Just east of the famed Maroon Bells around Aspen is a 14er that you can hike without as much risk as the “deadly bells.” In fact, with a good vehicle you can drive to 12,800 feet. Most people start lower. It’s a mostly straight shot with some moderate scrambling to the summit, at 14,265 feet, where the rugged and jagged Elk Mountains sprawl before you in all their glory.
When I set out to climb this peak in the summer of 2007, I wasn’t prepared for just how bad this road is. I camped very low along the road, not wanting to risk the health of the Honda Civic I was still paying off. That would’ve meant a 13-mile day, much of it slogging up a boring forest road. Then I heard a vehicle and threw out my thumb. Two friendly Aspen locals gave me a lift to the upper parking lot at 12,800 feet, which made the hike to the top a veritable walk in the park. I never saw the two guys at the top, but that’s not why they were there. They were there to ski a snow field that had lingered well into September!
- Don’t risk driving more than a mile on Forest Road 102 in a passenger car. It turns nasty quick. Plan for a long walk up the road or throw out your thumb. You never know who will pick you up.
- Get an early start and follow the ridge to climb 14,060-foot Conundrum Peak while you’re up there. Take note: There is no good or even safe way to reach Conundrum Hot Springs from here, though it is tantalizingly close.
- The Elk Mountains, ancient compared to other Colorado ranges, are known for nasty and loose rock. Use caution.
Recommended season(s): Summer-early fall.
—R. Scott Rappold