OVER THE HILLS AND NOT SO FAR AWAY
Hiking to Crested Butte in my twenties meant backpacking to Gothic Campground. Because even split four ways, a hotel room felt out of reach. You can imagine it. Backpacker’s ramen, using my Whisperlite stove for the first time. Making friends who drove us into CB for breakfast, then back to the trailhead. We hiked over in time to catch the last Bells bus. Then I raced to a PM shift with a sink bath in the employee changing room.
Thank God we grew up. On my next trip over the hill, the ladies booked a Victorian downtown and we planned it for weeks. Three dads dropped off my minivan at the VRBO. They biked home over Schofield Pass, a ride that required taking off work on a Friday. What great dads, right? Another bit of planning involved a drop-off before sunrise at Maroon Bells. Otherwise, we needed to shuttle from Highlands with all of our gear.
We took the West Maroon route, which we found every bit as beautiful as everyone says it is. You must do this at least once in your life. However. On our Saturday morning in September, it felt sort of like I-70, even with our pre-dawn start. If you like social hiking, here it is. We knew at least half the people on the trail. And eventually, we all congregated in the TH parking lot on the other side.
Our shuttle driver met us with a cooler of both beer and bubbly. We later pulled into a parade. It led to a whole-town mock trial street dance known as the “Burning of the Grump.” The culmination of Crested Butte’s annual pagan Vinotok festival. We’d assured that every meal, kid, dad, and workplace need was covered. But we never thought to ask if there was anything happening in CB that weekend. Anyway. We reveled like escaped pagan housewives and everyone agreed we should do it again next year.
A decade went by and then there was COVID. Now it’s time to try another way of doing this trip. So we asked Stephen Szoradi of Aspen Alpine Guides to help us plan a getaway. He mapped out options that include “roads less taken.” Whether you’re doing the kid-trade or looking for a challenging jaunt to prove you’re not over the hill yet, start planning. Because, like they say, “as the crow flies,” our next-door town is not so far away.
— KATHRYN CAMP
MAP ILLUSTRATION by Richard Camp
TRAILS by STEPHEN SZORADI
Highway 133 – McClure pass – Kebler Pass
Adding a shuttle car to the plan allows groups to hike one way then drive home, or to plan something like a Mom-Dad trade-off. Keep in mind that Kebler Pass is a graded dirt road that is isolated and void of cell service. It winds through an old-growth aspen forest with amazing views of the surrounding mountains.
The most commonly used route for traversing the mountains between the two towns. From Aspen to CB, there is a 3000 foot gain in elevation, and from CB to Aspen, the trail gains 2000 feet over approximately 10 miles. If you make this trip in the Spring, know that early season conditions can make it difficult for the shuttle to get to the East Fork Trailhead. Continue past the TH and head down Gothic Road to wait for the shuttle at Emerald Lake.
This route is several miles longer than the West Maroon Trail and has different characteristics. Most notably – multiple and repeated river crossings and also, a more sustained high alpine terrain. It’s less likely to have the showy wildflowers found on the West Maroon Trail but makes up for it with the rugged pass.
(Shown in RED on the map)
Conundrum Creek – Triangle Pass – Gothic
This 15-plus-mile trek makes a great trail run for those training for an ultra or mountain marathon. It requires careful planning and conditioning. For a multi-day excursion, you can add an overnight at Conundrum Hotsprings at mile 8.5. This requires a U.S.F.S. permit. Once you pass the hotsprings, climbing up to Triangle Pass, the trail does not get much use, so assistance is infrequent. The length, elevation gain, multiple trail connections, and steepness of both ascent and descent should be carefully evaluated.
Park at Ashcroft and bike up Castle Creek Road. After passing signs for the Tagert Hut and Mace Cabin, look for Pearl Pass Road, a left fork that rapidly becomes a steep, narrow, rocky double-black trail pretending to be a 4WD road. Plan on a sustained grunt to the top of Pearl Pass, followed by a steep, technically challenging downhill. Be careful as you navigate several scree fields because the route can be misleading.
Richmond Ridge – Taylor Pass – Star Pass- Brush Creek
Richmond Ridge or “Richmond Hill” is accessible via the Aspen Mountain Summer Road or by riding the gondola. You can also take Midnight Mine, Little Annie, or Express Creek Roads from Castle Creek Road up the backside of Ajax. The legendary Elk Mountain Grand Traverse Races (a summer trail run and mountain bike race along with winter ski mountaineering) are held on this route. It follows the ridgeline until it reaches Taylor Pass. From there, the trail is a primitive double-track trail to Star Pass, where you begin a steep descent. Riders are cautioned that navigation can be difficult after you leave Richmond Ridge. Take extreme care in understanding the route, which features hazardous backcountry terrain with steep drop-offs. Expect to be isolated until you enter the East Brush Creek Drainage, where you’ll find more bike traffic, as this lower portion of the ride is a popular out-and-back from Crested Butte.
Considered the “most deadly road in Colorado.” We do not recommend driving this extremely narrow shelf road with steep drop-offs. A rock slide in 2015 made it virtually impassable for vehicles in several sections where it is hazardous to turn around, and yet people attempt to drive it every year. While these conditions make it less-than-ideal for Jeeps, they make it a fifteen-mile pilgrimage for black-diamond mountain bikers. Expect steep climbs, sections of carrying your bike over boulders, and beautiful stretches of isolated trail surrounded by wildflowers.
Parking is minimal at each of these trailheads, and advanced reservations or permits are required at some locations. Meanwhile, road access to most trails requires a high-clearance vehicle. So we recommend making additional plans to get to the various trailhead options for your hike, bike, or run.
Maroon Bells Shuttle
Parking and shuttle reservations at the Maroon Bells Recreation Area are required through October 24. Limited two-night parking passes at the Bells are often booked months in advance. Otherwise, park at Aspen Highlands to take a RFTA shuttle, which also requires advance reservations. Cars are allowed in for dropping off hikers, and must exit the recreation area before 8:00 AM. (970) 930-6442
Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle
Schedule a pick-up on the rugged, high-clearance 4WD Gothic Road after taking the West or East Maroon routes from Aspen. Choose a pick-up time based on the slowest hiker in your group. Dogs are allowed and are charged the same rate as human passengers – of which you’ll need a minimum of five. Remember to schedule a ride from your CB lodging with drop-off at the trailhead for your return trip. (970) 209-9757
Crested Butte Shuttle
Aspen Alpine Guides
Trained mountaineers with expert knowledge for planning and guiding your trip. (970) 925-6618
U.S. Forest Service, Aspen Field Office
Find U.S.F.S trail maps, route details, and updates on route conditions. (970) 925-3445
Photo: Kip Royer (AHS Class of 2020) riding the 4000-vertical-foot descent from the top of Schofield Pass down to CB.
Banner Photo: Melissa Alcorn, Alcorn Images