The sun beat down on my sweaty brow as we paused at the top of a steep set of switchbacks.
“I know this is a hard hike, but is it supposed to be, like, this hard?” I asked between huffs and puffs.
Kim, my guide from adventure tour operator Blazing Adventures — the picture of cool, calm and collected (seriously, how was she not sweating?) — smiled at me kindly.
“You’re doing such a great job!” she said. “Don’t forget you’re still adjusting to the altitude.”
We were trekking the 5.3-mile Cathedral Lake Trail that’s situated in the White River National Forest, one of the recreational areas near Aspen and Snowmass, Colo. The towns, both of which are located at an elevation of about 8,000 feet, are perhaps best known for their ample acreage of winter powder dusted across four mountains. But in summertime, the destinations offer just as much opportunity for outdoor play.
Indeed, visitors and locals alike trade snow-covered peaks for a sea of green in and around Snowmass and Aspen during the picturesque warmer months. However, those who come from a lower elevation — like me — may initially experience extreme shortness of breath from clambering up a set of stairs, not to mention ascending 2,073 feet to a halcyon lake set at the base of a cathedral-shaped mountain.
For hikers desirous of a workout in Colorado’s radiant wilderness, Aspen and Snowmass offer plenty of options. We’ve rounded up a few of the must-dos — but with so much beauty, no matter what you end up choosing, you really can’t go wrong.
American Lake Trail, White River National Forest
5.8 miles; Out-and-back trail; Hard
The reward for this trek, which features nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain, is a view of a turquoise lake surrounded by stately pines and jagged mountainsides. When the water is calm, you may be able to capture a perfectly mirrored image of the stately scene. Keep an eye out for deer grazing near the water, as well as wildflowers along the route.
Cathedral Lake Trail, White River National Forest
5.3 miles; Out-and-back trail; Hard
Huffing and puffing come standard with this hike, during which travelers will tackle more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The encouragement of my Blazing Adventures guide Kim propelled me forward through the last steep stretch of the trail, and our rest stop on the banks of the clear waters of Cathedral Lake was made even sweeter with a prepacked picnic lunch under a bright-blue sky.
Crater Lake Trail, White River National Forest
3.8 miles; Out-and-back trail; Moderate
This popular trail begins from the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, where the visage of the iconic Maroon Bells peaks — strikingly framed by a U-shaped valley — is reflected into Maroon Lake. Before we began the hike to Crater Lake, my Blazing Adventures guide Paul gave me plenty of time to take as many postcard-perfect shots as I wanted. Our trek wound through emerald-green valleys that were punctuated with bright pops of color from blooming wildflowers, then culminated at Crater Lake, which provides a closer look at the towering Bells.
What to Know About Maroon Bells Scenic Area
Maroon Bells Scenic Area is a recreation fee area in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, one of eight officially designated wilderness areas with White River National Forest. Only cash or checks are accepted at the Welcome Station.
Maroon Creek Road — the entrance to Maroon Lake and the Maroon Bells Scenic Area — is open mid-May through mid-November (subject to change due to weather conditions). From 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., the road is open to vehicles for a $10 fee; however, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., personal vehicles are not allowed up to Maroon Lake from June 9 to Oct. 8 due to limited parking. (Some exceptions apply.) A shuttle bus is available from Aspen Highlands.
I suggest booking an active excursion with Blazing Adventures, which is permitted to park at Maroon Lake. The operator has offices in downtown Aspen and at the Snowmass Village Mall.
Maroon Creek Trail, White River National Forest
6.9 miles; Out-and-back trail; Moderate
Hikers on this trail, which also begins at Maroon Lake, can meander along Maroon Creek and leisurely take in vistas of lush foliage and wildflowers. Blazing Adventures’ Paul recommends this hike for families, people with limited mobility and those who simply want to take their time. Even better: The trail is usually quiet and uncrowded even when Maroon Lake is humming with tourists.
Spiral Point via Rim Trail South, Snowmass Village
2.7 miles; Out-and-back trail; Easy
A favorite of Snowmass locals, this short hike is perfect for a quick trail run or for those with limited time looking for a shot of adrenaline. Multiple switchbacks bring visitors through a sea of wildflowers and up to a multitoned marble slab with a yin-yang symbol at its center. Here, trekkers can soak in a panorama of Snowmass village, Mount Daly and the surrounding peaks.
Note: While only 2.7 miles, the trail does include just over 600 feet of elevation gain, so bring a water bottle — and some willpower.
Aspen Chamber Resort Association