Writing this post a week after my hike on the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop, my ankles creak, my bug bites have only just stopped itching, and I’m still finding tangles in my curls. But it was all worth it for non-stop views like this:
- Osprey Aura 65 (with top compartment–aka “the brain”–removed)
- Kelty Cosmic 20 Sleeping Bag
- Kelty Cosmic Sleeping Pad
- Trekology Ultralight Pillow
- River Country 1V
- Altra Superior Trail Runners
- Darn Tough micro socks
- Nitecore NU17 headlamp
- Cascade Mountain Tech Trekking Poles
- Opinel No. 6 Pocket Knife
- Bear Vault BV450
- Sawyer Mini water filter (and two Smart Water bottles)
- Long sleeve – Icebreaker Bodyfit 175
- Short sleeve – Wooly Ultralight Tee
- Shorts – All in Motion (Target brand)
- Tights – Odlo Merino Wool Tights
- Puffer jacket – Uniqlo Ultralight Down Jacket
- Icebreaker Merino Flexichute (like a “Buff” or scarf)
- Rain jacket – Frogg Toggs Emergency Jacket
- Underwear – 2x Fruit of the Loom Mesh
- Bra – Brooks Fiona Running Bra
- First Aid
- After Bite Bug Care
- Sawyer Picaridin lotion
- Neosporin Packets
- A few first-aid pills (Imodium, kaopectate, ibuprophen)
- Leukotape (for blisters)
- Kula Cloth (review)
- Coghlan’s trowel (for digging holes to poop in)
- Diva Cup
- Unscented wipes (pack these out!)
- Toilet paper
- Campsoap (decanted)
The general idea of this route is to climb up and over four 12,500+ passes (hence, Four Pass Loop!). The loop itself is 27 miles, which might not sound crazy for 3-4 days of backpacking. But don’t let the moderate distance fool you. The repetitive pattern of elevation gains then losses then gains again is downright brutal.
Although it’s possible to hike this route counter-clockwise (and many do to avoid the crowds), I hiked clockwise to not hike up the very steep Buckskin Pass with a full pack. Each night’s campsite is marked 1-3 on the map above. I initially planned to just hike over West Maroon Pass on my first day, but because there were so few campsites between the two passes, I climbed over Frigid Air Pass as well. This made for a very long first day! On the second day I tackled Trail Rider Pass, and on the third I finished with Buckskin Pass. Because I budgeted four days, I spent my last night (#3 on the map) at Crater Lake, near the parking lot. However, I could have finished the trip in three days without much rush.
I’m not a health professional, and you should obviously consult your state’s and your destination state’s guidelines if you’re planning to travel anywhere. I drove from Minnesota to Colorado and camped along the way, and it worked out well. Before my trip I socially distanced and read up on the rules for every state I passed through. I also consistently used a mask indoors (even when the state didn’t require one), and used hand sanitizer religiously. All that said, wilderness backpacking can be a safe activity, even during a pandemic. In addition to being outside, other hikers and I tried to keep a courteous six feet of distance and pull our masks up when passing other hikers. I also let a number of people know my route and had backup maps and GPS to reduce the likelihood of needing emergency rescue.
To limit capacity, Maroon Bells required parking reservations for the first time this year, and I made my reservation here. Although this was a new policy, the Aspen chamber is also considering implementing a permit system in the future. If you plan to do this hike (or any hike!) read up on all the necessary requirements well in advance.
Day 1: West Maroon and Frigid Air Passes
As I mentioned above, I had to reserve parking due to COVID-19. Per the new policy, I had to get to the parking area before 8 AM, so I got up bright and early at Difficult Campground (about a forty minute drive from the Maroon Bells parking lot–this is a great place to spend the night before if Silver Bell and the other small campgrounds are booked!) and headed up to the welcome station.
As soon as I pulled into the lot, I was greeted by this black bear! I stopped long enough to take a shaky Bigfoot-style picture and drove around a bit before parking. It was a great reminder to double check my bear canister (which is required in Maroon Bells as of 2015).
After a short walk to Maroon Lake, the trail doesn’t waste much time before getting tough. The two mile walk to Crater Lake is moderately steep and rocky, but like this entire route, it’s rewarded by an amazing view.
I passed Crater Lake and went left in order to hike the loop clockwise. After crossing a few streams, eventually the bushes and brambles opened up to wildflower meadows. After a few hours, I saw my first pass, West Maroon Pass, in the distance. I was at around 11,000 feet and already pretty out of breath at this point, but I took the pass a little at a time and eventually made it to the top!
I had originally just planned to make it over one pass, and after finally climbing to the top of West Maroon, that would have been plenty. However, I stopped and chatted with a few other hikers on the way down and found out that the trail barely dipped below 12,000 feet after West Maroon, and there weren’t many campsites until Frigid Air Pass. The daily afternoon storm was still a ways off, so I decided to climb another pass.
