Backpacking the Maroon Bells 4 Pass Loop

In July of 2020, Chase and I took a trip to Aspen, Colorado, to hike the Maroon Bells 4 Pass Loop.  This trail was our first backpacking trip together and my first EVER.  I had spent months researching and planning this trip, and we couldn’t wait to get out there.

We planned our trip around the 4 Pass Loop to take four days and three nights in the wilderness.  Here is a breakdown of our planned days:

Day 1:  Hike in and camp just below West Maroon Pass.  Planned mileage ~6 miles

Day 2: Cross West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass.  Planned mileage ~8 miles

Day 3: Cross Trail Rider Pass.  Planned mileage ~7 miles

Day 4: Cross Buckskin Pass and hike back to the vehicle.  Planned mileage ~6 miles

Here is a link to our course on GAIA

Based on this website’s review, I planned our hike, and I thought it worked well for us.

We intended to keep our mileage low because this was our first backpacking trip together, and we knew we would want to take our time and enjoy the experience.

4 Pass Loop

The 4 Pass loop is an approximately 28-mile backpacking loop in the gorgeous Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness area.  The closest town to this area is Aspen, Colorado.

This loop takes you over four mountain passes over 12,000 feet high.  The climbs are challenging, and the water crossings can be high and fast.

The 4 Pass Loop is one of the most popular backpacking routes out there, so there are typically many people on the trails.  If you are able, go during the week when fewer people are likely to be found unless you like hiking among many people.  Chase and I prefer solace when backpacking.

Permits & Other Requirements for the 4 Pass Loop

The permit system can be confusing, and I know they are considering changing it.  But, the year we hiked the 4 Pass Loop, we had to get a permit for parking.  We got ours online, and they sold out crazy fast.  Make sure you plan ahead and get your permit as soon as they are released.

I have also heard buzzing about camping permits for the 4 Pass Loop, but I hadn’t looked into it yet, as they weren’t required when we backpacked it.

You also need to self-register you and your group at the trailhead to the 4 Pass Loop.  Make sure you carry your copy of the registration with you, as you may get asked to show it to a Ranger.

According to the USDA, bear canisters are required for ALL backpackers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness.  We took one.  Yes, they are heavy.  But, they protect you, your food, and the animals.  Just bring one!  It is a small sacrifice for the greater good.  We met a ranger on our way into the hike, and he knocked on Chase’s backpack to make sure we were using one.

Travel Day 1

We were so excited to go on this trip that we decided to head out to Colorado a day early.  Aspen is an 8-hour drive from our house.  We decided to stay an extra night in Summit County, Colorado, about 2 hours fromDillon Dam Brewery Aspen.  We have been there many times, and it is one of our favorite places.  There are tons of trails to hike and great restaurants.  We ate at the Dillon Dam Brewery, and I HIGHLY recommend you give it a try.  Their Sweet George’s Brown is the BEST brown ale I have ever had.

Travel Day 2

We took our time leaving Silverthorne, as we didn’t have any plans to do anything significant in Aspen.  If you aren’t aware, Aspen is a trendy skiing town, especially for wealthier people.  The stores and restaurants there tend to be on the expensive side.  Chase and I are not included in that group, so we didn’t want to spend a ton of money there.

The route we took wasn’t the most direct, but it was gorgeous!  We took the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway, and the views were amazing!  If you get a chance, I recommend driving this route.  There are length limits, so make sure you check if you have a camper you pull!  The road is super curvy and is one lane at some points!  I didn’t take any pictures because I was too preoccupied with making sure Chase was driving correctly!

We walked around downtown Aspen and decided to stop for a beer at Aspen Brewing Company.  The beer was good, but it was not cold, which was disappointing.  We ate dinner at a no longer open restaurant, so there isn’t much point in talking about it!

4 Pass Loop Day 1

We planned to hike around 6 miles to just below West Maroon Pass on our first day.  After reading many reviews and posts on the 4 Pass Loop group on Facebook, I knew the parking lot filled up very quickly, so we wanted to get there early and get a good parking spot and an early start to the day.  If you have read any of my other backpacking blogs, you will already know that Chase and I are early up, early to bed backpackers!

Because of the parking permit we acquired, we could get there at 6 AM at the earliest, so that is when we arrived.  We might have been a few minutes after six because someone (me) wanted to get Starbucks as the last luxury item before roughing it in the woods.

There were already several people at the trailhead when we arrived, and the parking lot had a bunch of vehicles.  We started on a Monday morning, so many of the vehicles were people who would be hiking out that day or the next after a long weekend.

4 pass loopThe first thing you will see on this backpack is the infamous Maroon Lake.  It is one of the most photographed lakes in the US.  In its reflection, you will see the Maroon Bells towering in the distance at over 14,000 feet high.  We happened to be there at the same time as a park ranger, and he was nice enough to offer to take a photo of Chase and me.  It is rare for us to get a full-body picture together on backpacks, so we thought that was amazing!

