Sometimes, bucket list items are completely overhyped tourist traps. And sometimes, they’re more than worth the hype. The Four Pass Loop is one of the latter. We’ve seen a lot of incredible places and done a lot of amazing things since moving to Colorado, but this one is definitely near the top of my list.
I’ll summarize the logistics and provide some descriptions of this 28 mile (45 km), 7500 foot (2285 m) elevation gain backpacking trip below, but for the most part I’ll let my photos explain the scenery. I’m not sure words could accurately capture the vast and colorful beauty of it anyway.
As of 2020, permits for this hike are free and do not need to be secured in advance, though it sounds like that will change in the coming years. For now, simply self-register at the trailhead and carry a copy of the permit with you at all times. In this regard, advanced planning is not required. What does require advanced planning, though, is how you’re going to reach the trailhead and also the logistics of the hike itself.
We’ll start with getting there. The trailhead is located at the end of Maroon Lake Road, about 9 miles (14.5 km) west of Aspen, Colorado. This is an immensely popular area that is under heavy usage restrictions; most relevant are the vehicle restrictions which greatly limit the ability to drive your own car to the trailhead. If you arrive before 8:00am or after 5:00pm, you may drive yourself there… assuming there is parking available. If not, you must pay (a lot) to park in Aspen and then pay even more to take a shuttle to Maroon Lake.
For 2020, due to COVID, we were required to reserve our entry method in advance so they could limit the number of people. This actually worked to our advantage, as we were now guaranteed a parking space and didn’t have to wake up at the ass crack of dawn in hopes of getting one. (Update: this system has been implemented for 2021 as well.)
We also camped nearby the night before to facilitate our early morning arrival. We reserved a campsite well in advance for this purpose, but you could take your chances with snagging one of the few first-come-first-served sites. Definitely have a backup plan if you choose this strategy… available sites are not easy to come by.
For the hike itself, advanced planning is necessary to figure out which direction to hike (clockwise is recommended) and approximately where you will camp each night (you must list each location on your permit). This is a wilderness area, meaning you should camp only in established spaces to minimize human impact. There are many of them and for the most part they are spaced fairly evenly along the trail, but there are a couple long stretches without any campsites.
And, as the name Four Pass Loop suggests, there are four mountain passes to climb. All of which are at an elevation of approximately 12,400 feet (3780 m). We started by figuring out how many miles and mountain passes we wanted to tackle each day, and then chose camping spots accordingly. Some people do this as a 3 day/2 night hike but we decided to be a little more leisurely and make it 4 days/3 nights. In the aftermath, we’re extremely thankful we made this decision. We were thoroughly exhausted by the end of each day.
Day #1: Our destination was about 6 miles (9.6 km) up the West Maroon Trail to the base of West Maroon Pass.
This section was overall not terribly strenuous… although the middle mile was made more challenging by our accidental off-trail excursion. The trail forks just before West Maroon Creek enters a small canyon. Both trails appear well-established. My GPS app told us we should go right, so we did.
We should have gone left and crossed the creek… which soon became apparent as we found ourselves navigating steep stretches of talus and weaving through a maze of willows. Clearly other people have made this same mistake, as there was a discernible path. However, it was a good reminder to not always blindly trust a GPS. We finally pulled out our paper trail map, realized our mistake, and navigated our way back to the actual trail.
Once back on the trail, there were numerous possible campsites; they’re not marked, but all are denoted by obvious paths veering away from the main trail. An appropriate campsite is at least 100 feet (30 m) from the trail and from any water source, and with enough space to have separate locations in which to pitch a tent, cook/store food, and use the bathroom. Speaking of which… Ursacks or bear canisters are mandatory on this hike, and all toilet paper/wipes/feminine hygiene products must be packed out, not buried or burned (campfires are illegal in most places along this trail anyway). We carry dog poop bags for this purpose and have found them to be an adequate solution.
Anyway… we pushed ahead to one of the last possible spots, pitching our tent around 11,600 feet (3535 m) with excellent views of West Maroon Pass. We enjoyed some relaxation in the shade, watched some deer frolic in the meadow, and in the morning I sat up in the tent just in time to look out the door and see a weasel poke its head under the edge of the rainfly!
Day #1 stats: approx. 6 miles (9.6 km), 2100 feet (640 m) elevation gain
Day #2 took us up and over West Maroon Pass (12,490 ft/3806 m). It was slow going and our first real test of how challenging it was to climb this high with so much weight on our backs. But we did it!
