Posted: Jun 22, 2016 by Sam Szarka
Backpacking the 4 Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen is an experience filled with summer alpine meadows, melting snowfields, shimmering lakes, and emerald green forests.
To me, the Maroon Bells area is one of the most scenic portions of Colorado. Sure, there are other parts of Colorado that are more remote, and perhaps just as inspiring. But there is something about the red and crimson hued peaks contrasting with the verdant greens of the meadows below that has a unique appeal to me. It’s a magical place like nowhere else on earth.
If you’ve decided to backpack the Maroon Bells 4 Pass Loop, then you’ve made a good choice. And you are in good company because the trail is extremely popular during the peak summer months of July, and August. For the best experience, be sure to start out early and get to camp before noon. The Elk Mountains (the name of the mountain range located here) are notorious for unleashing torrential downpours along with dangerous hail and lightning. These storms can occur any time, but tend to occur more often between the hours of 11AM and 5PM.
From the outset, the twin Maroon peaks elegantly rise above the blue waters of Maroon Lake. Wildflowers meadows hedged in by glittering green aspen forest complete the alpine scene. Photographers and early-risers arrive at Maroon Lake in the pre-dawn hours and wait for the morning rays’ gentle glow to slide across the peaks high above the aspen lined lakeshore. Further-in, the aspens give way to spruce, willow thickets and finally the West Maroon valley climbs to an abrupt and steep end at the bottom of West Maroon Pass. Just beyond, the Frigid Air, Trail Rider, and Buckskin Passes beckon.
For many, the 4 Pass Loop is considered the classic Colorado experience. The loop traverses four mountain passes above twelve thousand feet; West Maroon Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass, and Buckskin Pass, each offering a new view of the expansive and rugged Elk Range that rises to gray pinnacles and maroon colored peaks as far as the eye can see.
How to Get There
Find parking at the West Maroon Portal (Maroon Lake) entrance to the White River National Forest located at the very end of Maroon Creek Road. Due to the high traffic, parking is only available before 9AM and after 5PM during the peaks summer months. Outside of those times, free parking is available at the Aspen Highlands resort on Maroon Creek Road. A daily shuttle bus (not free $3-$6/person) will take you to Maroon Lake.
Before You Go: Bear Canisters Are Required
Due to the increasing popularity of the Maroon Bells and the surrounding wilderness, an increasing number of black bear encounters have occurred near and in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass wilderness. For public safety reasons the managing office of the White River National forest office requires all overnight campers to use a bear safe canister when visiting the Maroon Bells wilderness area. Please be sure to use bear safe storage containers to store your food at all times to prevent the black bear population from becoming a danger to humans.
Finding A Campsite Along the 4 Pass Loop
Finding a campsite is simple, all campsites are marked with a stake and a number and are located a short distance from the trail. However, be aware that dispersed backcountry camping is not permitted on the 4 Pass Loop. You must set up camp in a marked campsite. All camp sites are taken on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. If you find a campsite empty, you are free to set up camp and to occupy it.
The 4 Pass loop is 23.4 mi. in length and is best hiked in the mid to late summer months. The loop takes approximately 4 to 5 days to complete and requires acclimation to high altitude. All of the four mountain passes climb above twelve thousand feet above sea level and much of the hiking is spent above ten thousand feet in elevation. See my backpacking guide for information about acclimating to high altitude.
Day 1 – Start from the West Maroon Portal at Maroon Lake and head toward the far end of the lake onto West Maroon Trail #1970. You will be entering the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness here. Be sure to grab a permit and to attach it to your pack. Head for Crater Lake stopping for a snack to enjoy the views. Note the unique close up perspective of the Maroon Bells, then continue up the W. Maroon Valley to several campsites located near the trail. (5 miles)
Day 2 – Head for West Maroon Pass early in the morning. Pause to enjoy the views from the pass, then descend a series of switchbacks. Take the right fork at the trail junction (North Fork Trail #1974) to head up Frigid Air Pass. Beyond the pass lies the verdant Fravert Basin. Stay the night at one of the campsites here. Arrive early, because campsites fill quickly. Campsites are numbered and marked with a stake. (5 miles)
Day 3 – Today, you’ll descend from the Fravert Basin following the descent of the North Fork of the Crystal River. After a steep drop over some trail switchbacks, trail #1974 joins trail #1976, the North Fork Cutoff Trail. Take the N. Fork cutoff toward the next pass, Trail Rider Pass. The trail will connect with Geneva Lake Trail (#1973) but you may never notice the change in the name of the trail. Climb the switchbacks to the top of Trail Rider Pass and enjoy the views of Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Lake below. Then head for camp at Snowmass Lake. (7 mi.)
Day 4 – From Snowmass Lake, take the Maroon Snowmass Trail (#1975) toward the last pass, Buckskin Pass. The Maroon Snowmass Trail drops from Snowmass Lake into a boggy area before ascending to 12,462 ft. Buckskin Pass. Enjoy the views of the north face of Maroon Bells on the right, and of purple hued Pyramid Peak straight ahead. Descend into Minnehaha Gulch where you will camp for the night. (5 mi.)
Day 5 – For the final leg of the loop, descend from your camp site continuing on trail #1975 toward Crater Lake. At the lake, make a left heading back toward Maroon Lake on the trail you first arrived on 5 days before. (3 mi.)
Wilderness Rules and Regulations
The majority of the 4 Pass loop is contained in the Maroon Bells and Snowmass Wilderness. Due to the heavy useage of the wilderness, avoiding campfires is recommended. Be sure to obey all wilderness regulations, including but not limited to:
- Camp in designated camp sites
- Camp over 100 ft. from lakes and streams
- No campfires permited 1/4 mile from Crater Lake, Snowmass Lake.
- No motor vehicle, bicycle use within wilderness boundaries.
I recommend the Trails Illustrated Maroon Bells, Redstone, Marble (#128) topographic map. The map contains the entire Maroon Bells wilderness area, including the 4 Pass loop.
The 4 Pass Loop is featured as one of the backpacking trips in our own Backpacking Guide to Colorado’s Top 8 Trails.
Backpacking Guide to Colorado’s Top 8 Trails [ eBook ]
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