitors will need to park at or take an RFTA bus to the Aspen Highlands (half-mile west of Aspen on Hwy 82) and then take a shuttle. Exceptions to the road closure include visitors with disabilities and campers at any of the three USFS campgrounds off Maroon Creek Rd. The access road is not plowed in winter, when you can cross-country ski in to Maroon Bells Lake. Do not take side trips in winter (this is avalanche country).
You can spend an hour up here or several days: the choice is yours. Free guided naturalist hikes are led by ACES guides daily at 10:15am and 1:15pm, leaving from the Information Center. The four-hour round-trip walk to Crater Lake is a good choice for those in reasonable shape. It's first-come, first-serve, so show up well ahead of time.
If you can't get a spot, not to worry, you can also do this yourself – although steep in spots, it’s only 1.8 miles one-way, making for a nice, short day hike. Surrounded by gorgeous sculpted peaks and fed by a creek flowing down from the high country, the setting is stunning, though the lake itself is shallow in late summer. If you're hungry for a little bit more altitude, we suggest pressing on to Buckskin Pass (12,462ft; 4.8 miles one-way) – from the narrow granite ledge you can see mountains erupt in all directions. If you continue over the pass for an additional 3 miles you’ll wind up at Snowmass Lake, a terrific campsite.
Alternatively, you can diverge from the Buckskin Trail and head over Willow Pass (12,600ft) and camp at Willow Lake (11,795ft; 6.5 miles one-way). Yet another option is to hike 11 miles over West Maroon Pass to the town of Crested Butte – but you'll need to arrange a shuttle if you do this.
As is the usual protocol in the Rockies, it’s best to get below tree line before noon, as afternoon lightning is a real danger. The Elk Mountains are also notorious for loose rock. When scrambling, use extra caution as huge blocks have a tendency to fall down.