August 03, 2021
Texans flock to Colorado to escape summer’s heat, and we’ve made our share of road trips up through Boulder, Estes Park, Breckenridge, and Durango. But somehow we’d never been to Aspen. We remedied that oversight in mid-July, when the alpine meadows were quilted by colorful wildflowers. A highlight of our trip was a hike at Maroon Bells, two vaguely bell-shaped peaks whose wine-red color evokes the purple mountain majesties in “America the Beautiful.”
We were expecting it to be beautiful as we passed through aspens along the trail.
But as we entered the glacier-carved valley, I wasn’t prepared for a mass of color-echoing lavender asters lapping at the mountains’ feet.
Other wildflowers like owl’s claws, aka orange sneezeweed (Hymenoxys hoopesii), spangled the aster meadow with bright color.
The vista was beautiful up close…
…and at a distance. Tearing my eyes from the wildflower meadow I admired the Bells — two fourteeners (14,000-foot peaks) with snow still frosting their flanks — and their mirror, Maroon Lake.
There’s no bad view in this valley.
Maroon Bells geology
The Bells are made of compressed mudstone called hematite, from sediments that sloughed off an ancestral mountain range around 300 million years ago. Those ancestral mountains eventually eroded away, and the mudstone was compressed over millions of years. When the land rose again, 70 million years ago, to form the Rocky Mountains, the mudstone was uplifted, creating the Bells that we see today. It’s mind-boggling to think of mountain ranges rising and falling like waves on the ocean. If mountains make you feel your smallness in the world, just chew on that.
This scruffy fellow looked a little put out by a “closed” sign along the trail.
But bees were happy amid the wildflowers.
Scenic Loop trail
We set off on the Scenic Loop, an easy 3-mile roundtrip trail around the lake and up the valley. We had it nearly to ourselves, passing only a handful of other people during our slow, picture-taking tramp around.
Aspens frame one of the Bells along the trail.
This one with a twisting trunk caught my eye.
At every turn we stopped to gaze at the pyramidal Bells. I was glad we’d arrived early, around 8:20 am, as the morning light lit up the mountains and enhanced their maroon hue.
Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) was in full bloom along a boulder-strewn river.
We spotted white geranium (Geranium richardsonii) too.
And more asters.
Delicate, dusky monkshood (Aconitum columbianum)
And starry umbels of cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum)
I believe this one is tall fringed bluebells, aka languid lady (Mertensia ciliata).
Upper pond on the Scenic Loop trail
Following the creek upward we came to a glassy pond and looked cautiously for moose. Before boarding the shuttle for Maroon Bells, we’d been warned about moose, which are frequently spotted in the valley and can be testy and quick to charge if startled.
We’d have liked to see one from a safe distance, but we contented ourselves with incredible views.
Fireweed and aspens
Fireweed echoing the reddish color of a boulder
As we circled the pond, the wildflowers grew thick, with pinks, yellows, and whites making a shaggy carpet between the arms of the mountains.
Look! I kept saying. Look at it. With wildflowers all around and lavender peaks rising above a fringe of green trees, the view in every direction was gorgeous.
What a beautiful place.
Don’t the wine-red mountains in the hazy distance look like something in an American Romanticism painting?
Wildflowers and sparkling grasses mingled here.
This towering, white-flowered bloom spike is green gentian, or monument plant (Frasera speciosa).
More owl’s claws
As clouds began to gather, ushering in afternoon monsoon rain, we headed back. Passing Maroon Lake I smiled to see this fisherman, who’d put aside his rod to photograph the gorgeous wildflowers behind him. How could fish compete with that?
If you’re inspired to see the Bells during wildflower season, keep in mind that getting there isn’t exactly a walk in the park. From mid-May through October you must make a reservation whether you want to drive in or take the shuttle — and with all the restrictions on driving in, it’s simpler to take the shuttle. Even so, you should reserve well in advance to get the day and time you want. Is it worth all the planning? Absolutely! Amid the wildflowers of mid-July, this is one of the most beautiful places we’ve hiked in Colorado. Late September, when the aspens turn gold, is said to be spectacular too.
Next up: Visiting the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail.
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