Near Aspen, CO
The Maroon Bells are most likely the most photographed place in Colorado, and to many landscape photographers it is the ultimate spot; the holy grail - where you can get that “wall - hanger” of your dreams.
And not only is it a great spot to photograph, it is a great place to experience nature at its very best: standing on the banks of Maroon Lake on a brisk late September morning with a perfect mirror reflection of the snow covered Maroon Peaks glowing with the first light. All this with the perfectly carved valley and the golden Aspens lining the ridge is simply breathtaking. Few places in Colorado surpass the iconic scene.
Trail Difficulty - EASY
I would rate the difficulty of this trail as a 1 on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being most difficult). This shot is an easy 300yd. walk from the Maroon Bells parking lot.
Download KMZ Trail File
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GPS Coordinates & Elevation
11,251 Ft. Elevation
Google Maps Birds-Eye-View
Click link above to view location in Google Earth
The following directions are from Aspen, CO (one of the most beautiful towns in Colorado). The closest other towns are Basalt 27 miles (45 min) and Carbondale 38 mile (1 hour).
From Aspen, travel west on CO-82 for approx. ½ mile until you get to the traffic circle. At the traffic circle, take the 2nd exit onto Maroon Creek Rd. Travel on the paved 2-lane road for 9.5 miles until you get to the Maroon Bells parking lot. Once you get to the parking lot, walk south about 300 yds. toward the lake. Take a deep breath and enjoy one the wonders of the world!
Special note: For much of the spring, summer, and fall, the road to the Maroon Bells parking lot is closed to private vehicles after 9am. Visitors are required to take a shuttle from the Aspen area. If you arrive before 8am or if you are staying at one of the 3 campgrounds, you can drive your private vehicle.
If you are traveling to the Maroon Bells in the peak fall season (between mid Sept to the 1st week in October), you will be competing for parking spaces with 100-300 other visitors. This can cause frustration and rattled nerves. My suggestion is to arrive early and be patient.
During the fall, the road to the Maroon Bells parking lot is closed to private vehicles after 9am. Visitors are required to take a shuttle from the Aspen area. If you arrive before 8am or if you are staying at one of the 3 campgrounds, you can drive your private vehicle.
Best Time of Day to Shoot
For me there are 2 different times to shoot the Maroon Bells: 1) sunrise and 2) early morning (around 3 hours after sunrise).
The classic Maroon Bells shot is at sunrise, when the wind is calm, the lake is mirror like, and the mountain peaks glow from the first sunlight. This is a very special moment, and I would highly recommend it to everyone.
Another time to shoot is the morning after the sun has completely illuminated the valley, lake, hills and mountain. This is somewhere around 10 am or so (in the Fall). Sunset is not the normal shot here, but I have seen a few nice images with a nice sunset sky.
Advantages / disadvantages of sunrise and morning (in the Fall)
The sunrise shot on a brisk fall morning during peak fall colors is one of the great moments for a landscape photographer. However, during peak fall season, it can be VERY crowded with tripods on top of tripods (upwards of 300 people). If you are going to shoot at sunrise, you need to arrive around 4:00 am to make sure you get a spot! Also, I would highly recommend scouting the location the day before to find your composure, as there is little to no movement in the morning. The sunrise shot only lasts for a few (5-10) minutes until the shot is completely blown out.
The morning shot (after the valley is fully illuminated) will have far fewer photographers, and you can move around to pick your composition. This is still a great time to shoot, but there are a couple of disadvantages: hikers and other tourist are walking around the lake and up the valley, which can get in your shot. Also, normally the wind has kicked up and the lake is no longer still and mirror like.
The shot above was taken around 20 minutes after sunrise (on a cloudy morning) after an early morning storm.
Best Time of Year to Shoot
The Maroon Bells is a SPECIAL place any time of year. However, for me the best time of year is during the fall color season (depending on the year – this ranges between the last week in Sept - 1st week in October), as the Aspen trees and underbrush in the valley provide the stunning foreground to the majestic twin mountains. The VERY BEST time to capture this spot would be: 1) sunrise/early morning, 2) during peak fall colors, and 3) after a recent dusting of snow on the Bells.
In my opinion, the colorful Aspen trees and snow on the mountain are what makes this shot special, so you may want to scout out the location before investing the time for a sunrise shot.
