This trip was well overdue - the last time I was in the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness was 7 years ago. I had picked a version of this route several years ago but never got the chance to complete it until 2 weeks ago. The ideal trek was supposed to be 6 days, but I had only 4 at my disposal, so I had to cut it short, thus skipping Lost Remuda Basin and Willow Lake.
Day 1: Maroon Snowmass Trailhead (just outside of Snowmass Vilalge) - Maroon Snowmass Trail - West Snowmass Trail - Moon Lake.
Day 2: Moon Lake - Daly Pass - Capitol Lake - Capitol Pass - Avalanche Creek - East Fork Avalanche Creek
Day 3: East Fork Avalanche Creek - Silver Creek Pass - Lead King Basin - Geneva Lake - Unnamed Lake South-West of Trail Rider Pass
Day 4: Unnamed Lake - Trail Rider Pass - Snowmass Lake - Maroon Snowmass Trail (following Snowmass Creek) - Trailhead
According to my personal calculations:
Total elevation gain over 4 days was 9,850 vertical feet. Although, the last day the vertical gain was only 700 feet, which leaves the other 3 days with an average of 3,050 vertical feet per day.
Total distance covered over 4 days was 33-35 miles. Mileage is harder to calculate, because of the numerous switchbacks on some of the trails.
I started the trip the day after Labor Day, thus avoiding the crowds during the Holiday weekend. The temperatures had been high for the last few days and the forecast was for a few more days of hot and dry weather.
My goal was to reach Moon Lake and spend the night in its vicinity. There isn't an official trail going to Moon Lake, so I read several reports on how to get there - all of them described a route following West Snowmass Creek. That route involved quite a bit of bush whacking and route finding in the forest, which I'm not a fan of at all. By looking at the USGS map, I found a higher route that involved very little bushwhacking in the forest. When I looked on Google aerial maps, there also seemed to be a well defined trail following my route very closely. A decision was made to ditch the regular route to the lake and follow my newly discovered high route.
After following Maroon Snowmass Trail for a little over a mile, I crossed Snowmass creek and followed West Snowmass trail. The first 1/4 of a mile goes through private property and very soon I ran into a herd of cows. One of the bulls was standing right in the middle of the trail, chewing slowly and observing me. I kept going towards him, but he wouldn't move - just masticating and staring at me. When he snorted, I suddenly realized that I had an orange shirt on. Now, what if this bull was color blind and couldn't really tell red from orange? I could picture him sinking those big horns into my flesh. I quickly left the trail and took a detour, staying very close to the aspen trees. There were a few other bulls further up the trail, but those didn't look that frightening.
I followed the trail to timberline and when it took a sharp turn North towards Haystack mountain, I left it, heading South. After a 1/4 of a mile of route finding and a steep climb, I came across the trail that I had seen on Google Maps. It was a very well defined trail - it looked like human built one, not just another animal trail. I stayed on it for a mile, mile and a half, up until it disappeared at the boulder field above Moon Lake.
The trail put me at 12,000 feet, a couple of hundred feet above Moon Lake. As I thought, there were no camping spots around the lake, so I spent the first night at the meadow right below Daly Pass
I was hardly done setting up camp, when it started drizzling and then hailing. The storm that hit me was pretty intense. The hail kept coming down for 1/2 hour and after that it kept raining for an extra hour. Lightning kept striking near by again and again. I was glad that I was surrounded by high peaks, including Capitol Peak, that could take the brunt of the lightning strikes. The storm covered the meadow in white. The little stream that was running close to my tent had turned into a muddy river.
Day 2 started with a steep climb to Daly Pass (12,500 feet) - 500 vertical feet in about 1/4 of a mile. I wasn't feeling well at all, my stomach especially. I din't filter the muddy water the previous evening, so I was guessing that was the reason. It took my a little less than 40 mins to reach the pass. The view helped me forget my rumbling intestines.
I followed the excellent trail down to Capitol Lake (11,580 feet). My legs felt like rubber the whole way down. Once at the lake I had a Cliff Shot (the Mocha with 50 mg caffeine) and had absolutely no problems on my next climb to Capitol Pass (12,060 feet). I guess, I just needed a little pick-me-up.
I followed the trail all the way down to Avalanche Creek at 10,500 feet.
