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Buckskin Pass in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness

Snowmass to East Snowmass Creek Loop

The Maroon Bells – Snowmass wilderness is one of the crown jewels of the United States wilderness system. Beautiful rocky mountain scenery consisting of the iconic bell shaped peaks of the Maroon Bells, enchanting aspen forests, soaring lofty peaks, and wildflower meadow lands charm landscape photographers and tourists alike. But finding solitude in the busy Maroon Bells – Snowmass wilderness can be a challenge. Recently the Maroon Bells 4 Pass Loop has been popularized and have caused some to look for alternative trails to enjoy the stunning scenery of this special part of Colorado.

Situated on the northern portion of the wilderness, the Snowmass, East Snowmass, Willow, Maroon, and Conundrum Creeks form parallel, north-south oriented valleys. In the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness, for ease of travel hiking trails follow valleys from the lowlands to the valley terminus. Many valley trails will connect to neighboring trails by traversing high mountain passes forming the Maroon Snowmass wilderness trail network.

Trail Description

The Snowmass to East Snowmass Creek loop is a 21 mile loop in the northern part of the Maroon Snowmass wilderness near Aspen, Colorado. The trail connects the Maroon Snowmass Trail (#1975), the Willow Lake Trail (#1978) to East Snowmass Trail (#1977) (in that order). The loop can be done in either direction, but it is easier to begin the loop on the Maroon – Snowmass trail which follows the Snowmass Creek up a scenic mountain valley to Snowmass Lake. Before arriving at the lake, you’ll encounter a logjam that dams a small lake. The trail crosses the creek at this point across the logjam. Continue south toward Snowmass Lake. At Snowmass Lake, turn east continuing on the Maroon – Snowmass trail to 12,462 foot Buckskin Pass. From Buckskin Pass, a long limestone ridge to the south appears, called the Sleeping Sexton. Just beyond it, the north face of the North Maroon Peak is visible. Look directly across the Maroon Creek valley (looking southeast) from the pass and you’ll notice purple hued Pyramid Peak, one of five fourteen thousand foot high peaks located here.

The portion of the trail between Snowmass Lake and Buckskin Pass is extremely scenic with views of Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Lake below. It is also the only leg of the loop that is also in common with the 4 Pass Loop and you will likely encounter a fair amount of fellow backpackers here. Continue down from Buckskin Pass only a few switchbacks to the Willow Lake trail signpost (trail #1978). The Willow Lake trail turns back northward toward Willow Pass. This is an extremely steep section of trail but it is well worth it! Keep heading up to the pass and over to the northern side where Willow Lake will come into view below. You may choose to head down the trail to Willow Lake to camp or to enjoy the lake itself. But note that the trail forks a short way before Willow Lake. The fork is East Snowmass Trail (#1977), and is the last leg of the loop hike. Head north on the East Snowmass trail over one final steep climb over a mountain pass. This trail is fainter and the least traversed of all of the trails so far. Continue on the trail over the pass into the beautiful and verdant East Snowmass valley. The trail follows the valley north several miles dropping in elevation rapidly back to the trailhead.

View of Willow Pass from Buckskin Pass

View of Willow Pass from Buckskin Pass

The Snowmass to East Snowmass Creek Loop is best experienced in the summer months or early fall. During the months of July and August, the high alpine tundra turns verdant green and blooms with sunflowers, gentian, paintbrush, larkspur, columbine, and many other rare mountain wildflower species. The deciduous aspen trees that cover the lower montane zones turn iridescent green and contrast with the maroon and dark grey hued peaks. During the fall, the alpine tundra goes dormant, and the grasses and forms turn a golden yellow or reddish brown. The aspen forest also turns color from summer green to a brilliant yellow gold. This happens for a brief time during the last week of September. If you visit later, most of the leaves will be gone. Winter is a dangerous time in the Maroon Snowmass wilderness. The mountains here collect a high amount of winter snow that often produce avalanches.

Finding the Trailhead

The trailhead for both East Snowmass and the Maroon – Snowmass trails is located at the end of Snowmass Creek Road, County Road 11.

