Backpacking Colorado’s Four Pass Loop

Maroon Bells

This four-day, four-pass backpacking trip is often featured on lists of the world’s classic hikes, and it certainly is worthy of all the hype. Beginning at Aspen’s magnificent Maroon Bells and traversing four 12,000+ passes over its 26 miles, the hike offers magnificent scenery and a good physical challenge. You might think that starting at the Maroon Bells—one of Colorado’s most photogenic peaks—would make the the remainder of the hike somewhat anti-climatic, but each pass offers a new set of vistas that are just as spectacular as the next. The Four Pass Loop is awesome from beginning to end. We highly recommend it!

Since this is a loop, there are several entry points for the hike, but the one closest to Aspen was logistically the easiest for us. We were lucky enough to arrive at the Maroon Bells parking lot early enough to snatch one of the few parking sites reserved for backpackers. If those had been full, we could have parked remotely and used the popular area’s shuttle system to get to the trailhead.

After passing the Bells, the trail led us through a valley of large granite boulders, past a nearly dry Crater Lake and alongside a pretty stream with a few uneventful crossings. Eventually, we started the grueling climb up to our first pass, passing several nice-looking campsites just before reaching the top. We debated whether or not we should take one of the sites before the pass, but we were determined to take on a pass each day, so we pressed on. The view from the top of West Maroon Pass was marvelous, and we took it all in before pressing on to look for our first night’s campsite.

Before long, we found a level site with some dense bushes for wind shelter. We set up camp and began the search for water. This proved to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated as Colorado was suffering a fairly severe drought. Although there were plenty of streams, their water levels were so low that they made us question whether our filter would be effective at all. After a few hours of searching for better options, we worked our way back to the most promising of the streams and crossed our fingers for the best.

The second pass came early on Day 2, and our confidence grew as we soaked in the view and the realization that we already had already completed half of our elevation challenges in the first 24 hours of our hike. A long descent for the rest of the day led us into a beautiful valley where we set up camp for the night and enjoyed a magnificent sunset on the backside of Maroon Bells.

Click to enlarge photographs and view as a slideshow.

Day 3 began with a tough series of steep switchbacks gaining over 1,000 feet in elevation in little over a mile from our previous night’s camp. With that challenge behind us, the rest of the way up to Trail Rider Pass seemed almost easy by comparison. The descent from there led us down to Snowmass Lake where we enjoyed a pleasant picnic lunch on the shores of the beautiful lake. There were several attractive campsites right near the lake, but the area seemed quite popular and noisy with campers and hikers taking frequent swims in the lake’s cool waters. We opted to press on for several miles farther along the trail in hopes of finding camp closer to our final pass.

Along the way, we hiked through a wetlands area that had clearly been created by some industrious beavers. Before long, we crossed a river, the area’s main water source, and were stopped in our tracks by the handiwork (toothiwork?) of the ambitious rodents. There we found a beaver dam more impressive than any we had ever seen before. While we don’t claim to be engineers, in our humble opinions, the craftsmanship of these beavers rivals any man-made structure of the sort that we have ever seen. It was clearly the Hoover Dam of all beaver dams, and we were seriously impressed!

We found camp that night on a ridge with a small group of other hikers and enjoyed the camaraderie that comes with enduring miles of hiking with heavy loads, sleeping in tents far from civilization and cooking freeze-dried meals over a camp stove.

On Day 4 , we woke early to tackle our final pass. This seemed to be the easiest of all the passes, and we savored the wonderful sense of accomplishment we felt at the top for as long as we could before deciding we needed move on. We noted the many beautiful campsites that we passed on our way back to Maroon Bells and wondered what it would have been like to do the trek counter-clockwise instead. The closer we got to the Bells, the more and more people we saw, which made us appreciate our backcountry experience all the more.

Views on Day 4

We enjoyed a final picnic lunch in full view of the Bells and made it back to our car just as the sky opened up above us to a magnificent thunderstorm. We felt gratified to have completed this fantastic trek and even more so to have made it out just in the nick of time!

20 thoughts on “Backpacking Colorado’s Four Pass Loop

  1. Matt and Alison: I remember talking with you years ago about choosing the most beautiful places that you/we had ever been. I have to think the place where you took the first picture of the Maroon Bells and also the river that was the backside of the Bells have to rank up there in the top most beautiful places you have ever been. Those photos are MAGNIFICENT!!!!!

    1. Thanks! The Maroon Bells are indeed spectacular, and we have seen many photos much prettier than ours taken by photographers in our camera club. They are especially beautiful with a dusting of snow, fall colors and a perfect reflection in the lake. They are really easily accessible, so they are a very popular subject. It was fun for us to get a picture of the backside of the Bells because we had to work so much harder to get that view that most people do not see. And yes, both spots rank up there as some of the most beautiful places we’ve been!

