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.
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!