East Maroon Portal Trail, Another Side of Aspen’s Maroon Bells. @KurtTravels2 @VisitColorado #ColoradoLive
26 Jul 2019
While growing up in Colorado, I had it made. My family covered just about all of the high country hot spots. Of all the trails hiked during my years in Colorado, the East Maroon Portal is one of my favorites.
East Maroon Portal
I’ve hiked the trail in early summer and as late as the first week of October enjoying every single step. In summer, access by car is limited to campers with permits, bicycles, and the Maroon Bells shuttle bus. I like visiting when passenger cars can drive the road unfettered by regulations as the crowds of summer have passed.
After parking in the East Maroon Portal trailhead lot, I can’t wait to cross the bridge over Maroon Creek to look for trout in the crystal clear water. Once across the bridge, I kick it into high gear to get to the tall Aspen groves along the trail. Although the trail goes to Maroon Bells Lake, I’ve never taken it all 3.5 miles. I usually prefer to hike a mile or two and listen to the Aspen’s fluttering leaves produce a sound, unlike any other tree.
The crisp leaves play a percussion symphony as old as the hills they grow on. A mere breeze strong enough to toss a resting butterfly will get the Aspen leaves making music that touches my soul. In the fall, the leaves might shower lucky hikers who dare go off-trail into the ancient groves. To gaze upward into a cobalt-blue sky when a gust of wind unleashes hundreds of golden leaves is as unforgettable as a first kiss.
There’s a fork in the trail where a decision is made. Take the right fork to stay alongside the water, or the left fork heading towards East Maroon Pass. Once the aspen groves have been explored, hiking along Maroon Creek is one of my favorite things to do on the trail. Some years beavers are seen as they mend their dams, or gather food for winter. Dippers (aka ouzel) can be seen diving into the swift water in search of hellgrammites and other water bugs they feed on. I’ve seen dippers brave rushing white water in search of a meal. They get their name due to the way they perform a little dipping dance on rocks before and after plunging into the water.
The trail is often busy in summer, but in May and June, I’ve had it to myself almost every time. Sometimes my wife and I bring our German Shepherd along as the rules allow leashed dogs. Without a dog, the chances of seeing wildlife increases significantly. I’ve seen mule deer, marmot, chipmunks (golden-mantled ground squirrels), and blue grouse in the area.
Hiking up above treeline can produce rare sightings of ptarmigan, the master of camouflage. These well-concealed birds are usually heard clucking before you see them. On some occasions, I’ve had ptarmigan explode in flight at my feet. They are so invisible in their summer plumage, they scare the daylights out of me when I almost step on them. The pika is also seen up high in the treeless areas. These little mouse-like critters are almost always heard before seen. Their high-pitched chirps echo off the mountainsides as they sound the alarm when danger is near. If you have binoculars or a good telephoto lens you might even see a pika instead of just hear them.
A Great Place To Picnic
This trip is not just for hiking. I find the best itinerary is to start out hiking, then eat at the trailhead’s picnic table with the sound of the babbling creek nearby. A meal of sandwiches, chips, and a glass of wine by the water is as good as it gets.
An Enjoyable Trip to the Maroon Bells
A visit Maroon Bells Lake while in the area is a must. Usually, I go to the lake first and then head downhill to the East Maroon Portal Trail to get away from the crowds. If you make it this far, you owe it to yourself to experience both places.
The East Portal Trail is suitable for children and can be a short hike or long day hike. Be aware that weather changes rapidly at this elevation (8,755 ft/2,668 m) so bring a weatherproof outer layer to be safe. The sun is intense at this altitude and can lead to sunburns quicker than at lower elevations. A hat, sunscreen, and water should be part of your equipment list.