Friday, September 12, 2014

Four Pass Loop

Likely the result of a Sunday evening daydreaming about my next adventure, I somehow stumbled upon a trip report on December 2, 2012 about the Four Pass Loop. I knew nothing about the hike's reputation. I just knew that the trip report had some pretty amazing pictures. It turns out this route is often ranked among America's best backpacking loops and it is known for excellent scenery of big mountains and wildflowers. If you've ever seen a picture of the maroon bells, chances are you are familiar with the view at the start of this hike.

The route starts at Maroon Lake and makes a loop around the Maroon Bells crossing four passes: West Maroon Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass, and Buckskin Pass. This makes for a 26 mile-10,000ft elevation gain hike.

Our route with miles marked in red circles and camping spots with yellow triangles. Hiked clockwise.

After an uncomfortable night sleeping in the parking lot in the back of a Subaru, we were ready to get going on Friday morning. The hike started out with a gradual elevation gain as we passed through the valley towards maroon pass.

The hiking was easy for several miles and we passed a few groups on the way. I was ready to give us the "Best Hikers of the Day" award until we made the long, painful slog up the last mile of the pass where we met a man who had already ran 20 miles of the loop that morning. We ended up seeing around 10 of these runners who do the loop in one day. Getting to the top of the pass was quite the challenge for me, but Shelby made it look easy. She's a backpacking machine.

After a short break at the pass, we made our way down the north side of the pass towards Frigid Air Pass. No more than 100 feet down the trail my knee started giving me issues. The same issues it gave me a couple months ago. My knee became a constant concern of mine, but I was able to manage by compensating with my trekking poles.

The wildflowers along the entire route were gorgeous.

The walk over to Frigid Air Pass was easy and pleasant with lots of low angle trail and pretty wildflowers. The final part of the pass was steep but short. At the top we got our first glimpse of Snowmass Mountain as well as a view of the back side of the Maroon Bells.

Fravert Basin and Snowmass Mountain from Frigid Air Pass

Maroon Bells from Frigid Air Pass

We started to see the same people throughout the day and we would end up seeing them throughout the whole trip. There was the 'Group of Four' who seemed to have an identical pace to us, the 'Descenders' who joked to us, "We're really good at going downhill," the 'Gang' who carried a boom-box and enjoyed making loud cuckoo calls, the 'Patriarchs,' our 'Buddies,' 'Speedy McGreedy,' and others. They all began to feel almost like family. The grand parents, the annoying little brothers, the cousin who seems nice but we rarely hear from her, etc.

The descent from Frigid Air Pass was the worst descent of the whole trip. My knee was really bothering me and we were at the tail end of a difficult 11 mile, 2 pass day. Eventually we found a nice campsite in Fravert Basin. We set up our camp and enjoyed basking in the sun and simply relaxing before dinner time.

The descent from Frigid Air

Dinner was satisfying and we spent the evening playing Mancala on a sleeping pad board with little twigs for the playing pieces. It worked quite well. We also have the option to play Scrabble, Connect-Four, and Tic-Tac-Toe on Shelby's sleeping pad.

In the morning we slept in a bit and then started the hike for the day towards Trail Rider Pass. We hiked through Fravert Basin for a few miles, passing a waterfall and an easy stream crossing.

Eventually the trail started traversing the slope on the north side of the basin and we began our long climb. The trail switched back several times on the way up and the trail was pretty steep for much of the climb.

Eventually the angle eased off and we made it to the upper basin below the pass. This was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip for us. There was a beautiful lake with wide open views in all directions. It was nice to take a break in this area before finishing the climb to the pass.

After a short break, we headed up the last bit of hill before the pass. We caught our first glimpse of Snowmass Lake from the pass and were quickly off down the hill since it started hailing on us. It wasn't too long before the hail went away and the clouds started to break, making for probably the best scenery of the trip.

Snowmass Peak from right above Snowmass Lake

 Snowmass Lake with double rainbow (part of the way!)

The descent from the pass was steep to start out with, then mellowed out for a while, then got steeper again as we approached the campground at Snowmass Lake. We set up our camp quickly and spent the rest of the evening hanging around the lake, reading, and eating.

 Snowmass Peak, Haggerman Peak, and Snowmass Mountain from the lake

We had planned for our trip to be 4 days - 3 for backpacking and 1 for hiking Snowmass Mountain, but due to the condition of my knee and a nasty cold that Shelby developed, we opted to hike back to the car the next day. This ended up being a good call since we were able to get some Niquil!

The last day of hiking was pleasant. We started out hiking through the woods a ways to Snowmass Creek and then started our way up towards Buckskin Pass. The climb started out with lots of trees and after gaining some significant elevation we made it to treeline where we found a pretty upper basin area. 

One more short break before the pass and we made the final climb to the top. It was definitely the easiest finish to a pass that we did on this trip. The trail is very low angle with long nice switchbacks. It wasn't too long until we made it to the top and had views of Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells.

Pyramid Peak on the right from Buckskin Pass

As it typically goes on a long hike, the last stretch feels like it is the longest. We made our way down the steep trail to Minnihana Gulch. The previous days had a long hike leading to the pass followed by a short descent to camp, but this day was the opposite, so we still had a ways to go.

I started to get a rhythm and figured out a good way to walk fast without hurting my knee, so I picked up the pace so that the end of our hike didn't drag on for too long. The trail brought us to the trees before too long and then it was a mostly forgettable hike to Crater Lake. Walking along the trail back to the car, some people ahead of us stopped us and told us there were a couple bull moose down in the valley. This made our trip feel complete. We had heard about the bears and moose in the area and hoped to see one or the other and we were rewarded with a great moose sighting and Shelby's first!

The last mile and a half dragged on, but we eventually made it to Maroon Lake. Our feet were tired and we were looking forward to a celebration beer in Aspen. But first we took a few minutes to wade in the frigid lake and enjoy the bliss of having spent a wonderful weekend together in the wilderness.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jon,

    My name is Saroj and I am a co-creator of Sidewalk (, a magazine to help people discover and plan amazing hiking adventures. I wanted to say hi because I admire your passion for the outdoors and really enjoyed going through your adventure on the Four Pass Loop.

    Summer is around the corner and I want to wish you a great hiking season. If you are interested in sharing your hiking adventures, we would love to have your trips on Sidewalk. Please let me know if this sounds interesting. You can checkout our latest issue at

    Happy Hiking!