Aspen Backpacking Loop – Snowmass Lake – Willow Lake

Snowmass Lake – Willow Lake

Willow Lakes Basin Camp
Willow Lakes Basin Camp

With summer speeding by and our dog going stir crazy – it was time for an escape back to nature and another classic backpacking loop. We had a few days off so headed to Aspen on a 3 day ~23 mile loop. Chris’ mom, Tesa, and our new-to-Colorado friend, Dwight, accompanied us on this trip.

Day 1: Snowmass Lake

hiking towards snowmass lake

We have hiked to Snowmass Lake as part of the 4-pass loop several years ago. This time, we started from the trailhead near Snowmass Village. With unfavorable weather forecasted, we stayed in a hotel and hit the trail by 8am. Climbing steadily for 8 miles over a gentle grade, we reached the lake around lunch. With Dwight’s lungs still on flat land, we were able to set camp quickly prior to his arrival and the afternoon’s rain. The rain broke briefly for dinner (we were prepared regardless with a light-weight tarp as a cook shelter) and then returned as we settled in for the evening.

Snowmass Lake is one of the best places to watch sunrise in Colorado. With stormy weather, the clouds were nonetheless dramatic – but were unfortunately a near miss on an epic sunrise (contrary to popular belief, epic photographs don’t just make themselves).

Snowmass Lake Sunrise
Snowmass Lake Sunrise

Day 2: Willow Lakes Basin

Not a bad view from a quick lean-to

After photographing sunrise, we hit the trail around 9am. Hiking up Buckskin Pass from Snowmass Lake offers one of the most outstanding views of any in Colorado. As we approached the pass at ~12,500 feet, we were greeted with our first sleet storm of the day. Not stopping much longer then to put on our rain gear, we started our descent towards the cutoff trail to Willow Pass. With the skies looking quite threatening, we pitched a lean-to shelter during a hailstorm and ate lunch. After much deliberation, we decided to push on above tree line during the next storm break. We made it to the next basin before a more powerful storm moved in (nothing like thunder at 12,000 feet). We pitched another quick lean-to in a relatively ‘safe’ location from lightning. After the wintry mix subsided, we hiked up to Willow Pass with the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak looming large behind us.

Hiking up Willow Pass
Hiking up Willow Pass

Once down in Willow Lakes basin we set camp at tree line with gorgeous views of the red spires over the basin. The omnipresent bear scat (don’t they know to bury it?) offered evidence as to why bear proof storage is required in this wilderness. The weather for the afternoon stabilized, until we started cooking dinner – and our lightweight tarp saved the day yet again. That night brought more freezing rain and we awoke to a nearly frozen shut rainfly – winter is coming!

Day 3

The morning’s sunrise was spectacular with dramatic clouds dancing through the basin. This particular basin was a joy to photograph – with its countless tarns and rock-formations offering endless foregrounds to compose! And the best part? I had it all to myself!

Willow Lakes Basin Sunrise
Willow Lakes Basin Sunrise

After another hearty breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we took off for an un-named pass at 12,800 feet. We felt the way back to the trailhead should be called Bushwhacker Basin – there were willows everywhere with unsteady footing! We ate a late lunch in Aspen before making the quick 2.5 hour drive back home.

 

Departing Remarks

Hikers at Buckskin Pass
Hikers at Buckskin Pass
Dwight tackling Willow Pass
Dwight tackling Willow Pass

There’s no better way to introduce a flat-lander to Colorado Backpacking then an outstanding loop hike and 3 passes in 2 days. This scenic loop is a great quick trip – balancing the beautiful but crowded Snowmass Lake with the less crowded and equally gorgeous Willow Lakes Basin.

Tips:

  • Bear proof storage is now required in the Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness. Instead of lugging around super heavy and awkward bear cans, we purchased a set of Ursacks.
  • If camping at Snowmass Lake, it is best to get there early before the crowds of people arrive.
  • Check out trip information at ORIC

Pros:

  • relatively uncrowded backpacking in Willow Lakes Basin
  • classic Colorado scenery

Cons:

  • Snowmass Lake crowds. USFS, if you read this blog, can you discuss put a pit toilet at this and similar poopular backpacking destinations? If Argentina can do it, we can do it.

 

 

 

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