Around Capitol and Snowmass

August 2020  |  Elk Mountains, Colorado

At the beginning of August we ventured into the beautiful Elk Mountains near Aspen, Colorado, for a 5-day backpack trek in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness circumnavigating Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain. It's been almost a decade since I last backpacked the famous Four Pass Loop around the Maroon Bells; that trek was already famous back then, and since then I've heard it has gotten even more ridiculously popular. So for this trip I was excited to map out my own "different" four pass loop route through an alternative part of the range, complete with several off-trail days.

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, columbines, wildflowers, columbine, lupine, photo

A columbine amongst lupine.

A strenuous first day of bushwhacking trying to follow a faint and intermittent unmarked trail brought us to a little hidden lake where we spent our first evening in solitude. We were thrilled to find a perfectly flat rock "island" along the lake shore where we sat with our camp chairs, cooked dinner, and enjoyed the quiet evening as the sun set and the moon rose.

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, moonlight, photo

Moonrise light at a remote lake in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, photo

Sunrise light reflected in a lake in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Capitol Lake, Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, hiking, photo

Hiking down towards Capitol Lake.

On the second day as we hiked past Capitol Peak and Capitol Lake, we were practically ecstatic with the glorious views of colorful peaks, deep blue lake, and vibrant green wildflower-filled meadows. These mountains have such a variety of colors I think they should have been named the "Rainbow Mountains"! Each mountain around here has a different hue of grey, orange, and red. Pure alpine eye candy!

Capitol Peak, Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, wildflowers, photo

A field of paintbrush wildflowers below Capitol Peak (14,130 ft.).

While it was tempting to stop for the night in the glorious Capitol Creek basin, the area is overrun with 14er campers, plus we still had mileage to burn for the day to keep on track, so we continued on. Once we left Capitol Lake behind, we enjoyed complete solitude for the next two days!

Capitol Peak, Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, wildflowers, photo

Looking up at the rugged west face of Capitol Peak.

For the geology nerds out there, most of the Elk Mountains are composed of sedimentary rocks (sandstone, shale, and limestone) deposited in shallow ancient seas that once covered most of Colorado during the Paleozoic Era around 300 million years ago, and also during the Cretaceous Era about 100 million years ago. Around 70 million years ago this sedimentary rock was thrust upwards during the Laramide orogeny, forming the Elk Range. These uplifted sedimentary rock layers form the picturesque striations and red color visible in the famous Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, and Castle Peak. Around 30 million years ago large volumes of granite magma were injected through the sedimentary rock, visible today in the white/gray colored peaks of Snowmass Mountain, Capitol Peak, and Mount Sopris. All of this was later uplifted again in the last 5 million years like other Colorado ranges.

So while the more famous Four Pass Loop circumnavigates the red colored ancient seabed sedimentary rock of the Maroon Bells, on this trip we hiked amongst the mostly gray colored granite mountains near Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain.

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, photo

Dark clouds over rugged unnamed peaks deep in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Avalanche Lake, Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, photo

Sunset reflection in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Capitol Peak, Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, photo

Capitol Peak (14,130 ft.) towers over its surroundings in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Our third day was yet another day of ecstatic hiking with miles of trail above treeline traversing gorgeous tundra meadows with expansive views the entire way. After leaving the trail and crossing over an unmarked pass, we descended into another glorious wildflower-filled basin where we set up camp at treeline just in time before dark clouds started rumbling with thunder.

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, hiking, photo

Hiking over a talus-filled pass in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Geneva Lake, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, photo

Overlooking an emerald lake and vibrant green meadows in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

What I love most about backpacking is the solitude of wild pristine places where we can lounge around in peace and quiet, "zenning out" while soaking in the beauty and purity of nature. As an added bonus, I also of course enjoy discovering new and unique scenes and perspectives to photograph, hopefully with interesting light and weather conditions. This part of the trek offered all of this in spades!

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, Snowmass Mountain, Hagerman Peak, photo

Snowmass Mountain (14,092 ft.) and Hagerman Peak bathed in sunset light.

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, Snowmass Lake, Snowmass Mountain, photo

Afternoon sunlight filters through haze from a wildfire near Grand Junction, reflected in Snowmass Lake.

On the fourth day we crossed over the fourth pass of our trek - a pass shared by the famous Four Pass Loop - and for the first time in several days we started seeing other hikers again. Lots of other hikers. After the previous three nights of quiet solitude, it was jarring to camp at Snowmass Lake which nowadays is essentially a trampled tent city with dozens of groups camped in every single possible flat site around the lake (even right next to signs saying "closed for restoration"). Not only is Snowmass Lake extremely attractive in its own right, but it also serves as an obligatory stop on the ultra-popular Four Pass Loop as well as a basecamp for 14er hikers - a triple-whammy recipe for crushing overuse in Colorado. Indeed, camping here is no wilderness experience; it's a full-on backcountry campground (minus any much-needed pit toilets).

Though I was disheartened by the overcrowded camping situation around the lake, we were able to find a secluded spot about a five minute walk along the lakeshore to hang out in peace for the afternoon. Claudia and I celebrated our 8-year anniversary with cappuccinos spiked with Baileys, yum!

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, Snowmass Lake, Snowmass Mountain, moonlight, photo

Lunar alpenglow light on Snowmass Peak, reflected in Snowmass Lake. In person the scene was nearly completely dark, but the camera's high sensitivity sensor and long exposure brought out all the colors of the moonrise light not visible to the naked eye.

Colorado, Elk Mountains, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, Snowmass Lake, photo

The colors of sunrise light on Snowmass Peak on a blue sky morning, as reflected in ripples on Snowmass Lake.

Despite my grumpiness about the crowds at Snowmass Lake on the last night, all in all this was an absolutely fantastic trek and certainly the highlight backpacking trek of our summer so far. You all know I love the San Juans (my home mountains) but I'm tempted to give the Elk Mountains the crown for most beautiful mountains in Colorado!

You can see all my photos from the Elk Mountains here.

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