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

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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

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Maroon Bells Wilderness Faces Severe Problems Due to High Visitation Rates

Forest Service Seeks to Educate Public About Wilderness Impacts

US Forest Service rangers alarmed at an increase in the number of wilderness violations in the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness created an educational video titled ‘Wilderness in Peril.’ The video attempts to educate the public of the need to abide by wilderness regulations by showing examples of wilderness destruction by unethical backcountry visitors. In recent years, the number of visitors to the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness has increased dramatically with the highest impacted areas being the 4 Pass Loop and Conundrum Creek areas. Several recent news articles in the Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News have reported on the Forest Services’ concern of a degradation in the wilderness qualities of the area. According the Aspen-Sopris office of the US Forest Service, in 2013 alone, over thirteen thousand visitors visited the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness. Problems due to high visitation and a lack of wilderness ethics that have been raised include illegal campsites, improper disposal of human waste, overcrowding, and campers leaving behind trash.

In an effort to educate wilderness users of the wilderness regulations, the Forest Service has installed a permit station at the West Maroon valley trailhead near Maroon Lake. The permits are free but require visitors to read the wilderness rules and provide their signature. However, due to increasing traffic, the  Aspen-Sopris forest service office is seeking public input on instituting a limited permit system that would limit the number of visitors to the wilderness. If the exponential rise of visitors to the area does not abate, the forest service may be forced to preserve the wild nature of the Maroon Bells wilderness with a system such as the one that has been proposed.

View from West Maroon Pass looking toward the East Fork of Crystal River

West Maroon Pass to Schofield Park Hike

Take a trip through knee-high wildflowers in one of Colorado’s best wildflower hikes in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen

I’d consider this hike to be at the top for wildflowers as well as alpine scenery. The West Maroon valley as well as the basin drained by the East Fork of the Crystal River find consistent winter snowfall and the perfect soil and summer climate conditions to produce profuse blooms of alpine wildflowers. Blooms of larkspur, columbine, pink, yellow and scarlet paintbrush, and other assorted flowers.

Getting There

The West Maroon Pass Trail begins at the Maroon Lake and ends at Schofield Pass near Crested Butte. You can hike the trail in either direction.

Maroon Lake / West Maroon Portal – From Aspen, head north on Maroon Creek Road. In the summer months, between 9AM and 5PM, no motor vehicles are allowed past the ranger station on Maroon Creek Rd (but bicycles are exempt). During these times, park at the Aspen Highlands Resort on Maroon Creek Rd and take the shuttle bus to Maroon Lake. At other times you may drive to Maroon Lake, but be prepared to pay a fee at the forest service ranger station.

Schofield Pass – From Crested Butte, take Gothic Road 13 miles to Schofield Pass. Leaving the last stop sign on Hwy 135 heading north out of Crested Butte, the road curves right heading past the Crested Butte Cemetery. Continue on Gothic Road (County Rd 317) past the resort town of Mt. Crested Butte. At the top of the pass, stay right remaining on County Rd 317. Travel one mile to the West Maroon Trailhead on the right.

View from West Maroon Pass Trail

View from West Maroon Pass Trail

Trip Description

Start at the Maroon Lake trailhead. At Crater Lake (a large lake just over a mile in), continue on W. Maroon Pass trail as it follows the shore line into intermittent willow thickets and pockets of dense forest. You will need to cross W. Maroon Creek numerous times before you top out at the top of 12,500 ft. West Maroon Pass. Enjoy the views from the pass, then descend the west side of the pass and enter an area that explodes with wildflowers most years during the last weeks of July into August. Continue the descent on West Maroon trail to the Schofield Park trailhead. Hitch a ride to Crested Butte from Schofield Pass, or have a friend pick you up.

You must begin your hike early. During summer, heavy rains caused by dangerous lightning producing thunderstorms occur nearly every day. Start early and avoid exposed high places after 11AM, especially when dark clouds are present. For more information about lightning danger and how to deal with storms in the backcountry, see the Colorado Backpacking Guide.

Maroon Bells Wilderness

The area traversed by the West Maroon Trail is part of the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness. A free wilderness permit is required (located at the trailhead) for those staying overnight in the backcountry. Please abide by all of the posted wilderness regulations, including keeping dogs leashed and camping only in designated (marked) campsites 100 ft. from lakes and streams.