It makes sense dividing the Elk Range into three regions, the famous Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness(Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak/Snowmass Mountain, and the Conundrum/Taylor River area), the Raggeds Wilderness (Chair Mountain, Ragged Mountain and the Treasure Mountain massif) and the West Elks Wilderness(the Beckwith’s, the Owens Mountain massif, West Elk massif and the Anthracite Range.) Combined, all three regions provide the perfect introduction into Colorado's spectacular backcountry.
The high mountains of Colorado’s Elk Range are among the finest peaks in the Rockies. With Wilderness designation, these protected mountains are rugged, steep and aesthetically pleasing. Crystal clear streams, pristine alpine lakes and lush green vegetation are common sights.
The scenic beauty of the Elk Range is mostly due to its unique geology. There are two very distinct geological types of rock that are clearly evident in the Elk Mountains, the tertiary intrusives, and the stratified sedimentary. The whitish, gray rock of the tertiary intrusives is responsible for the sweeping, skinny ridges that connect point-to-point, evident in Snowmass Mountain, The Beckwith’s, Capitol Peak and the Chair Mountain massif. Second, the stratified purplish-red, sedimentary rock of the Permian age, evidenced in mountains like Cathedral Peak, Teocalli Mountain, Pyramid Peak, Maroon Bells and "Willow Peak."
Over the years, the Elk Range has have remained in respectably good shape, however some of the northern trails are beginning to show some over-use. Thanks to the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, we can visit large sections of mountainous terrain knowing not much has changed since early exploration.
Buckskin Benchmark Overview
The Elk Range has a slight reputation for difficult and dangerous climbing, mostly due to the loose, crumbling nature of the purple sedimentary rock of the Maroon Creek Valley and the teetering white blocks and fragmented rock pinnacles of the high 14ers surrounding the Pierre Lakes Basin. Most of the prominent high peaks in this range require solid route finding and climbing skills. If you choose to spend time hiking and climbing the Elks, expect a different experience every time out. The experiences here can be good or bad. It could be an experience that you won’t ever want to forget, or an experience that you will want to forget, but can’t. It’s all here in the Elks, now it’s up to you to discover the ruggedness and beauty that so many of us talk about.
Now… if you really want a cool hiking experience that ascends to 13,370-ft and provides knock-out views of some of Colorado’s most beautiful terrain and prestigious 14ers, just bring some good weather and meet me at the tourist laden Maroon Creek Trailhead. Don’t worry, you won’t find any Cottoneers on the summit of Buckskin Benchmark, it’s too far away. Afterwards, if you want a good laugh, tell somebody down at the lake that you just climbed Buckskin Benchmark and see what kind of looks and comments you get. You very well could hear something like, “I thought those were called the Maroon Bells!”
Three beautiful drainages encompass Buckskin Benchmark, the Snowmass Creek Drainage, Willow Creek Drainage and the Minnehaha Creek Drainage. All three extend away from the surrounding lower slopes of Buckskin Benchmark, which gives the hiker a commanding above-tree line view of miles of emerald green tundra and cobalt blue alpine lakes. Add in the perfect view of sweeping, skinny ridges that soar above the Pierre Lakes Basin and the purplish-red rock of the Sievers and Maroon Bells massifs and you get the idea. It’s sensory overload at its best.
Considering its proximity to Buckskin Pass, Buckskin Benchmark’s summit doesn’t see many visitors, maybe 20- 30 a year. When looking at the summit registry I was a little surprised of how few people hike the mountain, considering its easy access.
Maroon Lake Trailhead
From Aspen, locate a round-about a half mile north on Hwy 82 and drive west on Maroon Lake Road for 9.4 miles to the parking area. From mid- June through October 10th the Maroon Lake Road is closed from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. During these hours a shuttle can take you to the trailhead from Ruby Park in downtown Aspen. The shuttle ride is free. Call RFTA at 970-925-3445 or the White River National Forest at 970-925-3445 for schedules.
If you arrive before 8:30 am you can drive the Maroon Lake Road and park in the parking lot at Maroon Lake without having to pay the entrance fee.
The following was updated 6-30-2005 by Aaron Johnson
Several Colorado wilderness areas now require a free user permit to be in the wilderness, or shortly will require same. The wilderness areas are Holy Cross, Maroon Bells/Snowmass, Mount Evans, and Mount Massive. Permit tags are available at trailheads and are a two part tag. The white part goes in the box provided and the card portion is to be attached to the outside of your pack. There is currently no penalty if one does not have a permit. However, large fines could be levied within a few years for non-compliance. The preferred method now for dealing with violations is education of the users.
The reason for implementation of this required permit is the Forest Service has been unable to obtain accurate data on use patterns from the voluntary sign-in system. The estimated compliance range is currently 10-30%.
The hope is to obtain better data with this new method. While some may feel this is a precursor of some kind of quota system, the opposite is actually true. Accurate information on visitor use patterns will allow the forest service to attempt to evenly distribute impacts and encourage use of alternate trailheads for the same destinations. However, given the magnitude of the state's continuing population boom, folks should not be surprised if quotas in certain areas become a necessity.
Thanks to SP member mtnhiker13 for supplying this vital update via the Colorado Mountain Club's email service.
No fees are required if you travel to the TH before 8:30 am, although you may need to pay the $10 per car if entering between 6 am and 8 pm during the day. A parking pass is not required if you enter the park at off hours (see above). Also, in winter the road is gated 3 miles from CO 82 at the T-Lazy 7 Ranch.
This peak is also in the White River National Forest and as a result a permit system is now in effect. Climbers should register before climbing and carry permits during the climb. Registration forms have been moved to Crater Lake recently. For a more detailed discussion of the permit issue see the Red Tape Section on the Holy Cross page: More Red Tape
Maps: Maroon Bells, White River National Forest
Aspen Ranger District Office
USDA Forest Service
P.O. Box 948
Glenwood Springs CO 81602