By Steve Denny
The Four Pass Loop is one of the most beautiful, enchanting, and popular backpacking loops in Colorado. Mile for mile, it offers some of the best views of any trail I’ve ever walked. It encircles the famous Maroon Bells Fourteeners, climbing 4 passes over 12,000 feet. Clocking in somewhere around 28 miles and 7,500 feet elevation gain (depending on who you ask), most parties spend 2-4 days on the trail; however the current speed record is 4 hours and 35 minutes! Pack weight, physical fitness, and acclimatization are the biggest players in your speed. Know your groups abilities, and don’t push it! This trail is one to be enjoyed, at whatever pace you choose. Don’t expect to be alone, especially over the weekends! This trail is super popular, and easily accessible from the Aspen airport, so you will be spending trail time with parties from all over the world.
Getting there: The Four Pass Loop is a proper loop, starting and ending at the Maroon Lake trailhead in the Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness. To get there, head toward the town of Aspen, Colorado on Highway 82. Just before you get to town take the Maroon Creek exit in the roundabout, follow this road for 9.5 miles to it’s end, and a large parking area. Look for the overnight parking lot if you are planning a few days, tickets have been written for parking in the day-use lot. There is a fee to park ($10) but locals know to show up early, before the rangers, and blow right past the fee booth.
From mid-June to Labor Day (and on weekends through September), Maroon Creek Rd. is closed to private vehicles from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Take the shuttle ($6, 970-925-8484) from Aspen Highlands Village.
Season: May-October (snow melt-first snow) Check with the ranger for current snow conditions. (970) 925-3445
Maps: NatGeo Illustrated – Maroon Bells Redstone Marble
Beta: Head out of the lot on the main trail past Maroon Lake toward Crater Lake, after you pass Crater Lake decide which way to loop, both have their advantages. We hiked counter-clockwise, hitting Buckskin pass first. This is the way I would do it again, but it seems more popular to hike clockwise. The views from the top of Buckskin are outstanding headed this way, and the descent is really quick. Trailrider Pass is a much easier climb going this way, but a very steep and long descent back into the valley.
The Geneva lake extension adds a few miles, but is a great place to break the hike up if you’re planning on one night headed counter clockwise. It is one of the most beautiful lakes in the area, offering great views of Snowmass Peak and Lead King Basin. It is also a nice break from the 4PL proper, as the extra milage keeps the crowds away. The biggest factor to consider is the current water levels, as there is a particularly swift stream crossing below Geneva Lake, and in high water it would be downright dangerous or impossible. If you do camp at Geneva, there are 7 established sites around the lake, they are all pretty awesome, but #2 is certainly the best of them all.
Descent into Fravert Basin, below a gorgeous waterfall system. Cross the swift stream and hike an overgrown trail back to the Four Pass Loop proper. Enjoy mellow, flat hiking through Fravert Basin, following the North Fork of the Crystal River. Eventually make a mellow (but cold!) ford across the Crystal and climb steep switchbacks by a large waterfall. Parties headed clockwise for 1 night should enjoy the campsites by this waterfall.
Up, up, up, back above tree line to Frigid Air Pass, offering more outstanding views. It is flat enough to camp on the top of this pass, but remember that is lives up to it’s name. Drop down a steep trail to an absolutely gorgeous valley, looking toward Crested Butte. This part of the trail is outstanding, with outstanding green valleys full of bright wildflowers and snow patches. Also, you don’t lose too much elevation before heading up #4, West Maroon Pass. Get ready for the crowds, not that you’ve been alone this entire time, but the hike up West Maroon Pass is a particularly popular day hike, so there will be plenty of folks to take your photo on top.
From here it’s ~6 more miles back to Maroon lake, we took our shoes off for 2 fords on Maroon Creek, but they were both very mellow. There are a few campsites in this basin, and excellent camping at Crater Lake (Site #8 is the best, also somewhat hard to find) but at that point you are only 2 miles from the car (read: beer) and it’s all downhill!
With one night at Geneva Lake, headed counter clockwise, we estimated ~12 miles the first day to the far side of Geneva, and ~18 the second. Our packs clocked in ~20 lbs each fully loaded with food, fuel and water. Light is right! There is plenty of water to be had, 2L capacity each and a Steripen got us through just fine.