  2. Marvelous photos. We’ve done portions of this loop as day hikes, but never connected the dots. Hmm, gives me an idea for when we’re in Aspen this summer. Thanks!

  3. That looks like an awesome trip and I particularly liked the photos from Day 2. I spent a winter on the other side of the mountains in Crested Butte and loved that area – it is stunning!

    1. Thanks, Jeff! We met many hikers hiking from Crested Butte to Aspen or vice versa along the trail our first day. They had to arrange a shuttle car to get them back, but it seemed like that would be a great hike to do if you wanted a good challenge but weren’t up for four days.

  4. Great photos of a beautiful place! It looks like you two once again had another spectacular hiking adventure in the magnificent Rockies. This brings back great memories of spending my summers at camp in nearby Gunnison. Another awesome post!

  5. Hey! LOVE the pictures! We were debating on where to hike this summer but landed on Four Pass largely because of this post! Question: what time of year were you there? We’re starting Sun Jun 26 or Mon Jun 27 and wanted to know what kind of crowds to expect (trailhead, in the backcountry, etc…). Thanks for the great contribution!

    1. Thanks so much, Doug! We are honored to have influenced your decision. The Four Pass Loop is amazing, and you will have a great time. We did the hike at the beginning of August a few years back and didn’t find it too crowded once we left the Maroon Bells area. We never had trouble finding spots to camp, but the waterfront spots near the lake on Day 3 were in pretty high demand. We chose to camp closer to the pass and avoided all of the crowds there. It was also a bit of a shock to see all of the day-hikers as we came back to the trailhead, so be prepared for that. Otherwise, the hike was pretty peaceful. Let us know if you have any more questions. Enjoy!

      1. That’s awesome to hear! I’m hoping that by being there early in the season AND doing the majority of the hike on weekdays we’ll avoid the majority of the crowds. Thanks again for this blog, love it!

  6. Planning a trip in mid september, will there be plenty of water? What about the temperatures? Our last trip was the outer loop at Big Bend in March. Thank you..

    1. Hi Rodney. We only had trouble finding water on our first night. We hiked over the pass, and there wasn’t much water between our camp and the next pass. As we recall, there seemed to be plenty of water before the first pass, so camp on that side or bring water over with you. We did the trail in early August many years ago now,so I would recommend calling a forest service office around Aspen to get more accurate info from the experts.

  7. Hi Alison and Matt! Your blog is serving as a springboard for many trips for me lately! My trip to the Wonderland this week was sadly canceled due to the wildfires out there (the eastern side of the park is entirely closed now). :-(. So we’re looking for an alternate plan and may fly out to Colorado to do this exact hike. Quick question: Did you guys spend any time in Colorado acclimating to the altitude on this hike before you started? I don’t usually have issues with altitude but I know others do, so I want to be mindful of that with the two friends I’m going with. If you did spend some time elsewhere to acclimate, will you let me know where and if you liked the area (if you were on a trail, that is). No worries if you don’t see this for awhile or don’t have time to chime in, but I’d love to know your thoughts if you do! Thanks!

    1. Hi Nancy! We are sorry that your Wonderland trip is canceled–the images we are seeing from the wildfires out west are so heartbreaking. Backpacking in Colorado will be a great alternative for you. We did the Four Pass Loop in the summer of 2012. We arrived in Colorado after 6 weeks in Iceland to go to a friend’s wedding. After the wedding, we drove from Denver to the Silverton area and did a short, overnight backpack to Blue Lake, which was really beautiful. We did an out and back, but you could certainly string together a lot more hiking from there and even tackle some 14ers. Then we drove to Carbondale where we stayed with friends for a few days before doing the Four Pass Loop. Back then, I am not sure that we were as aware of altitude issues, so we weren’t really trying to acclimate. But, with all that time prior to the Four Pass Loop at higher elevations, we probably were doing just that. We have been lucky and have not ever really suffered from altitude problems so far, but the best advice is to spend a few days at higher elevations before hitting the trail. Drink lots of water and avoid alcohol. Once on the trail, hike slowly and take frequent breaks. I am sure you know all that already. Have you thought about doing a long section of the Colorado Trail? It’s 485 miles from Denver to Durango. You could pick out a 100-mile section to get a little of the thru-hiking experience. We haven’t done it yet, so I can’t give you any real advice, but we have our eye on it for the future! We hope you have a wonderful time wherever you end up. We will be eager to hear about your experience!

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