This past weekend we backpacked the 4 Pass Loop outside of Aspen, CO with another couple. The week leading up to the trip, the four us were obsessively checking the weather. It did not look like it was in our favor but after much hemming and hawing we decided to go for it. The 4 Pass Loop is a Colorado classic located in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness. It’s 27 miles around the Maroon Bells and climbs over four 12,000 foot passes. The variety of terrain encompasses scenic forests, wildflowers in mid to late summer, river crossings, and spectacular views of the Maroon Bells and numerous other peaks of the Elk Mountain Range.
My husband and I had done this trip last year for Labor Day and I was blown away with the difference that three weeks makes. During that trip, we enjoyed trails through fields of wild flowers. During this trip, the star of the scenery was the golden aspens. We did the trip in three days, but you can do it in four days or even extend it further with side trips to Geneva Lake and Willow Pass. Parking at Maroon Lake is limited so during the high season and peak times (Friday through Sunday) there is a shuttle from Aspen Highland Ski Area.
Friday was overcast with the occasional glimpse of blue sky. The trail starts off next to Maroon Lake and then heads up the long up hill climb towards West Maroon Pass. About 3 miles into the hike, the skies opened up and started snowing on us. I think all of us had the same thought, “should we turn around?…is this going to be worth it?” but no one said anything and we kept moving. We gave ourselves a tough first day by squeezing in 13 miles and two passes into one day. If you do this as a four day trip, there is camping at Crater Lake or throughout the conifer stands along West Maroon Valley. The first pass is by far the hardest for me. It’s 6.5 miles and 2,900 feet of gain. The last 0.7 miles is a stiff 800 feet!
From the top of West Maroon Pass you drop down into a meadow. Once you reach the meadow, it’s a nice rolling trail to the base of Frigid Air Pass which is steep but thankfully short. From Frigid Air, the trail drops down into a valley with large conifers and s stream running down the middle of it. There are unmarked campsites scattered through the valley but we stayed in a large marked site with several other groups. We capped the day off with a nice warm fire (don’t worry we checked – there was no fire ban according to the Pitkin website!) and good company .
The next morning we woke up to heavy clouds. We knew there was about an 80-90% chance of rain for Saturday, so we steeled ourselves for a wet day of hiking. The second day starts with a steep descent past a water fall before you have to do a river crossing, the only one of the trip where you have to take your shoes off. The precipitation held off until about 10am when it finally started snowing on us. The next two hours up to the pass were cloudy, snowy, blustery and cold. We did not linger long on the top of the pass. Around 2pm, we found a sheltered site and set up camp. The day ended with the sun coming out and patches of blue sky.
On Sunday, we woke up to a gorgeous blue bird day. The day’s hike started by crossing Snowmass Creek, followed by switchbacks through a snow glistening pine wood forest. When you finally break through the trees into the meadow, you are greeted with a view of the final pass. The hike up to Buckskin Pass is easily my favorite. The alpine valley is beautiful, the grade up feels comfortable and the 360 views from the top are breath taking. As we headed down the pass, the snow melted away, giving way to intense fall colors.
I’m so happy we didn’t cancel the trip. It was worth the cold and snow for the incredible views and quality time with friends.