The above shot was taken on September 27th
What Lens(es) Do You Need
There are MANY ways to shoot the Bells. Most photographers aim for a wide angle vista, but others are trying for a more intimate compression shot. For the wide angle shot, you would use a 24-28mm lens. For standard or compression shots, you can use anywhere from 50mm – 200mm.
As far as I know, there are no permits required – as long as you stay around the Maroon Lake area.
Direction of the Shot
The direction of the shot is southwest around 230°
Special Nuances of Shot
I wish I could tell you that this is just a show up and get a great shot place - but it is not. The “Bells” are a special place and seems to have a mind of its own. To get the perfect shot, everything needs to line up perfectly - the weather, timing (the color & the amount of leaves on the Aspen trees), a recent snow (to dust the mountain), no wind (for that mirror image on the lake), little or no clouds (to not block the sunrise), no recent wind storms (that might blow the leaves off the Aspen trees on the ridge).
I have been to the “Bells” at least 7 times and only had “perfect” conditions a few times. If everything is not perfect, you can still get a good shot, but you will be left dreaming of the perfect shot.
For the most part, this is mainly a straightforward shot, but there are different views based on where you are around the lake. As mentioned, I would suggest scouting the day before to find a composition that is right for you.
If you are shooting the sunrise shot, pay close attention to when the sun starts to touch the tops of the Bells, as the sun moves quickly and the moment lasts only a few minutes.
Special Equipment Needed
Other than a tripod and potentially a polarizer, there is no need for any special photography equipment unless you plan on doing a panoramic shot. If you arrive pre-dawn at this location in the fall, it is most likely to be very cold (15 - 30°), so be sure to bring appropriate clothing, hats, and gloves.
Number of Other Photographers to Expect
As mentioned, this is one of the most crowded photographic places in Colorado during the peak fall season, with upward of 250-300 photographers at sunrise. During the spring and summer, the area will be much less crowded. This is not just a gathering of photographers trying to get their “wall hanger” - it is an EVENT.
During peak fall season, if you want a good spot, you need to arrive between 4:00 and 4:30 am.
The weather in Colorado is normally mild in the summer and cold (lows in the 20’s) in the spring and fall. Having never been to this location in the winter, I am not sure the road is open or maintained that time of year.
I use Verizon and there was NO cell service at the Maroon Bells. The cell service usually ends at the traffic circle in Aspen.
There are 3 campgrounds along the road to the Maroon Bells. Each butt up to the Maroon Creek and make for a wonderful experience. However, each of the campgrounds is small and fills up quickly. For peak fall season, you need to reserve weeks in advance.
Aspen has an abundance of lodging, but most of it is expensive, so plan accordingly. Other alternatives are Basalt (which has limited lodging) and Carbondale (has an abundance of lodging). My favorite place to stay by far is the Limelight Hotel. Great place to stay, centrally located, great breakfast, and reasonably priced.
Nearby camping and lodging
Camping - click on the campground below for directions
Silver Bell Campground (Maroon Creek campground 3)
Silver Bar Campground (Maroon Creek campground 2)
Silver Queen Campground (Maroon Creek campground 4)
Lodging - click on the lodging below for a TripAdvisor review
355 S Monarch St, Aspen, CO
373 Palomino Trail, Ridgway, CO
Mountain Chalet Aspen
333 E Durant Ave, Aspen, CO
Aspen and Basalt are both GREAT places to stay, visit, and eat. Aspen is a much larger town with a huge number of GREAT great places to eat, ranging from simple eats to fine dining.
Some of my favorites are: New York Pizza (very good thin crust pizza and a good selection of cold adult beverages), Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop 520 Grill and for a great steak dinner Steakhouse No. 316 will not disappoint.
Nearby Restaurants - click on the restaurant below for yelp review
520 E Cooper Ave
Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop
319 E Hopkins Ave, Aspen
Steakhouse No. 316
316 E Hopkins Ave, Aspen
New York Pizza
409 E Hyman Ave, Aspen
As far as I know, the only laundry mat in Aspen is Aspen Laundry at 465 North Mill St. #16 Aspen.
Other Photography Opportunities Around
The closest airport to Aspen is the Aspen–Pitkin County Airport (ASE) servicing United Airlines. This airport is easy in, easy out for flights into Aspen and renting a vehicle. Otherwise, the closest airport is Denver.
Area Guides and Workshops
The Photographer's Ephemeris is a very valuable tool for landscape photographers to determine the direction of the sunrise/sunset & moonrise/moonset from any place on earth on any day (past and future). Click here to take you to The Photographer's Ephemeris for this location.