I stopped for 1/2 hour at a nice meadow to dry my soggy tent. I don't like carrying extra weight, even if it's only a few ounces. From Avalanche Creek, I picked up Silver Creek Trail, which led me over a ridge (11,900 feet) into one of the most beautiful basins in the whole Wilderness Area - East Fork Avalanche Creek Basin (the basin, actually, doesn't have a name, I just named it after the river that runs through it). On the way up to the ridge I stopped for almost a whole hour to eat blueberries. I found this blueberry field that was untouched. As the Beetles sing "Blueberry Fields For Ever", or it might have been "strawberry fields". I think they meant blueberry fields, but ended up with strawberry fields, because strawberries are more main stream fruit in England. Just a little bit up the trail, there was a beautiful view of Capitol Peak, rising some 3,400 vertical feet above Avalanche Lake. This is the best side of Capitol Peak - dominating the landscape for miles.
After the ridge, the trail stays above timberline and the elevation loss is only 400 feet.
I fell in love with that place and decided to spend the night there. My original plan was to climb over the East ridge and drop into the neighboring basin under Snowmass Mountain and spend the night at Little Gem Lake. I found a nice tarn and set up camp. I realized that I had forgotten my titanium spork at home, so I made me 2 chop sticks. I am not fond of eating my food with sticks (there is a reason God gave us the Spoon and the Fork), even if it is Chinese or Japanese. I, deliberately, cut the chop sticks much thicker than the originals, so that I could eat my dinner faster. It still took me 1/2 hour to finish my Yakisoba. Towards the end I was just slurping it directly out of the pot.
I spent the rest of the evening soaking in the views eating my sunflower seeds. No rain at all. There was some activity to the West and to the East, I could hear thunder, but nothing in my basin.
Sunset turned out pretty good, also - a nice ending to a beautiful day.
The third day started out with clear skies. I was able to snap a few shots before I headed to an unnamed lake at 12,200 feet - the only full size lake in the entire basin. This was a 1/2 mile 600 vertical feet detour that could have been avoided. The lake was just OK, I was expecting more.
I followed the trail South to Silver Creek Pass. The trail was very elusive and I lost it on several occasions. I knew exactly where I was going and was able to reconnect shortly. It doesn't seem as if this beautiful basin sees much traffic. The "4-Pass Trail" is touted as the hike to do in this Wilderness Area, although, I can boldly argue that none of those basins is as scenic as this one.
From the pass (12,250 feet), I dropped some 2,500 feet, down to 9,700 feet in the Lead King Basin. On the way down I came across a huge flock of sheep. There must have been a few hundred of them.
I spent may be 1.5 miles on some dirt road that led me to Geneva Lake trail head. The road provided expansive view of Snowmass Mountain (14,092 ft) and Hagerman Peak (13,841 ft). As I mentioned before, peaks have their photogenic side, just like people. And, for Snowmass Mountain this is it - the South-West side of it is just mesmerizing. Add Hagerman Peak to the picture and it doesn't get any better. As I'll show towards the end of this report, Snowmass Mountain, observed from Snowmass Lake, looks very unimpressive. From that angle, the skyline is being dominated by Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Mountain is just a small bump on the ridge.
Once I got to Geneva Lake trail head I was exhausted and was starting to doubt whether I was going to be able to reach my camp site - an unnamed lake at 11,700 ft, just 3/4 mile on the South-West side of Trail Rider Pass. I had exactly 2,000 more vertical feet up and it was already 2 pm and the sun was relentlessly beating down on me. By my estimate, Geneva lake was 2 miles up and the other lake was additional 1.5 miles. The climb to Geneva Lake was steep and very exposed with little shade, which kept draining my energy. The view of Geneva Falls, though, kept pumping new juice in my veins. (The falls don't have an official name, so I named them Geneva Falls, since the river originated at Geneva Lake).
Right before I reached Geneva Lake, I stumbled upon a small pond and this beautiful reflection:
The trail circles around the lake and continues East towards the pass. There were some really nice camping spots and I would have gladly camped there if the weather wasn't cooperating.
After another harrowing 1 hour I arrived at my little lake. I was exhausted and just plopped myself on the grass and enjoyed the sweeping views for 1/2 hour.
The red rocks surrounding Fravert Basin in the distance made for great contrast with the blue skies and the green vegetation.