Capitol Peak Area Backcountry Skiing - Introduction - Chapter 6
Chapter 6 Capitol Peak Area -- Introduction
Look around Colorado for the highest peaks, most alpine aretes, pristine wilderness and challenging ski and snowboard routes. You'll spot a number of places, but the high massif of fourteeners Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain will be at the top of your list. Capitol and Snowmass form a 6-mile ridge that has to be one of the most imposing in the state. The huge granite block of Capitol rises like an Olympian castle, a swooping ridge curves to Snowmass, and everywhere you look satellite peaks and subsidiary cirques hold ski and snowboard terrain that's the stuff of dreams.
Roads and Trailheads
USGS Maps: Snowmass Mountain, Capitol Peak, Marble, Highland Peak, Maroon Bells
USFS Map: White River National Forest
Snowmass Creek Trailhead
To reach the Snowmass Creek Trailhead: On Colorado Highway 82, drive 15 miles downvalley from Aspen or 27 miles upvalley from Glenwood Springs, to a gas station and residential area officially called Snowmass. Locals call this "Old Snowmass" because the ski resort of Snowmass Village stole the town's name, so the moniker "Old Snowmass" is used in this book. At Old Snowmass, turn S off Highway 82 onto the Snowmass Creek Road. Drive the Snowmass Creek Road 1.6 miles to a T intersection. Take a left (still the Snowmass Creek Road) and drive about 8 miles to snow closure, which is often at a bridge over Snowmass Creek (8,310 feet, 10 miles from Old Snowmass). A section of the Snowmass Ski Resort is located near this trailhead.
In spring the road may be melted and plowed to the summer trailhead. To reach the summer trailhead, follow the directions above to a closure gate and parking at the Snowmass Falls Ranch property (11 miles from Old Snowmass). Walk through a pedestrian gate, then follow a dirt road ¾ mile to the obvious pack trail, which climbs left from the road just before the road swings right and crosses the creek.
Capitol Creek Trailhead
Follow directions above to reach Old Snowmass on Highway 82, and drive the Snowmass Creek Road 1.7 miles to the aforementioned T intersection. Turn right on the Capitol Creek Road and drive about 6 miles from the T to snow closure (approximately 8,520 feet). In spring the road may be melted or plowed higher. In that case, despite apocalyptic warning signs, when the road is dry you can drive a passenger car to parking on the right at 7.6 miles. After that you need high clearance and possibly 4-wheel-drive to reach the official summer trailhead in a beautiful meadow at 9,400 feet, with a stunning view of Capitol Peaks' gothic northern reaches. In winter, it's likely the closed portion of the road will be packed by ranch snowmobiles and day skiers.
Snowmass Ski Resort
Don't tell the thousands of skiers you'll meet when you go there and ride the lifts, but the best terrain at the Snowmass Ski Area is not at the ski area --it is just past the upper boundary ropes. Not to worry. Keeping such secrets is easy at Snowmass, since strangers on the quad chairs don't talk to each other much these days anyway.
In the dark ages of Colorado ski mountaineering, boundary ropes such as those at Snowmass were used as fascistic barriers to public access of public land. Or worse yet, used to keep the public out of the ski patrol's private powder stashes. No more. With ski area liability limited by law, and the enlightened influence of the Forest Service, the boundary ropes at Snowmass are now broken by special "backcountry gates" you can slip through to enjoy your constitutional rights.
Go for it. But bear in mind that too many bozos buying the farm in this area will draw the unwanted attentions of official type people who would like nothing better than to close all that juicy terrain again. So go, but go carefully and be prepared.
Stay away from here if you dislike crowds and high prices. If you do go, find "New" Snowmass by driving Colorado Highway 82 from Glenwood Springs or Aspen. Follow the signs and obey draconian parking regulations or you'll be loading the bunny chair for life.
Snowmass Creek Trailhead
[lou, 06-13-05]To reach the Snowmass Creek trailhead, drive 15 miles downvalley from Aspen on Colorado Highway 82, or 27 miles upvalley from Glenwood Springs, to a gas station and residential area officially called Snowmass. Locals call this "Old" Snowmass because the ski resort of Snowmass Village stole the town's name.