Maroon Lake is also right by the parking lot; therefore, tourists usually pack it.  We enjoyed the view but quickly moved on.  Not long after the lake, the trail splits left or right, and this is where you decide if you are hiking the 4 Pass Loop clockwise (as we did) or counterclockwise.

Hiking counterclockwise, you shortly come upon Crater Lake, which is a great snack spot!  This lake is where Chase and I took our first and only break of the day, and the view is stunning.  The hiking this day is a gradual uphill climb the entire time as you approach West Maroon Pass.  Our packs were VERY heavy, so I definitely noticed the climb.

Approximately 3.6 miles in, you have to cross Maroon Creek, and when we went, it was pretty deep still.  Getting our feet wet was unavoidable, so I changed into my sandals to keep my shoes dry.  Chase did as well.

4 pass loopWe got to our planned mileage pretty early (around 3 PM).  We hiked around for about 30 minutes, looking for the best spot for us, and we definitely think we found the best site to camp in that area.  We had a great view of the valley below and had trees surrounding us.

As we were cooking supper, we had a few visitors (deer!) to our campsite, and they were not afraid of us for the most part.  They hung around our site for a good 45 minutes to an hour, and I couldn’t believe how close we could get to them.  Where we live, deer are very skittish, and you cannot get anywhere near them.4 pass loo[

We didn’t stay up too late, but we did share our traditional moonshine (we bring it on every backpacking trip) and called it an early night.  As soon as the sun set, a pack of coyotes started screaming.  That went on for a good hour.  It was so loud that we couldn’t fall asleep right away.  Once they quieted down, we both fell asleep relatively quickly.

 

4 Pass Loop Day 2

Our campsite provided a great view of the sunrise, so we drank our coffee and ate breakfast at sunrise so we could enjoy it.  Picking up camp took us a lot longer than we thought, but it was our first time ever doing it, so I wasn’t too surprised by that.  We were still up and around before the other campers around us.

As soon as we broke camp, we began the climb up and over West Maroon Pass.  It was pretty steep, with several switchbacks, but we got up quickly.  The view in both directions was jaw-dropping, which was beginning to be the theme of this backpacking trip.  It was nice to be able to enjoy the scenery without many people around us, as they were all still in bed!  We had a quick refueling snack and continued down the other side.

The valley below the pass was so beautiful!  We timed it perfectly and were able to see all the wildflowers in full bloom.

The second pass we crossed on our second day was Frigid Air Pass, and it was relatively easy.  And it looked like hiking it counterclockwise might have been more challenging, as it seemed steeper and had more switchbacks.

Hiking down Frigid Air Pass, we came into the woods again for the first time since the night before, and it was nice to have some cover from the sun.  I hadn’t planned well and didn’t put any sunscreen on.  My hands got sunburnt from holding my trekking poles, and they were red!

We couldn’t decide where we wanted to camp and passed up several really good spots.  We ended up finding a relatively secluded place (our preferred type of spot) that was a short way off the main trail.  We had to hike maybe 1/10 mile to get water, but it was getting later than we like to hike, so we called it good.  We didn’t see anyone after we got to camp, so either we had a really secluded spot, or nobody hiked past us that day.

Our campsite for the 2nd night would be our lowest, still over 10,000 feet up.  We got as far as we could this day before the climb up Trail Rider Pass on the 3rd day.  This night was the worst for us in terms of bugs.  We could not keep the mosquitos off us and ended up just hanging out in our tent to avoid them!

4 Pass Loop Day 3

Trail Rider pass was our big climb for the day on day three.  This pass is infamous for its steep elevation when you go the direction we went.  It gains over 1,000 feet in around a mile.  And you can definitely feel that when you are climbing it.

As always, Chase just skipped right up the trail while I huffed my way up.  Maybe someday I will be as unaffected as him, but I am not there yet.  I am very glad this was on our third day, and our packs were much lighter.  That climb would have sucked with a full pack.

As with all brutal climbs, the view from the top was well worth the effort it took to get there!  We got our first view of Snowmass Lake from the top of Trail Rider Pass.  The view was breathtaking.  Snowmass Lake was by far the clearest blue lake I have seen.  And we got to enjoy it the entire way down from the pass.

Just below Trail Rider Pass, on the way to Snowmass Lake, there is a bit of a scramble due to a rockslide that happened a few years ago.  Once again, Chase skipped across without any worries, and I was a little freaked out by it.  Chase is scared of nothing, and I am scared of pretty much everything, so I clung tightly to the rocks and made my way across much slower.

