Exploring Colorado’s Mountain Passes: 4 Epic Mile-High Hikes

Over the Labor Day weekend, my husband I traveled to Colorado to compete in the Grand Traverse. A point-to-point ultramarathon, the race runs up and over two mountain passes connecting Crested Butte to Aspen. While the race didn’t go in my favor, the week long trip was not a complete bust – exploring four different passes in the region for majestic views above tree line.

Pearl Pass

A rugged (very rugged) 4×4 road, Pearl Pass is an adventurous route between Aspen and Crested Butte. Requiring a high clearance vehicle and off-roading experience, the 23-mile one way route zig-zags through aspen forests, rocky alpine moraines, and craggy mountain peaks.

We took this route on our way to the race’s start line in Created Butte – lucky to have a friend with a well-equipped vehicle. The weather was a bit moody, making for a slippery trip in a few places, but as we reached the mountain divide between the two valleys, the skies opened up and provided a beautiful view to the west and and sleepy meadows.

Star Pass & Taylor Pass

Footpaths led us back across the mountains a few days later as part of the Grand Traverse Race. Gaining nearly 3,000 feet in the first 18-miles, we started at Creat Butte Mountain Resort and curved around the town’s prominent peak and up to Star Pass. It was a grueling pace to reach this first high-point in the time allowance – especially at such high elevation.

Continuing on, the trail then descended steeply before climbing again and rolling for 6.5 miles to the top of Taylor Pass. Thankful to have made it to the east side of the mountains, I missed the second time cut-off for the race here and had to take the 5.5-mile walk down to an awaiting shuttle to the finish. While it wasn’t how I wanted the race to go, the mountains and views of these two passes still made the journey worth it.

For those who like trail running, this 41-mile race is a fun challenge. Otherwise, it would also make a great 2-3 day backpacking adventure.

Maroon Bells – Maroon Lake & Crater Lake

A popular destination in the Aspen Valley, the Maroon Bells see nearly 300,000 visitors every season – however, few explore beyond the view point at the shore of Maroon Lake. Venture a little further into the Elk Mountains, and you’ll be rewarded with the shifting beauty of these colorful peaks.

While visiting friends in Aspen post-race, we took the shuttle out to the Maroon Bells from Highland Ski Resort to stretch our sore legs. Following the trail past Maroon Lake, we continued up to Crater Lake, a short 1.5-mile hike. The water was super low, as the lake is fed by snow melt from the flanking peaks, but the hike was nonetheless worth the excursion. We continued further along the trail toward the steep paths that lead to summits of these 14,000+ foot mountains to enjoy lunch in a grove of trees before turning back to catch the shuttle to our car.

Independence Pass – Lost Man Lake

On our final day in the area, we drove up and over Independence Pass as we left the Aspen Valley behind. As the road twisted and turned, we rolled down our windows to savor the cool breeze and soak in the beginning colors of fall.

Near the top of the Pass we parked to hike to Independence Lake and Lost Man Lake. From the upper trailhead, we started near timberline and ascended to above 12,000 feet to savor the views of these two snow-melt lakes. Azure blue and surrounded by rough, rocky peaks, it was a capstone on our time in Colorado. Pausing at the top of Lost Man Pass, we slowly sipped on local Colorado beers and traced the mountain ridge horizon – not quite ready to leave.


Published by Kelsey Ivey

An avid traveler and hiker, Kelsey is a freelance writer and professional explorer.

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