COLORADO ABOUNDS WITH world-class backpacking destinations — each with its own blend of Rocky Mountain challenges, jaw-dropping vistas, wildlife watching and welcoming wilderness campsites. But if you’re going to hike just one trail in this hikers’ paradise, you can’t top the iconic Four-Pass Loop that lies in the rugged, steep beauty of the Elk Range.
This 26-mile circuit, which crosses four alpine passes each loftier than 12,400 feet, rambles through a picture-perfect blend of lush, cool forests and magnificent high country, replete with clear-flowing streams, wildflower-rich meadows and glistening lakes ringed by granite peaks.
All the while, you’ll circumnavigatethe crimson-hued Maroon Bells, twin 14,000-plus-foot summits that are said to be the most photographed peaks in North America. Wildlife includes elk, mule deer, American black bear, Canada lynx, mountain goat and bighorn sheep.
Put it all together and the Four- Pass Loop is, without question, one of the greatest short backpacking trips Colorful Colorado has to offer.
Trail details: The route starts at the Maroon-Snowmass Trailhead/Parking Area within the White River National Forest, about 9 miles southwest of Aspen. After a short stroll on a popular path shared by many tourists and local day-hikers, you’ll arrive at the waters of Maroon Lake, which offers postcard views of the pyramid-shaped Maroon Bells.
If doing the loop clockwise (a good idea for first-timers), leave the masses behind and continue on the trail southwest 2 miles to Crater Lake. You’ll now be in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area. Continue south along Maroon Creek Trail for a couple of miles. Then shift into low gear as your lungs and quads power you up West Maroon Pass (12,500 feet), far above the tree line.
Just when you start catching your breath, you’ll be climbing again. A series of steep switchbacks takes you to the top of Frigid Air Pass (12,415 feet), where you can soak in the view of Fravert Basin and the backside of the Maroon Bells. Camp at one of the many secluded campsites along the North Fork Fravert Basin Trail, resting up for more climbing to come.
Next up, Trail Rider Pass (12,420 feet) offers a breathtaking view of turquoise Snowmass Lake, with Snowmass Mountain towering above at 14,092 feet. Descend the trail toward the lake and catch the Maroon-Snowmass Trail to approach your last climb of the loop.
From Buckskin Pass (12,500 feet), a hard-won view of Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells rewards you for a job well done.
Fit Scouts might be able to complete this loop in as few as two days; however, most backpackers prefer a much more leisurely trip of four to five days.
Camping details: Numerous campsites are tucked away in the mountain-flanked valleys at lower elevations. Because most campsites are near lakes, ponds or streams, locating water is generally trouble-free. But before drinking, water should always be filtered or treated. Campfires should be avoided to keep impact to a minimum. For this reason, visitors should carry a backpacking stove.
When to go: Four-Pass Loop is generally free of snow from mid-July through September. Mid-summer brings with it more hikers on the trail, but this is also the season the wildflowers bloom. Late September is an aspen-watcher’s delight as leaves turn to glittering gold. By avoiding holidays and weekends — or planning your trip after Labor Day — you’ll greatly increase the seclusion factor.
To consider: There’s a good reason you are huffing and puffing more on this backpacking trip compared to others. Much of the hiking on this route is spent above 10,000 feet. And in 26 miles, your total vertical elevation gain will be around 8,000 feet, akin to climbing more than six Empire State Buildings stacked one on top of another — with a full backpack!
Did you know? Four-Pass Loop is considered by ultra-distance trail-runners to be the best one-day run in the state. The unofficial FKT (fastest known time) on Four-Pass Loop in a single push is less than four-and-a-half hours.
Getting there: Drive southwest of Aspen on Maroon Creek Road to the Maroon Bells Welcome Station and overnight parking lot. Daily from mid-June to Labor Day (and Fridays to Sundays through the first week of October), the Maroon Bells can be accessed only by public shuttle from Aspen Village between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (970-925-8484; $8 adults; $6 ages 6 to 16). You can drive your own car before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m.; if parking is available, it is $10 per vehicle.
Resources: You’ll want Trails Illustrated Topographic Map No. 128 (Maroon Bells, Redstone, Marble; $12). The map includes the Four-Pass Loop. A backcountry permit is free and available at trailheads. For more information, call the U.S. Forestry Department at 970-925-3445 or visit bit.ly/fourpassloop.