Many people choose to camp at Snowmass lake because of the beautiful scenery.  We opted to move on due to the following reasons:

  1. Too crowed.  As I have previously mentioned, Chase and I prefer to have solitude when backpacking, so we try to avoid overcrowded campsites.
  2. Bears.  Due to the number of people that use this area for camping, it is infamous for bear activity.  I would rather not have to deal with a guaranteed bear encounter!
  3. Time/Distance.  We wanted to push on further for the day and have a shorter day to hike back to our vehicle.  We had to drive back to Summit County on the last day, so we wanted to get as far as we could on day three.  Also, we arrived at Snowmass lake at around noon.  And that just seemed too early to make camp.

We did stop close to Snowmass Lake for a quick snack, but we did not stay long.  On this day, we also had another pretty big water crossing.  When we got to the crossing, another couple was crossing with their dog.  And shortly behind us was another group of hikers that had 4-5 people in it.  We decided to let that group go ahead of us because I was slow and did not want them to wait on me.

At one point, there was a log lain across the water for hikers to cross on, but the high water levels and fast rapids had carried other debris that knocked it loose.  Therefore, it was a little trickier to cross.  Chase made quick work of the crossing, returned to get my pack (what a guy), and crossed again.

In typical Casey fashion, I made it approximately three steps before I slipped and fell in.  I was probably trying to hurry too much and should have just taken my time.  The current was pretty strong, and it took me a tiny bit downstream before my leg got wedged between some logs.  Luckily, the water was not too deep, probably knee-deep.  That being said, I got soaked, my clothes were drenched.  And my pride was wounded due to all the witnesses to my clumsiness.

Since I was already soaked, I just walked through the water to the other side.  I wish I had changed my shoes because my feet were now soaked as well.

After that fiasco, we attempted to pick up the pace to find a campsite, as the clouds were rolling in for the afternoon rains that are very common in this area.  We found a spot close to a water source and decided to call it a day.  Not long after we got our tent set up for the evening, it began to rain.  We were huddled up in our tent, me very wet still, and passed the time with the rest of our moonshine for the trip.

After the rain showers, we cooked dinner, and the rest of the sites around us began to fill up.  This campsite was the least secluded spot we had the whole trip, and not coincidentally, our least favorite.  A boisterous group of hikers (maybe Boy Scouts) stayed up much later than we wanted to.

4 Pass Loop Day 4

We woke up before the sun and actually started hiking in the dark by headlamp.  This morning was definitely the chilliest of our trip, but once we got moving, we warmed up quickly.  Our last pass of the 4 Pass Loop was Buckskin Pass.

For us, this pass was actually the easiest.  We were up at the top before we knew it, and neither of us could believe how easy it was.  That being said, I can absolutely understand how much of a bear it would be to climb it the other way.  The way down was very steep, with many switchbacks.

Once we were at the bottom, we had an easy hike back to the vehicle.  Our last day was a Friday, and the closer we got to the trailhead, the more people we saw coming in to start the loop.  If you have the opportunity, do the hike during the week to avoid overcrowding.  We saw more people on our last day than we saw the rest of the trip.

It did not take us long to finish our last day, and the downhill slope helped push us along quickly.  I don’t think we even stopped once for a snack.  We tend to rush ourselves on the last day, which we should stop doing.  Often, we get in such a hurry that we forget why we are out there: the views and the experience.

We were both so sad that the hike was over, and as we walked back to the vehicle, we both looked at each other with sad eyes.  We had just finished a challenging, beautiful hike that we were going to remember for the rest of our lives.  I remember thinking how strange it felt to walk on concrete again after only walking on dirt for four days straight.

Summary

If we do this backpacking trip again (we definitely want to!), I don’t know that there is anything we would change.  I loved the direction we went in, and I really liked having the low mileage days where we could take our time and really enjoy the beauty of this area.

I also hear that many people prefer to do the route counterclockwise, but I would say for sure do it clockwise.  I have heard Buckskin pass is a bear counterclockwise, and that is when your pack would be the heaviest.  For us, Trail Rider Pass was so steep, but luckily it was on day three when our packs weren’t quite as heavy.

We did this trip at the beginning of July, and we had great weather.  There were afternoon sprinkles but never any actual storms with lightning.  We probably lucked out there.  The days were warm without being overly hot.  At night, it got cool, but never too cole.  Mid-summer hiking allows the snow to be melted (typically) and the high water crossings to have subsided a bit.

The only negative to hiking the 4 Pass Loop that time of year is that the mosquitos were BAD!  I would highly suggest treating your gear with permethrin to help keep those pesky bugs away.  Chase and I were both covered with bites by the end of the loop, and that was even with bug spray.  It seemed like the mosquitos were not affected by natural bug spray.

If you found this blog helpful and want to check out our other adventures, you can read all about our epic hike through the Cirque of the Towers.  If you have never heard of that backpacking trail, you should definitely check it out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.