MAROON BELLS - FOUR PASS LOOP
The Four Pass Loop inside Colorado's Maroon Bells Wilderness deservedly ranks as one of North America's best multi-day backpacking experiences. Popular among trail runners and hikers, the 26.8 loop trail encompasses four challenging mountain passes that will test even the most avid trekkers. This hike has everything: beautiful wildflowers, soaring mountains, rushing rivers, and lush forests. It is a very popular hike that attracts visitors from all over the country. For anyone looking to plan their next hiking adventure, the Four Pass Loop should be high on the list. The full loop should be reserved for experienced hikers with excellent fitness.
3-4 Days, 2-3 Nights
Total Distance: 26.8 Miles
Total Elevation Gain: 7,500 ft
Minimum Elevation: 9,594 ft
Maximum Elevation: 12,539 ft
Overall Difficulty: 8.5/10
Pre Trip Planning
Clockwise or Counterclockwise?
The Four Pass Loop can be completed either clockwise or counterclockwise, each way with its own pros and cons. The biggest difference in the directions is the pacing of the four different passes spread throughout the trip. If you want the first day to be a full day and the last day to be a quick hike out, then counterclockwise is the better option. If you go clockwise on Day 1, you either will have a relatively short day or a pretty long challenging day. Going counterclockwise was my chosen direction because I needed my final day to be a quick hike out of the wilderness back to my car. If you go clockwise that will be saving the Buckskin Pass for last, which may or may not be a pro or con for you. Saving the toughest for last is nice from a pack weight perspective but harder if you are physically are more fatigued towards the end. There is camping after the last pass, West Maroon, going counterclockwise which allowed me to get back to my car early on the last day. If you are starting Day 1 later in the day and can afford to finish Day 4 later in the day, then the passes are better spread out going clockwise.
Reservations and Permits
One great advantage of hiking the Four Pass Loop is there are no advanced camping permits required. This provides the benefit of being able to change plans on the spot while on the trail. However, you do need advanced reservations in order to park at the trailhead or to take the shuttle from the village. Reservations are generally available 30 days before the arrival date. Designated camping spots are marked along the trail and are first come first serve. Wilderness camping is allowed but at your own risk. Make sure to follow all Leave No Trace principles.
How long does it take?
I completed the Four Pass Loop in 4 Days (3 full days of hiking plus a short morning hike out) and 3 Nights. This is what I would recommend for most hikers, although it is certainly possible to complete the hike in one day shorter. I'll outline a suggested itinerary if you are short on time and want to push yourself to complete it in 3 Days/2 Nights. It is true that many trail runners complete the entire 27 miles, 7,000+ of elevation gain in one day. But for those not supremely gifted with cardiovascular omnipotence, either 3-4 days hiking is recommended.
Water is plentiful throughout the Four Pass Loop. I rarely carried more than 2 Liters on me and was able to refill frequently in streams and lakes. Make sure to use proper water purification technology before consuming any of the water.
Day 1: Maroon Bells Visitor Center to Upper Snowmass Creek via Buckskin Pass
Total Distance: 7.43 miles
Starting Elevation: 9,600 ft
Maximum Elevation: 12,533 ft
Ending Elevation: 10,831 ft
Elapsed Time: 6.5 hours (~ 5 hours of actual hiking time)
After parking at the Maroon Bells Visitors Center and hopping our 9AM shuttle, we were ready to begin the four day adventure. From the Maroon Bells Trailhead, follow the signs towards Crater Lake. Alongside numerous day hikers, you'll start your initial climb up getting used to the feeling of having a full pack on. After 1.6 miles, you'll reach the first fork in the path, one way leading to Crater Lake and the other towards Buckskin Pass. If you are choosing the counterclockwise path, follow the path towards Buckskin Pass. You will get a chance to see the Crater Lake at the end of the trip, but if you really want to it isn't far to hike out to the lake for a quick view, then hike back up the path to Buckskin Pass.
The ascent up to Buckskin Pass climbs swerving switchbacks through pine forests before opening up above the treeline. Here are some of the first sweeping views of the stunning landscape.
It took us about four hours to hike from the trailhead 4.85 miles up 3,000 feet to the summit of Buckskin Pass. Definitely a tough challenge with a full pack, but fresh legs helped propel us to the top. After relaxing at the summit for a deserved break, we camped alongside Snowmass Creek in one of the designated sites. If you still have stamina and daylight, I would instead recommend continuing on another 1.6 miles and camp next to Snowmass Lake.