Trail Map

Trail Maps

Backpacking Guide to Colorado’s Top 8 Trails [ eBook ]

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Pyramid Peak from Minnehaha Gulch, Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness

Backpacking the Maroon Bells 4 Pass Loop

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.

Trail Description

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.

Trip Itinerary

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.

Trail Maps

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.

Hiking Guides

The 4 Pass Loop is featured as one of the backpacking trips in our own Backpacking Guide to Colorado’s Top 8 Trails.

Trail Maps

Backpacking Guide to Colorado’s Top 8 Trails [ eBook ]

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Save time looking for the perfect backpacking trail with this e-guide to the best backpacking trips Colorado has to offer. Download in PDF format.

 

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Never Summer wilderness sunset

Mountain Weather Forecasts for Hikers

Increasing clouds and chance of heavy rain in the afternoon. These are the foreboding words a backpacker does not want to hear but that are often forecasted for Colorado’s mountains in late summer. The weather phenomenon is known as the North American monsoon, and it affects the Colorado Rocky Mountains from July into early September with afternoon thunderstorms and dangerous lightning. So just how does one plan a trip with such unpredictable weather?

Since no one enjoys spending days in a tent while it pours outside, for hikers, accurate weather forecasts are critical. The popular weather outlets (Accuweather, Weather.com) might seem like good first choices, but one quickly realizes that their forecasts tend to be too generic to be of much use in the high country where altitude makes weather forecasting difficult. Forecasts on Weather.com for example, are accurate down to the zipcode or city/town level. But weather in Colorado can vary significantly over short distances. A forecast for the city of Denver will no longer be valid in the twelve thousand foot high peaks immediately to the west. There has to be a better way.

TrailForecast

Fortunately, there are better alternatives. Joel Gratz, a young meteorologist and internet entrepreneur, began OpenSnow.com to forecast fresh powder for Colorado skiers and powder junkies. After gaining a reputation in the skiing community for accurate powder forecasts with his casual, yet witty Colorado Daily Snow blog, Joel and his team in the summer of 2015 launched TrailForecast.com. The a website is geared toward delivering a Colorado mountain weather forecast to your email inbox twice a week. I use the service myself and find it quite useful for planning my trips. Joel writes the emails himself and includes forecasts for all of the major mountain ranges in the Colorado Rockies. Visit TrailForecast.com to sign up for Joel’s twice weekly forecasts.

LongsPeak_forecast

Another key tool for any backpacker or hiker is the tried and true National Weather Service website www.weather.gov. The NWS website’s powerful point-forecast feature allows users to click on an interactive map and will serve up a forecast for the selected point. For example, clicking on Longs Peak, in Rocky Mountain National Park, will bring up a forecast like this: Longs Peak, Colorado forecast. In fact, you can click on any point on a map of the United States, and the NWS website will return a tailored forecast for that specific 1.6 square mile area, even if it is a remote mountain peak in the middle of Colorado. This is a powerful tool that can be used to retrieve 5 day weather forecasts for remote spots.

To retrieve a point forecast. Visit Weather.gov and click on a point on the map of United States, or enter a city name or zipcode in the box. A forecast will be displayed on the next page. Look for the square map located in the right sidebar. The map shows a highlighted green square indicating the location area that the forecast has been generated for. Scrolling around on the map and clicking on a new point will load a new forecast.

forecast_box1

NWS Point Forecast Map Tool

Missouri Lake

Missouri Lakes / Fancy Pass Loop

A pleasant hike to the beautiful (and popular) Missouri Lakes in the Holy Cross wilderness, this easy 2 day backpacking trip (or single-day in-and-out hike) will whet your appetite for a longer wilderness trek with a multitude of tranquil lakes and a large dose of high altitude alpine scenery.

