From late June through early August, Colorado's high country is ablaze in Mother Nature's most vibrant colors and most delicate designs: wildflowers. The Elk Mountains, which span Pitkin County (Aspen) and Gunnison County (Crested Butte) are renowned for being having some of the world's lushest, most diverse high-alpine meadows—in fact, Crested Butte is called the "Wildflower Capital of Colorado." Consistent afternoon rainfall over the Elks during the summer creates an eye-popping blanket of color across the mountainside, set against the backdrop of 14,000-plus-foot-peaks and alpine lakes. The whole scene is, simply, stunning.
This annual exhibit is best experienced along the trails, during one of the most epic hikes Colorado offers: an 11-mile trek from Aspen to Crested Butte over West Maroon Pass (or, vice-versa, starting in Crested Butte and ending in Aspen). The most popular time to make the hike is right around the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, which is July 13-19 this year.
But hikers begin to hit the trail as soon as the high-alpine wildflowers start to bloom, which is usually around mid-June. An above-average winter and spring snowfalls can hold blooming season at bay, but a wet, cold spring typically means even more spectacular summer blossoms. Whatever the weather conditions, however, it's a must-do.
To help you prepare for this hike, here's a mini-guide to hiking from Aspen to Crested Butte (and vice-versa), which, however you decide to tackle it, is arguably the best wildflower hike in Colorado.
Insider Tips: Aspen to Crested Butte Route
Hikers should expect a strenuous, challenging trek. The Aspen to Crested Butte route over Gothic features 3,265 feet in elevation gain, and the the trail maxes out at 12,490 feet. Thus, being acclimated to Colorado's high terrain will help improve completion time, but expect to spend at least 6 to 10 hours of the day on the trail.
If you pack light and are a strong hiker, it's possible to reach Crested Butte, camp overnight, and do the return hike to Aspen the next day. If you're traveling with a larger or less-fit group, the trek is best experienced taking it slow and camping for several days along the way.
Another option is to do the hike with assistance from a shuttle service like Dolly's Mountain Shuttle. For $15 per person/dog, the service will pick you up in Gothic and take you into Crested Butte, and pick you up and take you back to the trailhead again in the morning.
The trail is well used with good signage, so pay attention at junctions and you shouldn't have a problem. One important junction is situated near Copper Lake. Be sure to continue straight to Gothic at the three-way sign.
As you're descending the drainage on the Jeep trail, look for a sign on the left for Judd Falls. Four miles later, you'll come to the Wilderness Boundary sign near Judd Falls. The trail will ascend a bit before dropping into a trailhead parking lot. Walk down the main road from here to Gothic and hop in your shuttle or hitch a ride to downtown Crested Butte or your preferred camping spot.
Insider Tips: Crested Butte to Aspen Route
This route is slightly less strenuous than the reverse, with 2,357 feet of elevation gain, but you should still expect a rigorous workout. As with the Aspen start, there will be sections of rocky, steep gradients and some crossings of Maroon Creek.
If you hired Dolly's Mountain Shuttle, they will take you straight to the trailhead, so no route finding is necessary. The well-used, well-signed trail up East Fork to West Maroon Pass, though strenuous, is pretty straightforward. If you're breaking up the trek, make camp in the trees on the Aspen side of West Maroon Pass—here you'll enjoy unfettered views of Crater Lake and the red-hued, 14,000-plus-foot Maroon Bells. They're the most photographed peaks in the country, according to the Aspen Chamber of Commerce, so be sure to snap some pics of your own.
What to Look Out For
While the wildflowers steal the show, the backdrop of alpine peaks and lakes, including Maroon Lake, Crater Lake, and Copper Lake, as well as the Maroon Bells, add to the dramatic landscape. Maroon Peak sits at 14,163 feet, while North Maroon Peak is situated at 14,019 feet.
Below, a couple of my favorite wildflowers you're likely to see during your hike.
The National Forest Foundation promotes the enhancement and public enjoyment of the 193-million-acre National Forest System. By directly engaging Americans and leveraging private and public funding, the NFF improves forest health and Americans’ outdoor experiences. The NFF’s programs inform millions of Americans about the importance of these treasured landscapes. Each year, the NFF restores fish and wildlife habitat, plants trees in areas affected by fires, insects and disease, improves recreational opportunities, and enables communities to steward their National Forests and Grasslands. Learn more at www.nationalforests.org .