Solitude is not to be found at the passes. This is a popular hike and, though the trail never felt crowded, people tend to congregate on the passes. Nonetheless, we spent about 30 minutes here soaking in the sun and the views while refueling our bodies. With the trifecta of heat (it was around 80°F/27°C every day), low humidity (often less than 10% in Colorado), and high elevation, we spent the entire trip struggling to remain hydrated.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m not complaining about the weather. Had we done this trip two days earlier or one day later, we’d have gotten rained and snowed on. We were so incredibly lucky to have such beautiful weather. I think this was Mother Nature’s way of making up for the ridiculous monsoonfest of our previous backpacking trip.
Anyway. From the pass, we descended into Frigid Air Basin, meandered across it, and eventually began climbing again to reach Frigid Air Pass (12,415 ft/3784 m). Although we climbed two passes in a row this day, the distance and elevation loss/gain between them is substantially less than between the other passes, so it was a manageable undertaking. Beware that there are few appropriate campsites between these passes due to the lack of tree cover and limited water access.
Frigid Air Pass was our absolute favorite of the four. We were totally in awe as we crested the ridge and found ourselves staring at an expanse of sheer red rock, with the back side of the Maroon Bells towering above and the white rock of Snowmass Mountain rising in the distance.
From Frigid Air Pass, the trail drops into Fravert Basin and approximately meanders along the North Fork Crystal River for the next 5.5 miles (8.9 km). This includes a very steep descent alongside a beautiful waterfall, which connects the upper and lower parts of the basin. There are a few camping spots in the upper area, some near the base of the waterfall, and many in the lower area, particularly near the river crossing (which, by the way, has no bridge; early in the season the crossings on this hike may require walking through deep, rapidly flowing water.)
We continued past the river crossing and pitched our tent at the far end of the basin. This was our lowest and least scenic campsite of the trip, but it was sheltered, quiet, and had water access, so we can’t really complain.
Day #2 stats: approx. 8.5 miles (13.7 km), 1600 feet (490 m) elevation gain and 2800 feet (855 m) loss
Day #3 began with a brief section of flat, after which the trail climbs about 1100 feet (335 m) over the next mile (1.6 km). This was definitely the steepest and most challenging portion of the entire hike.
Eventually, things flattened out for a little while as we meandered past a small lake (beautiful camping options here!), before beginning the final climb up to Trail Rider Pass.
From the top of Trail Rider Pass (12,420 ft/3786 m), we now could see another of the absolute highlights of this trip: Snowmass Lake.
It was a beautiful descent to the lake as we gazed down upon the deep turquoise of the water surrounded by towering colorful peaks.
This is a popular camping area known for its spectacular sunrises, and it certainly would have been a beautiful place to pitch our tent. But it’s also the busiest camping area along this entire route and has a reputation for being noisy and so crowded that it’s difficult to find a place to use the bathroom. So we settled for a leisurely lunch on the lake shore, and I stand by this decision.
We ended the day about 3 miles (4.8 km) further along the loop, having begun the climb up Buckskin Pass… the final one, for anyone who’s been counting. We pitched our tent around 11,600 feet (3535m) again and enjoyed a beautiful sunset and some stargazing before heading to bed. Do note that this is the last possible campsite for quite a ways, as no camping is available immediately on the other side of the pass.
Day #3 stats: approx. 8 miles (12.9 km), 3000 feet (915 m) elevation gain and 1700 feet (520 m) loss
Day #4, naturally, began with the final ascent of the hike as we huffed and puffed our way up to Buckskin Pass (12,462 ft/3798 m). Unfortunately, we woke that morning to the smell of smoke; the wildfires in Colorado were still burning, and an incoming cold front was pulling in smoke from Utah and California as well.
Fortunately, from Buckskin Pass it’s all downhill so we didn’t have to breathe so hard anymore. The final 4.5 miles (7.2 km) of trail drop 3000 feet (915 m) back to Maroon Lake. It was relentless. This section of trail is why most people recommend completing the loop in a clockwise direction. After descending this way, I absolutely agree. I would not want to climb this with so much weight on my back. Actually, I wouldn’t want to climb it at all.
Day #4 stats: approx. 5.5 miles (8.9 km), 800 feet (245 m) elevation gain and 3000 feet (915 m) loss
As I sit here writing this in the aftermath, I’m so proud of us. This was our longest and most challenging backpacking trip to date. We did a ton of preparation and training. We pushed ourselves hard. We accomplished something that, even a couple years ago, would have seemed insurmountable.
And, most of all, we did it!
Four Pass Loop: check.