I had been leapfrogging with a big group (and their friendly dogs) from the Maroon Bells parking lot, so naturally I followed them at a fork in the trail. What’s more, the trail said “West Maroon Trail,” so I figured I was headed in the right direction. Wrong. The trail to Frigid Air Pass is “North Fork Trail”! If you take one thing from this post, let it be this: do NOT accidentally follow a group of hikers toward Crested Butte! Seriously, this mistake ended up costing me over three miles (downhill then, tragically, back up) and way too much lost time.
By the time I made it to Frigid Air’s slope, I was mentally and physically exhausted. But the sky was swirling, and I didn’t want to get caught in a storm on top of the pass, so I pushed on. Frigid Air is steep, and as I approached the top of the pass, I was literally counting, “Five steps, pause, breathe. Five more steps. Breathe.” At this snail’s pace I eventually made it over my second pass of the day. I crashed at the first campsite I found, which mercifully was soon after the pass.
Day 2: Trail Rider Pass
After accidentally walking fifteen miles in my first day (!!?), I needed a break. While I started the day winding through gentle meadows and forests, as I neared Trail Rider pass, I quickly got a reality check. I read that Trail Rider has a “false pass,” that is, a bunch of steep switchbacks that make you think you’re nearing the top, when in fact, you’re miles away. And it’s true–Trail Rider does have a false pass. But the problem with this knowledge is that every time I got through a tough section, I thought to myself, “that must have been the false pass,” only to be proven wrong again and again. Once, when I was wheezing and gulping water on the side of the trail, two guys practically jogged past and said “Here comes the REALLY hard part!” Awesome, thanks.
Trail Rider kicked my ass. There’s no other way to say it. But (again) I was rewarded for my effort.
I made my way down to Snowmass Lake to camp. There are lots of campsites after Trail Rider and past Snowmass Lake, but since it was early in the day, I decided to relax at the lake, and I’m so glad I did.
Day 3: Buckskin Pass
Since this was a relatively light day, I had a leisurely morning and climbed up from the Snowmass Lake campsites. Unlike the other passes, Buckskin Pass features long switchbacks, which means they’re much less steep. My burning thighs rejoiced!
I made it to the top of the pass just as the afternoon storm rolled in. After eating a quick celebratory lunch, I pulled on my rain jacket, took a quick selfie, and scrambled down. After a few days of extreme elevation changes, my lungs started to feel grateful anytime I dipped below 11,000 feet.
I wound down the switchbacks toward Crater Lake. There were several campsites on the path down, but I wanted to be fairly close to the parking lot in the morning. The Crater Lake campsites are all designated and numbered 1-14, and if you want one it’s a good idea to arrive earlier in the day.
Day 4: Done!
I spent the morning drinking coffee and looking through pictures. Each pass was so different. Even though I was sore and tired, I was so proud of myself for hiking the full loop without (almost) any issues! After packing up camp I drove about an hour north up to Glenwood Springs for a necessary post-trail beer tacos at Slope and Hatch (so good).
- Even though I only saw *one* other solo female hiker and *no* other Black people on this trail, I found the route safe and the other hikers helpful and welcoming. Though it wasn’t too crowded, I saw groups of friends, Boy Scouts, mother-daughter pairs, and older couples all on the trail. Particularly in the age of COVID-19, there was a communal feeling to this route, even as a solo hiker. It was challenging, and not without risks, but it felt like people were looking out for each other.
- In July, an afternoon thunderstorm rolls in like clockwork every day. Be prepared for rain, and if possible, get over each pass before the storm.
- The rumors are true–there aren’t many (if any) places to camp between West Maroon and Frigid Air Pass, so plan accordingly.
- In the areas with campsites, there are tons of little trails leading away from the main trail. Don’t get off track! Also as I mentioned above, do NOT accidentally follow hikers toward Crested Butte after West Maroon Pass.
- I’m usually not too squeamish about peeing (or pooping, or emptying my Diva Cup…) outside, but the camp around Snowmass Lake was pretty crowded, and it was hard to find a private space. If this is a concern for you, hike a little past Snowmass Lake to find a more secluded spot.
- There’s a TON of water on this route. I ended up mostly carrying a half liter or so and stopping for water more often.
- At the same time, altitude is NO JOKE. I saw a few people on the side of the trail with bad altitude sickness symptoms. I prevented the worst effects by acclimatizing at another state park in Colorado for four days, but I was still wheezing. I really would recommend acclimatizing if you’re from a lower altitude (shout out to the flat Midwest!) and staying well hydrated throughout the hike.
This is an amazing route! It’s challenging, but the near-constant spectacular views make it worth it. I would recommend this route to anyone with a good amount of day hiking experience, and it made for a really rewarding solo hike. If you’re planning a trip to Maroon Bells or have questions, comment below!