After our successful 14er attempts, we headed West to Aspen where we spent a rainy morning watching the latest Game of Thrones episode in a coffee shop. When the rain had somewhat subsided, we drove into the Maroons Bells Wilderness, strapped on the backpacks, and headed up the trail with plans to complete the famous Four Pass Loop.
The Four Pass Loop
We covered the first two miles to Crater Lake and camped in the Ponderosa Pines below the famous Bells. Despite old signs posted about recent “daily bear activity”, we slept through the night and encountered 0 giant beasts.
In Aspen we had asked around and had received pretty grim information on the current trail conditions in this area. They said everything above 11,000 feet was completely buried under snow. Since all four passes on the loop are over 12,000 feet, I had little hope, but we set out to try nonetheless.
The next several miles were wet, after the recent rain, but nothing unmanageable. We even became more hopeful as the snow all seemed far above us. The trail brought us to a large stream, swollen with snowmelt. The crossing was fairly difficult; the water, so frigid your legs became numb with cold. Shortly after the crossing snow was more prevalent on the trail. Within a 1/2 mile snow covered the entire trail. We pressed on following tracks from a previous group. The tracks grew less faint as the snow became more of a problem. Emerging from the trees into a clearing of bushy willows, we could see the pass maybe two miles in the distance. It was solid white with snow!
Knowing it would be above our heads to get up this one pass, let alone 3 more just like it, we turned around and retraced our steps, back across the stream, and past Crater Lake. Back near the trailhead, we took the requisite pictures of Maroon Lake and the Bells standing sentinel in the distance. We will be back to take on the Four Pass Loop a late date.
Conundrum Hot Springs
The trailhead for the springs is just around the corner from the Maroon Bells and we were out on the trail by early afternoon. We hiked about halfway towards the springs before setting up camp and cooking our ramen over a fire. The next morning we woke early and left our gear, taking just daypacks filled with water and food. In between thick patches of aspens and pines, the trail led us through several beautiful, open meadows. I scanned for wildlife in each, but no such luck. The trail follows Conundrum Creek, slowly ascending a beautiful valley. We crossed the creek numerous times, several occasions requiring fords through knee-high water.
At the base of a 14,000 foot mountain, Conundrum Peak, sits Conundrum Hot Springs. The springs are all natural and emerge at a temperature above 100℉. Some ingenious people used rocks to form several pools in which you can wade and relax. We spent a couple hours lazing in the largest pool, conversing with a couple others. One couple told us a crazy story how some cows got stranded in a nearby barn a couple of years ago and died. To deter bears from feasting and making the nearby woods their home, forest officials detonated the barn, scattering cow remains all over the valley! With relaxed muscles, we made the long hike back to camp and then back to the car.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The next day we headed to our first National Park of the trip: Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We got a spot in the campground on the south rim, setting up the tent under some stubby oak trees. From our site, we jumped on the rim trail, getting our first look at this magnificent canyon. While only about half the depth of the Grand Canyon (Black Canyon is 2720 ft at its deepest, while the Grand Canyon is 6,000), Black Canyon is more strikingly deep. It seems as if there are two sheer walls on either side of the Gunnison River.
In fact, it is so deep and narrow that parts of the very inner gorge only receive 30 minutes of sunlight a day! The rim trail took us to the Visitor Center where we hiked an unremarkable 2 mile loop trail. After lunch back at camp, we drove the rim road West, stopping at various overlooks to take pictures.
One particular one had a view of the Painted Wall straight across the canyon. The sheer wall gets its name from the different striations of rock that are “painted” across its canvass.
Sadly we only stayed one day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, so we didn’t take any of the trails that led into the canyon and down to the river. Just like at the Grand Canyon, I think this is the only real way to truly experience the incredible size of such a wonder. It was our final adventure in Colorado and a good sendoff. For now, it was on to Southern Utah and the Mighty 5!