It took three days and two nights, but we successfully completed Colorado’s stunning, 26-mile long 4-Pass Loop. The trip was about 50 hours total and, get this, we had almost *no rain* (it sort of sputtered for three minutes one morning). It was really amazing!
Before I get into the photos, I want to give some basic information about the route and logistics. There are some useful links below. Note that you’ll need to decide if you want to go clockwise or counterclockwise. Many of the descriptions in the links are for the clockwise route, but we did it counterclockwise, which I recommend (most of the passes are less steep to go up and I think the views are better in terms of what you look up to while hiking).
It’s important to know that unless you arrive between 7:00-9:00am and there is a parking space, you will likely have to shuttle in from Aspen Highlands. The Ranger said this was a better option anyway because “critters” had been chewing the wiring of cars parked at the Maroon Bells Recreation Area parking lot. We actually saw a car parked that had chicken wire wrapped around the bottom of the car.
The shuttle ticket is $6 each (dogs are free) and it takes about 30 minutes. Also, even though the parking lot says “no overnight parking,” you can park overnight if you give them you vehicle information when you buy a bus ticket.
DAY 1: West Maroon Portal to Snowmass Lake (about 8 miles)
We started hiking right around 11:00 am on Friday morning from the West Maroon Portal and set out for Buckskin Pass
We were visually pleased by the quantity and variety of mushrooms adorning the trail’s edge. Here are just a few:
One of the fantastic things about this trip is that you get such a diversity of ecosystems. For an hour you’ll be hiking on the soft ground of the forest floor, shaded by tall trees, then, a bit later, you’ll be above tree line hiking up a steeper slope listening to the screeching of pika and the chirping of marmots. Next you may be treated to an alpine meadow full of wildflowers and trickling streams. You get all of that with this trip!
After hiking for about 5.5 hours we arrived at Snowmass Lake and found a camping spot. This is a beautiful lake at the base of Snowmass Peak but is pretty impacted and doesn’t have much privacy – lots of other backpackers camped all around. However, the stunning view that we had mere feet from our tent of the peak across the lake was hard to resist.
After the requisite pumping of the water and setting up of the tent, we got to cooking the food! Now, while backpacking nearly anything tastes good but we did think our dinner was super tasty. We had ramen noodles with sliced mushrooms, diced shallot (from the garden) and a serrano pepper (from the garden). The oniony, mushroomy, super spicy concoction was seriously satisfying. We actually started avoiding the serranos after a while because of the mouth burn.
Day 2: Snowmass Lake to Frigid Air Pass
We were hiking by about 8:00 am the next morning. I had a feeling this would be a big day. On the drive into Aspen, we realized that the US Pro Cycling Challenge was going to start in Aspen on the day we originally planned on finishing (Monday). This would cause road closures between noon and 4pm, which would very likely cause us to have to wait all that time to start the 3+ hour journey back to Denver on Monday. So, we’d all but made the decision to do the loop in 2 nights/3 days as opposed to the originally-planned 3 nights/4 days. To achieve this, we would have to make Day 2 a long day and get some serious mileage in.
We made our way up and around Snowmass Lake towards Trail Rider Pass.
Here are some shots from the top of Trail Rider Pass (12,420’):
In this one you can see the trail that we would take to descend the pass off to the left:
The trail leads down below tree line to a valley that follows a meandering creek.
Here is a view of the valley once we reached the other end:
The entire hike leading up to Frigid Air Pass was bittersweet. My heels started to rub in my boots earlier in the day and I had stopped to tape them up, but every step pretty much hurt and felt like something was trying to saw through my heel. However, every time I looked up and noticed what was all around me, my pain was mitigated somewhat. It was a stunning view!
What you can’t see from the photo directly above is that there were *lots* of wildflowers. I got this shot of an elephantella in its prime:
We were pretty excited to reach the summit of Frigid Air Pass (12,415’) and took a break to enjoy the scenery and lovely sunny summer afternoon.
As we descended the other side of Frigid Air Pass, we started to look for a camping spot. We had hiked over 10 miles at that point and were ready to stop!
The descent was rife with bright orange explosions of flowers – they were like little fireworks:
We found a camp site in the alpine meadow between Frigid Air Pass and West Maroon Pass. We stopped hiking around 4:30pm and immediately pumped water. We drank *all* of our water during the day.
Once we pumped water we started water boiling for mac n cheese with jalapeno peppers. I think that might have been the best mac and cheese I’ve ever tasted – so cheesy and creamy with chunks of deep red jalapenos (our jalapeno plant is a purple jalapeno plant and the peppers ripen to red from a deep eggplant purple).
While the water was boiling Seth indulged in the comfort of the soft ground and grass – he laid back and closed his eyes briefly. Dempsey, being very tired also from carrying his doggie backpack, indulged by his side. It was so cute:
We got in the tent early and left off the rain fly so that we had a good view of the night sky. In fact, we woke up to clear skies and a bright moon at some point. Having no rainfly and lots of mesh on the tent allowed us to see the sunrise from the warmth of our sleeping bags:
Day 3: West Maroon Pass to Maroon Lake
Of course, at sunrise Dempsey was ready to get up and at ‘em and greeted me face-to-face:
Here’s a different perspective of our camp site from a small rise nearby:
The first effort of the day was pretty much immediately ascending West Maroon Pass. Seth assured me that the marmots were singing to cheer me on and encourage me up. It was a bit of a challenge with my tender heels and tired legs. But we did it and reached the pass (12,500’) at around 9:00am.
We were very satisfied with our efforts and looked forward to the mostly downhill hike back to the start/finish.
I highly recommend this trip. Many times during the trip I felt like this is what it means to live in Colorado - to be able to experience this kind of outdoors and see the fungus and the flowers and the sunshine and the mountains and the happy dog.
The blah life was a little less blah as a result of this endeavor.