The loop begins at the Missouri Creek Trailhead, just down the road from the Fancy Creek Trailhead. In fact, the trailheads are so close to each other, you can consider this a loop hike. The Missouri Creek Trail takes you a short 3 miles to the beautiful Missouri Lakes (there are 4 of them) which sit on a bench at the foot of twelve thousand foot rocky peaks right at treeline. Further in, the trail heads up a few short switchbacks to a splendid view of the Holy Cross area at Missouri Pass. Head further to the Fancy Creek trail intersection and complete the loop by winding past Treasure Vault Lake, over Fancy Pass back to the Fancy Creek trailhead.

Hike Description

The Missouri Creek Trail starts off as a pleasant path through an aromatic lodgepole pine, spruce conifer forest. But it quickly takes a sharp turn to the right, heads uphill and passes the Holy Cross Wilderness sign/marker. Shortly afterwards, the trail crosses Missouri Creek on a small footbridge and follows Missouri Creek higher into the wilderness towards the not so distant Missouri Lakes. After 2.6 miles, the forest thins, and Missouri Lake No 1 will appear on the left. Lake number 4, is off trail and behind a ridge to the south. Lake no 2, the largest of the lakes is ringed with backcountry campsites. Remember to choose a legal campsite that is at least 100 ft. from the body of water. The campsites closest to the water are illegal and should not be used. Please abide by the posted signs not to denude the area of vegetation by building illegal campfires. If you wish to have a fire, bring your own fire wood as well as a stove to burn in. Do not build campfire rings here, because they are unsightly, and volunteers will work to remove them after you are gone. Lake no 3 is a few steps further along the trail at 3.2 miles. Just beyond Lake 3, a few short switchbacks take you up to the top of Missouri Pass (3.7 miles from the trailhead, 12,002 ft high). Views of the lakes below, and of the surrounding peaks in the Holy Cross wilderness open up at this point. Treasure Vault Lake beckons below you on the other side of the pass. The trail continues over the pass heading through alpine tundra and a wildflower meadow before intersecting with Fancy Creek Trail. Head uphill and to the right onto Fancy Creek Trail. The trail takes you up to the highest point on this loop: 12,400 ft. Fancy Pass. After admiring the view, descend the far side of the pass toward Fancy Lake (5.5 mi.) Beyond Fancy Lake, the trail drops steadily in elevation as it follows the general path of Fancy Creek. The trail ends at the Fancy Creek Trailhead at the 7.3 mi. mark.

Trail Facts

Loop Hike Distance: 7.3 miles
Recommended Trip Length: 2 days, 1 night
Recommended Camp Locations: Numerous campsites near the Missouri Lakes, or near Treasure Vault Lake.
Topographic Trail Map: Holy Cross Ruedi Reservoir Trails Illustrated Map

Directions

Exit at the Minturn/Redcliff exit on Interstate 70 just after the town of Vail (when heading west on I-70). Head south approximately 12.9 miles on Hwy 24 toward Minturn. After passing through the tranquil town of Minturn, and after travelling 12.9 miles from I-70, look for the Homestake Reservoir Road (Forest Service Rd #703) at a bend in the road. The road will be marked and will be on your right. Turn right onto Homestake Res. Road. The road will immediately cross over a bridge over a creek. Homestake Reservoir Road is a maintained dirt road that is drive-able by passenger vehicles. After travelling 7.8 miles, take a right onto Missouri Creek Rd (Forest Service Road #704). After 2.2 miles, Missouri Lakes Road intersects FS Road #727. The well marked Missouri Lakes trailhead parking lot will be on the left and will be visible from the road intersection. To park at the Fancy Creek Trailhead requires taking a right and travelling a few feet up Rd #727.

Recommended Trail Map

You’ll need a trail map as a guide for this 2 day backpacking trip. I recommend the Trails Illustrated map product by National Geographic. Clearly marked trails and land mark on a color topographic map make this high quality map a joy to own and use.

Trail Maps

Holy Cross Wilderness Map

$14.27

National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map of Holy Cross/Ruedi Reservoir. Contains a topographical map of the Holy Cross Wilderness area and portions of Hunter-Fryingpan wilderness area.

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Interactive Map