Maroon Bells are said to be The Most Photographed Mountains in all of North America. So it will come as no surprise that we decided to include Aspen in our American road trip itinerary last summer. We visited Maroon Bells with kids and we hiked the nearby Crater Lake Trail as well, and in this post I am sharing our experience. I hope it will inspire you to visit this incredible area with your family!
At the bottom of the post you can find more practical information to help you get the most out of your trip to these iconic Colorado mountains. But first let me share our experience visiting Maroon Bells and hiking the Crater Lake trail with kids. Our boys were 5, 5, and 7 years old when we visited.
Maroon Bells with kids
We left Aspen at around 7AM and drove to Maroon Bells. The car park was quickly filing up as we arrived, and we sure were glad that we came early. We knew that you are not allowed to drive all the way down to Maroon Bells during the day, so we timed to be there before 8AM. If you don’t make it on time, you have to leave your car half way and take a shuttle. For us, this was the main reason to visit Maroon Bells early in the morning.
But there are many more reasons to arrive at Maroon Bells as early in the morning as possible! Reflections on the lake are simply mesmerising in the morning! By the time we were back from our hike a couple of hours later, reflections were completely gone and the lake looked like any other mountain lake. The chances of seeing wildlife are also much bigger in the morning or early evening when there are not too many people around. We saw a moose from afar, but it was already late by the time we started our hike, so you might get more lucky if you arrive earlier.
We started our day at Maroon Bells with a picnic breakfast by the lake. It has to be the best breakfast location ever! One more reason to take an early start when visiting Maroon Bells.
You don’t have to walk far in order to see the Maroon Lake and the beautiful reflections. It’s literally just a few steps from the car park, so anyone can easily visit Maroon Bells, also families with very young children.
But if you have some time to spare, don’t stop here! There are several beautiful hikes you can make in the Maroon Bells area, also with kids.
Maroon Bells scenic trail
The shortest and easiest hike is the Maroon Bells Lake Scenic Trail. It’s an easy 1,5 miles (2,4 km) round trip that anyone in reasonable physical condition should be able to do. It’s a dirt path, so not accessible for strollers or wheelchairs though, but I wouldn’t hesitate taking a 2-3 year old child hiking on this trail.
Half way on the scenic loop trail the road splits and you can either stay left and continue your hike, or go right in the direction of Crater Lake (which is what we did). You can do the rest of the loop after you come back from Crater Lake.
Hiking Maroon Bells – Crater Lake Trail with kids
Crater Lake Trail is a moderate 3,8 miles (6,1km) hike that brings you to the base of the Bells.
The first part of the trail, the scenic loop, took us forever. I kept on taking too many pictures and the kids were in exploring mode and didn’t feel like hiking yet. But the moment the path started to climb, they switched to higher gear and we had difficulties keeping up with them. That’s how our children always are – the more challenging the hike, the more fun (here you can read about our hike to Delicate Arch in Arches NP at 100°F in summer).
The boys hiked so well that we kept on passing other people all the time. At one moment they even stopped to encourage a teenage boy who was about to give up the rather steep ascent.
The first part of the Crater Lake hike goes through a beautiful aspen forest. As you climb higher, you will leave the forest and cross a steeper rocky area with no shade. At the end you will see the Bells again, and once you reach Crater Lake, you will be rewarded with the stunning scenery. Well worth the hike that took us 1,5 hrs.
I will not tell you that Crater Lake trail is easy, because it’s not. But then again, if our 5-year olds could do it, then you can probably do it too. Make sure you wear good walking shoes, carry enough water and sun protection, and make regular stops along the way.
Crater Lake Trail is a popular hike, but don’t get discouraged. The crowds spread out and remember that only a fraction of people visiting Maroon Bells go hiking beyond the scenic loop trail. In a way we were happy that there were many other people on the trail, as there were signs warning you that this was bear country and that you should carry bear spray when hiking to Crater Lake and beyond. But with so many people walking and making noise, I think your chances running into a bear are pretty slim here. Unless you hike early in the morning or late in the evening. See the packing suggestions below for more info.
We were planning to have picnic lunch by the lake, but it was still much too early. The Crater Lake hike took us much less time than we had anticipated, even with three young children. So we spent some time by the lake, let the kids play while I took a hundred pictures of the beautiful reflections…
We then decided to walk back to Maroon Bells and have lunch at the same spot where we had breakfast.
The walk back down to Maroon Bells was much more relaxed and it took us about an hour. Just watch the knees as it’s rather steep at some places.
The moment we reached Maroon Bells the weather changed and it started to rain. By the time we were back at our car it was pouring. Colorado mountains are known for heavy afternoon storms, so this is just another good reason to visit Maroon Bells early in the morning. Farewell lunch with a view… We ran back to the car and headed back to Aspen. By noon we were back in town, nicely in time for lunch. We carried all that food for nothing. Oh well, at least we used those rain jackets for once.
I would highly recommend visiting Maroon Bells and hiking the Crater Lake trail, with or without kids. It’s such an iconic place in Colorado, well worth a trip. If I had to pick my favourite places from our road American road trip with Rocky Mountains, Arches, and Yellowstone as the main highlights, Maroon Bells would definitely be in my top 3.
Practical information for visiting Maroon Bells and hiking Crater Lake trail with kids:
- Where to stay. Aspen is the best base for visiting Maroon Bells. Aspen is a popular mountain resort, so make sure to book in advance! Snowmass Village is also a good option, just a little bit further than Aspen.
- When to go. The road to Maroon Bells is closed in winter. Weather permitting, it opens around mid May and closes mid November. Go early in the morning for direct access, less crowds, better weather, and iconic views. Leave Aspen no later than at 7AM.
- Accessibility. The road to Maroon Bells is closed to most traffic from 8AM till 5PM during summer months. If you arrive between 5PM and 8AM you will be allowed to drive, but will need to pay a 10USD recreation use fee. TIP: if you are visiting several National Parks, get an annual pass. If you come during the day, you will need to take a shuttle bus. You can find more practical information here.
- Families with young children who require a restraining child-seat are allowed to drive all the way to Maroon Bells at all times. As we often say, traveling with kids has benefits too. I would not take children younger than 4-5 on the Crater Lake Trail, unless you are prepared to carry them for a while. Maroon Lake scenic loop is a better alternative for families with young kids.
- Time/ distance. Crater Lake trail is 3,8 miles (approx. 6km) round trip. We hiked with three young kids and it took us 2,5 hours round trip.
- What to pack. If you are planning to go hiking to Crater Lake, wear good hiking shoes and carry a rain jacket. It’s wise to wear a sun hat and use sunscreen lotion, as some areas have no or little shade. In principle, it’s obligatory to carry bear spray, although we didn’t know this in advance and therefore didn’t have one. I honestly don’t think that most of the day hikers had it with them neither. But if you are reading this, then you are warned, so take one. It’s not like it costs a fortune, especially if you buy it in advance. If you go without kids, a bear bell might be useful too. Hiking with kids, we don’t usually have to worry about being too silent and surprising bears by coincidence. 😉
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