Upper Snowmass Creek
Day 2: Upper Snowmass Creek to Fravert Basin via Trail Rider Pass
Total Distance: 9.42 miles
Starting Elevation: 10,831 ft
Maximum Elevation: 12,462 ft
Ending Elevation: 10,832 ft
Elapsed Time: 8.5 hours (~ 6.5 hours of actual hiking time)
Snowmass Lake is a quick highlight to the morning of Day 2. After less than an hour from our camping spot along Upper Snowmass Creek, we arrived at Snowmass Lake. It is a gorgeous lake that worked perfectly for a nature shower, despite the frigid water temperature. You don't have to fear leaving too soon because the trail all the way up to Trail Rider Pass continues to give impressive views of Snowmass Lake as it ascends. Climbing across a few small boulder fields and snow patches are small trials necessary to reach the second major pass of the trail.
Snowmass Lake - 10,988 ft
Total time from our campsite at Upper Snowmass Creek to the top to Trail Rider Pass took about 3.25 hours, with about 30 minutes relaxing at Snowmass Lake. The last bit to the top is a leg scorcher so be prepared. For some, the way down the west side of Trail Rider Pass will be even tougher than the ascent. After the big climb up you have to lose all that elevation and then some to get to the base of Fravert Basin. There are many campsites scattered throughout the basin. I wanted to cover as much of the next day's incline as possible, so we proceeded passed the flat section of the basin and had a bit of a surprise hike up another 900 feet before finding a campsite nestled along the North Fork Crystal River. Overall Day 2 covered 9.42 miles and was definitely a challenge that reaped in rewards with excellent views of the surrounding mountains and lakes.
Day 3: Fravert Basin to West Maroon via Frigid Air and West Maroon Pass
Total Distance: 8.98 miles
Starting Elevation: 10,832 ft
Maximum Elevation: 12,475 ft
Ending Elevation: 10,362 ft
Elapsed Time: 8.0 hours (~ 6.0 hours of actual hiking time)
The final full day includes two mountain passes, the Frigid Air Pass followed by the West Maroon Pass. From the Fravert Basin, the trail rises through a thick pine forest before clearing the tree line once more with the ascent staring you down with every step forward. Depending on exactly where you start the day it could be close to the same elevation gain as the previous day's climb to the Trail Rider Pass. 2.5 hours over about three miles earned us our third pass of the trip on top of the spectacular Frigid Air Pass.
Don't spend too much time relaxing on the Frigid Air Pass because there is a second pass still to conquer. The western side of the Frigid Air Pass is very steep, exercise caution. Luckily there is only about 700 feet of elevation decline before having to make all that back while climbing back up to over 12,400 feet up to the West Maroon Pass. Enjoy the view from this summit as it is the last major climb of the trip.
From the West Maroon Pass, there are a plethora of campsites scattered along the West Maroon Creek. Depending on how short of Day 4 is desired, you may try to go as far as Crater Lake to camp. After a full day with two mountain passes, I was satisfied with the campsite chosen about 3.3 miles past the West Maroon Pass, leaving just 3.3 miles of downhill for the hike out.
Day 4: West Maroon Pass to Maroon Bells Visitors Center
Start the day early to beat the day tourists at Crater Lake and finally back at the Maroon Bells trailhead. The trail leading to Crater Lake traverses tough boulder fields losing elevation with each step. The reflection covering Crater Lake was a huge surprise and highlight of the adventure.
Recommended Itinerary: 2 Nights/3 Days Alternative
Experienced hikers confident in their fitness levels can certainly accomplish this loop hike in 2 Nights/3 Days.
Recommended Option 1: Clockwise (tough first day, but gets progressively easier)
Day 1: Maroon Bells to Fravert Basin via West Maroon and Frigid Air Pass (12-14 miles)
Day 2: Fravert Basin to Snowmass Lake via Trail Rider Pass (9-10 miles)
Day 3: Snowmass Lake back to Maroon Lake via Buckskin Pass (8 miles)
Option 2: Simply reverse Option 1.
Choosing which option is best for you really depends on whether you want your first or last day to be the toughest. For the first day challenge, go clockwise.