Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Sooner or later if you live in Colorado, you have to go see the Aspens. It is both a magical experience and in a way a right of passage to becoming a true Colorado local. For the nearly three years we have called Colorado our home, we have tried and tried again to catch the glowing leaves in all their glory. But the thing about chasing the Aspens is, they are fast, sporadic, and uneven most years. A dry summer means an early fall, as sudden frost will knock the leaves down before you have the chance to see them in the autumn sun. And while theses beautiful trees are common across the Rockies, they can be hard to find in dense thick groves.
This year we decided it was time, we were going to see the aspens, and we were going to make it count! So we took off towards well... Aspen. What better place to see them than the place named after them.
We packed up the car, camera gear, snacks and new cold weather sleeping bags and headed for the scenic route. We were greeted with a stunning blue bird day for our drive to Aspen, so Independence Pass was a no brainer. The scenic road takes you over mountains and along lakes on a slow twisting road, right through Leadville, the United States highest town coming in at a dizzying 10,430 feet in elevation nearly double that elevation of Denver, and finally across an incredible mountain pass dropping you into the back side of Aspen.
Like every camping trip we take, we opted for dispersed camping. We wanted to find something close to town, that would still offer of the seclusion and views we were all hoping for. We found that and more in Grizzly Reservoir! We turned in at Lincoln Creek Dispersed Campground only to find a closed camp, we new this would be a possibility because of how late in the year it was but were hoping for an easy option on our quick weekend getaway. Upon looking at the map we decided to continue onward, I knew there were more camping spots ahead it was just a matter of finding them.
The road was long and slow, but the views were something else, we passed through numerous avalanche sites, waterfalls, aspen groves and open mountain views. We reached our campsite for the night just as the sun started to sink and the stars took over. It was a sight to see but we had no idea just how stunning camp would be in the morning.
We were car camping on this trip meaning setup was pretty quick and effortless, a little bit of shuffling and bed was made and the fun could begin. Normally on a night with sub freezing temperatures, we would stay home. Despite upgrading our gear we aren't the biggest fans of sleeping in the freezing cold. But this was the last chace to the see the aspens for the year, everywhere else had faded away.
Scott and I spent the evening standing along the shore line shooting the stars. As we creeped closer and closer to midnight you could see and feel the ice setting in underfoot. This is where the trouble for me began. If you know anything about me, its that I am always cold. I can comfortably sit in 95 degree heat without much fuss; and while I like to sleep cold, I don't like to sleep freezing cold! My eagerness to capture the stars hanging over a freezing lake, meant I stayed out in the cold far to long. Even bundled in layers specially designed to keep you warm in the cold, my feet were going numb and I was quickly chilled to the core.
It wasn't until climbing back into the truck did I realize that it was going to be a very cold long night. I curled up tucked in Lyra and hoped my new 20 degree bag would keep me warm. The problem with sleeping bags is you have to be warm to stay warm. Even fully clothed, and piled under blankets, hot hands pressed against my stomach I spent the entire night shivering and fighting for sleep.
We woke the next morning to shoot the sunrise and alpen glow over the frosted lake. It was magical until it wasn't. At first it was increible, you could heat the ice cracking as the air started to warm, a sharp pinging noise would squeak out between the cracks in the ice, ice tubes along the shore started to vanish leaving behind up heaved dirt and stone.
I watched as the sun started to rise, casting a beautiful warm light on the mountain, contrasting the cool blues and greens of the lake and mountains around me. It wasn't long until the cold had consumed me once more. The view was just to perfect, the light was just right and despite everything in me saying go back to the warmish car I stayed. Until this point I knew I was cold, but I didn't at any point think I had hypothermia, after all I am always cold - heck I am cold sitting here right now writing this - that was until the world started to spin, next thing I knew I was laying on my side on the ground in the ice, holding onto the earth for dear life. Safe to say after that excitement I hurriedly packed up my gear and headed back to the car to sleep.
Gratefully as the sun rose so did the temps, and the bitterly cold night turning to a pleasantly warm day. We continued into Aspen that morning stopping along the way to explore quite easily the most incredible aspen grove we have ever seen. The leaves glowed in the warm sun, and the path twisted away from the road until you were surrounded in a sea of gold. After exploring downtown, grabbing good from a local store and scoping out camp for the night with the help of a local ranger, we headed onwards to the thing that brought us all the way across the rockies.
Maroon Bells! and boy she did not disappoint. While we had missed peak color and the water level at the lake was low, the view was something truly breathtaking. Warm golds and greens reflected in the stall water as the light danced and changed passing through the rocky peaks. We watched as the sun sank away talking about how incredible it would be to see the milky way hang over the mountains, next time, maybe when its not so cold.
We headed on to a new camp for the night, on recommendation from a ranger we nabbed a spot in a campground getting ready to close for the season. It wasn't the first time we had camped in a "closed" location. Depending on the place you can often find free camping at traditional campground in the off season; less the amenities like a campground host and access to pit toilets. The camp had closed the day before, but we were told, as long as the gate is open we were welcome to camp. Safe to say we were not so kindly told to leave in the morning, when I mentioned what the ranger had said the campground host was annoyed and pretty convinced I was lying, but ultimately let it go.
We headed back to Maroon Bells to hike that morning. The hike was s