It was 4:30 in the morning when the alarm clock began screeching. Piercing the still darkness, the noise jolted me from my sleep. Could it be that time already I groaned to myself?
Usually one to hit the snooze button, today I jumped out of bed remembering the purpose of this earlier than usual start to the day. I was about to visit one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the American West.
The Colorado town of Aspen, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, was once home to the Ute Native American people whose ties to the area went back hundreds of years. By the late 1800s, with the discovery of silver, Aspen would quickly turn into a booming mining town.
Today, Aspen is one of the most famed winter ski areas in the United States thanks to the surrounding mountains, but it’s the glorious summer sunshine and moderate climate that fill Aspen with warm weather adventure seekers.
As the sun was rising, we drove the 12-miles (19-kilometres) from Aspen’s town centre to a site long considered the most photographed wilderness scene in the west – Maroon Bells, in White River National Forest.
Proceeding along the winding mountain roads, the pass narrowed as we approached our high-altitude destination. From our idyllic glacial valley viewpoint, we were surrounded by mountain peaks reaching more than 14,000-feet high. A clear alpine lake, its waters completely still, reflected the snow-capped mountain peaks in the early morning light. Surrounding the lake was a vast field of wildflowers, as morning songs of mother nature echoed across the valley.
Like the scene of a great work of art, I wondered if the great impressionist painters ever captured a scene so beautiful.
Known as Maroon Bells, the two peaks that form this stunning Elk Mountains view, perfectly showcase the beauty of the Rockies. Just one of the reasons a summer holiday in Colorado is so popular, is because of this very spot. Wilderness hiking trails stretch for miles, making this the perfect getaway for adventure seekers, or nature and wildlife photographers and enthusiasts.
But the main attraction here is to watch the sunrise over the mountain peak. From the banks of the lake, there is a symphony of colours that shine, as the mountains and sky are reflected in the lake waters.
I quickly realise why this is one of the most photographed locations in Colorado, especially when the reflective rays of the morning sun begin to shine through.
Officially the area is a riparian zone, with willow, alder and river birch found growing among the moist soils near the lake and streams. Forests of blue spruce and aspen trees are home to deer, elk and bighorn sheep.
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The flat, sprawling meadow leading to the lake is thought to have been created by long-ago avalanches or forest fires. Wild-grasses and flowers push through the lake-side meadows to produce colourful wildflower displays between April and October.
Take a walk through the meadow along the wooden walkway and stay on the look-out for colourful birdlife, as well as foxes, porcupine and the yellow-bellied marmot.
Above Maroon lake, the sloping hills are thick with Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir that flourish in the cold, wet climates of higher elevations.
The tree line indicates the change into alpine altitude as the forest gives way to the mountain tundra. Above 11,400-feet, the trees and other vegetation cannot survive in the cold, harsh temperatures.
Back down in the valley, keep an eye out for mule deer, black bears, and elk that may be roaming the land. Wildlife can be unpredictable, so proceed with caution. Grizzly bears are no longer found here and poisonous snakes do not inhabit the area.
As it turns out, there was plenty of advantages that come with a 4:30am wake-up call. At least in Aspen!
If you go…
- Hotel Jerome is a historic building that has been a part of the Aspen landscape since 1889. Guests will enjoy the 5-Star amenities such as the spa, picnic baskets, in-room iPads and use of the hotel’s Mercedes Benz transport around town.
- The Little Nell Hotel is located in the heart of the town. The Aspen mountains are at its back door. In-between is a 5-Star, 5-Diamond hotel and resort boasting a private wine cellar with over 20,000 bottles from around the globe.
Getting to Maroon Bells:
- If you have a hire car, you will find limited parking at the entrance to the reserve. The car park fills fast and is often full before 8am. Arrive early for the sunrise; this is the best time to see the still lake reflections of Maroon Bells. If you prefer not to drive, consider The Maroon Bells Bus Tour from the centre of Aspen.
- As a national forest, camping is allowed during the summer months in the approved campgrounds of Silver Bar; Silver Bell; and Silver Queen. Permits and reservations are required.