[lou, 06-13-05]At Old Snowmass, turn S off Highway 82 onto the Snowmass Creek Road. Drive the Snowmass Creek Road 1.6 miles to a "T" intersection. Take a left (still the Snowmass Creek Road) and drive 8.7 miles to another "T" intersection. Turn right and continue .8 mile to a closure gate and parking at the Snowmass Falls Ranch property (8,390 feet.) Walk through a pedestrian gate, then follow a dirt road 3/4 mile to the obvious trail, which climbs left from the road just before the road swings right and crosses the creek. Snow season closure will be lower, but varies. The lowest the plow will turn is at a bridge over Snowmass Creek (8,310 feet), 10 miles from Old Snowmass.
Capitol Creek Trailhead
[lou, 06-13-05]Even if you don't need this trailhead for a route, it is worth visiting for the view of Capitol Peak's magnificent north face. Use the directions above for Old Snowmass, and drive the Snowmass Creek Road 1.6 miles to the aforementioned "T" intersection. Turn right on the Capitol Creek Road. At 6.2 miles from Highway 82 the road becomes dirt, but despite warning signs, when the road is dry you can drive a passenger car to parking on the right at 7.6 miles. Start hiking here, or with high clearance 2-wheel-drive you continue 1.8 miles to the trailhead in a beautiful meadow at 9,440’. The trailhead has good signs and plenty of parking. If the road is muddy you'll need 4-wheel-drive past the warning signs. In winter the road is closed near mile 6.2, and most of the closed road is packed by rancher's snowmobiles.
Lead King Basin Trailhead
[lou, 06-13-05]Drive Colorado State Highway 82 west from Aspen or east from Glenwood Springs to the Carbondale stoplight near the Days Inn Motel. Turn S here onto Colorado State Highway 133, the road to Carbondale, Redstone, and McClure Pass. Drive 20.5 miles on Highway 133 and take the well signed left turnoff to the town of Marble. Drive 6 miles to Marble. From Marble you can reach Lead King Basin via a high road that may be a bit smoother (but muddy and impassable when wet), and a low road that is usually much rougher, but more reliable during times of poor weather or snow closure.
[lou, 06-13-05]The lower route to Lead King Basin takes a fairly rough 4x4 route that follows the Schofield Pass jeep trail up past the town of Crystal (a small group of old buildings and summer residences). Follow signs and main road through Marble for the Crystal & Schofield Pass Road. Continue 5.6 miles to Crystal (narrow road, 4-wheel-drive or high clearance 2-wheel-drive.) Park 2-wheel-drive in an aspen tree grove just past Crystal (9,000’). On foot or with 4-wheel-drive, continue up the Schofield Pass Road .5 miles to an obvious intersection. Take the left (N) fork (the Lead King Basin Road) and follow it 1.5 miles to the trailhead on the west side of Lead King Basin at 9,700 feet. The trailhead signs are screened from parking by a few trees, but easy to find once you’re out of your car. This section of road is awfully rough, and better walked by all but expert 4-wheel-drive enthusiasts. Winter closure is at Marble. The road opens to Crystal sometime in late May or early June, while the road into Lead King Basin melts out sometime in June.
[lou, 06-13-05]For the upper route to Lead King, again head through Marble and get on the Schofield Pass Road. As you drive out of Marble you’ll pass Beaver Lake on your right, then soon start up a steep ¾ mile grade known as Daniels Hill. At the top of Daniels Hill leave the Schofield Pass road by turning left on another dirt road at an obvious intersection that usually has excellent signs. It’s 7 miles to the Lead King trailhead from the intersection at the top of Daniels Hill. The dirt road is moderately rough, not really what you’d call a 4-wheel-drive trail, but it becomes dangerous and impassable if muddy from rain or snow melt. Of more concern is a heady series of switchbacks that drop you into Lead King from a high pass midway along the route. Descending these requires excellent mountain driving skills, a vehicle with good brakes, and the discipline not to rubberneck the amazing views.