Bucket list Backpacking: Four Pass Loop
Written by Molly Walters
Pictures from Mariah Forby
I grew a strong desire to make my first backpacking trip in Colorado amongst the iconic Maroon Bells- Snowmass Wilderness Area. This has been on my bucket list, and I was ready to make it happen this summer. Four Pass Loop is a 28-mile hike with four 12,000+ foot passes, coming to a total of 7,700 feet of elevation gain. This trip is known for its wildflowers, variety of mountains and colors, and amazing views.
I began by deciding a time that would be optimal, based upon the weather and season. As the snowfall was high this winter, I knew it would be best to wait until later in the summer to go. I also had to factor in training to make sure we were ready to take on 3 days of high elevation hiking as well as the endurance needed to ascend the elevation gain. Of course, there’s no better way to physically prepare for a hike than to hike!
Permits are required when backpacking within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area, so obtaining those was my next step in planning. There are 6 overnight permit zones depending on where you want to stop each night. Each permit you can have up to 4 people on which was perfect because my wife and our two friends were joining me. Since this is a loop, it can be completed either counterclockwise or clockwise. I chose clockwise so we could complete two passes on day 1, leaving day 2 and 3 with only 1 pass each. I also planned to arrive day 1 very early so we could complete the first two passes (West Maroon and Frigid Air Pass) before any possibility of a common Colorado afternoon thunderstorm. There are many ways to conquer this loop, just find the right one for your group. I reserved an overnight permit in North Fork Zone for night 1 and Upper Snowmass for night 2. I would have preferred Snowmass Lake Zone, but they were all sold out, so plan ahead and book your permits as soon as you can.
Parking can be a little tricky for the Maroon Bells, as it is a popular area for day-use visitors. I was able to book my parking pass through the email confirmation I received when I got the permits. It provided a link, and I was able to reserve a spot 0.2 miles from the trailhead in the overnight parking lot. You must arrive at the parking area before 8:00AM or after 5:00PM, and the best news is that it is free if you have an America the Beautiful National Park pass. These spots do fill up, so this is something else worth planning ahead. If you don’t get a parking pass for this area there is an Aspen shuttle that will take you for a fee.
Making sure you have everything you need, along with the right gear can make the trip much more enjoyable. Having a lighter pack to tackle the amount of elevation gain on this trip will make it that much easier. I was fortunate to have collected enough camping and backpacking gear over the years that I only needed a couple more things before I was set. A bear canister was one of those items that I needed, as it is required in this area. Backpacking gear is an investment, so if you don’t plan on backpacking often there are other options. My friends who joined were able to rent all of their gear and have it mailed to them before the trip.
My 3 favorite items I brought were:
- My Garmin inReach- this is for safety, as it will send a SOS in emergencies when your cell phone doesn’t have service. It will also update you on the weather and can send pre-set texts to loved ones. It is a great item, and I highly recommend it for peace of mind.
- Deuter Pack- adjustable, comfy, reliable, and has just the right pockets and clips for all of my necessities. The rain cover was great to have so all of my items stayed dry. I specifically had an older Aircomfort 55+10 SL pack for 3 days and it was a great size. My wife used a Futura Air Trek 45+10 SL.
- Coffee- there is nothing I enjoy more than waking up in nature and having my hot cup of coffee with a view. There are different ways to make your coffee, I used First Ascent Coffee’s single-serve instant since it was easy and lightweight.
Something I could have benefited from packing that I didn’t bring would be one microfiber, fast drying towel for each person. You forget how wet and rainy it can be out there, and sometimes I wished I had something to dry myself or my items off with.
Two passes, the longest mileage, and most elevation gain on day 1 meant arriving at the trailhead at 5:00AM and beginning our journey in the dark with headlamps. Day 2 and 3 would yield more time for us to relax and rest. Regardless of the direction you go, clockwise or counter, the first and third passes will be the most difficult. We arrived at Crater Lake to get a close-up view of the famous Maroon Bells scenery right at sunrise, glowing orange. Not only was this fantastic to see, but we also had the area to ourselves. Our day was long but full of views, and at every pass we had a new landscape awaiting us just on the other side. The wildflowers were still flourishing and there were rushing streams and waterfalls all along the trail. There was no disappointment, only giddy and happy feelings throughout the hike. By the end of Day 1 we had traveled just over 12 miles and gained 3,800 feet in elevation with both West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass conquered. We arrived at what we thought was the perfect camp spot, it had a little waterfall across the way, open to see all the mountains, and no one was in sight. Little did I know that the 0% precipitation chance was not accurate, and we ended up having a very heavy thunderstorm pass through us during the night. I was very nervous during the storm, normally I would feel a little better if I had been protected within the trees, but our not so perfect camp site was out in the open and left us exposed. Luckily, no harm was done and both of the tents we used kept us dry (REI Half Dome SL 3+ and MSR Elixir 2). I think next time I will camp within the trees in Colorado, the weather is too unpredictable to take the chance.
Day 2 was probably my favorite when it came to the views and scenery. We started the day off by drying anything that got soaked in the rain overnight out in the sun, as we enjoyed fresh hot coffee with the waterfall crashing in the background. We packed up camp by 10:00AM and started toward our next pass- Trail Rider. Once we made it to the top we got our first glimpse of Snowmass Lake, and we all felt very emotional at the beauty. The colors were exceptional and the views of the peaks in the background were breath taking. We even took a small detour to get an up-close view of the lake with the mountains towering over it. Day 2 we traveled 8.7 miles and had an elevation gain of 2,400ft. We found a nice camping spot with tree coverage near a large stream so we could have easy access to water. We set up shelter right away and then experienced a little hail and rain, once it cleared, we had dinner and checked into our tents for the night after watching the sunset.
Day 3 was the start of another beautiful morning with the sunrise casting on the mountains. Buckskin was not the most physically challenging of the passes, but it sure felt like it after spending the last two days in the wilderness above 10,000ft (about twice the elevation of Denver, Colorado) and my muscles were starting to ache. However, I found it easier to push myself knowing that this was the last pass and then we had completed them all. Also, the pizza awaiting me on the other side in civilization did not hurt my motivation! Reaching the top of Buckskin pass was truly a rewarding and empowering feeling. We finished the last day at 7.5 miles and 1,700 feet of elevation gain around 2:30PM. After loading up the truck, we stopped for pizza in Aspen and then made our way home back to Denver for our much-needed shower. Over the next several days I spent a lot of time ruminating on the journey, it is truly an exhilarating feeling to realize what I accomplished over those three days within the Maroon Bells- Snowmass Wilderness Area.
Begin your own ADVENTURE!
Arrive and start! Make sure to follow all the permit rules, pack out everything you pack in, leave no trace, and make all the memories! This was a special trip for me that I will reminisce on for many decades to come!
What's more fun than enjoying a backpacking trip with your furry friends? This is not a trip for all dogs, but if you have an athletic breed that can make the trip, then I recommend it. There were many things to consider before bringing them along. I needed to make sure they were in good physical health and were physically ready to conquer all these miles and the elevation gain. I trained them by taking them on progressively harder hikes leading up to this trip and having a vet check the week prior to leaving. I packed them each more food than they would normally eat in a day, snacks, and continued their glucosamine vitamin recommended by my vet. I included extras in my first aid kit for them, including dog shoes for emergencies. They each carried a pack that never exceeded 15% of their body weight. I packed out all their poo in bags that they had no complaints about carrying. I always made sure they had enough water and stayed hydrated.