I have ridden most of the long-haul Amtrak trains except the Zephyr, so I started looking there. My departure point (also the terminus) is Emeryville, CA. First, could I get there by the 9:10 am departure time using public transit? It would take two hours and forty minutes, but it could be done.
I was thinking it would be nice to hike from Aspen to Crested Butte which I found out is the very popular Maroon Bells hike. The train gets close, the travel time is twenty-six hours (best case) as freight trains have priority over Amtrak service. When traveling coach, one day on the train is all I would recommend; at that point you will be ready to get out.
So Glenwood Springs is nice, but not quite there, now what? Fortunately there is an excellent public transit system in that entire area, so getting to Aspen isn't a problem. The first thing you need is a RFTA Stored Value Card. If you have arrived on time (12:04 pm) and it is a weekday, you can pick up a pass at City Hall and hop on the BRT across the street (8th and Colorado). If not the RGS bus is free, catch it at Grand and 9th Street, and it will take you to the 27th Street station. There you can get the RFTA pass and board the BRT, which runs frequently, and will get you to Aspen in about an hour.
Once at Aspen's Rubey Park catch the free CM bus to the Highlands. That is where my hike began, however there is a Maroon Bells shuttle option, if you are so inclined ($16, reservations recommended), that will take you to the West Maroon Trail Head #1970. I found the shuttle is not necessary for the following reasons:
- The shuttle does not stop at any of the locations below and you would have to hike back almost as far
- The road hike is pleasant, a nice acclamation to the altitude and a gentle warm-up after sitting for over a day
- I was headed to the East Maroon Trail #1983 which you can also use to connect with West Maroon Trail #1982 (forks off about a mile in).
- If you arrive late you may want to overnight at the Silver Bell campground and start the hike the following day. On the way out I was late but it was a beautiful evening with an almost full moon, so I decided to do some night hiking.
From the Highlands it is about a four mile hike to Silver Bell and another mile and a half to the #1983 trailhead. If you are camping you need to fill out a permit at the trailhead and hike out at least three miles. At 4.9 miles, on the right, near a downed tree was the only reasonable site I saw for dispersed camping before the first significant water crossing. I continued on and camped at the official Copper Lake campground.
The Copper Creek trail connects with Judd Falls trail (do not use the private trail to the Gothic Research Center) and you will exit onto FS-317. From there you can head south to Mt Crested Butte (about four miles) or north (about 7 miles) to the West Maroon Trail Head if you want to continue the loop.
I headed to Mt Crested Butte and caught the Condo Mountain Express Bus to Mountaineer Square and then the Town Bus to Crested Butte so I could grab some food before heading down to Gunnison. You could also go directly from Mountaineer Square to Gunnison, if you wanted. In Gunnison I stayed at the Wanderlust Hostel, enjoyed a shower and did some laundry before heading out the next day to do West Maroon Pass. There is a shuttle (Dolly's $55 per person) to get to the trailhead, from Crested Butte, if you don't want to do the eleven miles on FS-317 but it is a beautiful hike and I highly recommend it.
There was a pretty big storm moving in so I dispersed camped before summiting the western pass. The next day I hiked back to Silver Bell (which was full) but a very nice couple in an RV let me use the tent pad on their site. I reversed the transit directions above and got back on the train in Glenwood Springs. Be aware there are two BRT buses, one that terminates at 27th Street (this one you have to transfer to the RGS and hop off at 9th Street) and the other one that goes on to the Glenwood Park and ride (this one you can get off on 8th Street). On the way home I booked my only hotel room of the trip so I could dry out my gear and take a shower before getting back on the train.
On the trip out I just did a quick out and back hike on the eastern pass, there is a nice public restroom (Colorado & 7th Street) where I cleaned up and washed out some cloths. I would highly recommend the eastern pass if you want something that is a bit less congested. I came back over the western pass on the weekend and it was a stream of humanity.
- There are other hikes in the area: The Four Pass Loop, there are a lot of trails that fork off, so you can mix it up a bit
- Short and fast: One way trip from Glenwood Springs to Gunnison. In Gunnison you can connect with the Amtrak bus to Denver and continue on the Zephyr. This only works eastbound, heading west you will be bused all the way to Salt Lake City before rejoining the train. The biggest downside eastbound: Glenwood Spring to Denver is the most scenic part of the Zephyr route.
- Don't go to Crested Butte and just do the loop
- An out and back also keeps things simple
Good Places To Eat
- Best Pizza: Rocky Mountain Pizza, Glenwood Springs
- Best Burger (expensive): J-Bar, Aspen
- Daily Bread, Glenwood Springs
- Paradise Bakery & Cafe, Aspen
Maroon Bells is switching to a reservation system in the future due to the high number of visitors. They will also be instituting a 100% carry in/out policy, WAG bags will be required.