Hikes & Trails

A Guide to the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop Hike in Colorado

POSTED ON August 23, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Embark on a thrilling journey through the captivating landscapes of the Four Pass Loop Hike in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Nestled within the heart of the Colorado Rockies, this 26.7-mile (43 kilometers) trail promises an exhilarating journey through pristine wilderness, stunning alpine landscapes, and the rugged grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, offering an unforgettable exploration of Colorado’s natural splendor.

With each step, you’ll be captivated by the ever-changing vistas, from lush meadows to rugged peaks. Along the way, we’ll navigate four challenging mountain passes, each offering a new perspective and a sense of accomplishment.

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker seeking a thrilling challenge or a nature enthusiast eager to immerse yourself in panoramic splendor, this hike has something to offer everyone.

Join us as we delve into the details of this remarkable trek, sharing essential tips and insights to make your Four Pass Loop experience truly unforgettable.

History of the Four Pass Loop

The history of the Four Pass Loop, nestled within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, is as rich and captivating as the landscapes it winds through. Dating back to a time before official trails, the loop’s origins are intertwined with the region’s exploration and natural wonders.

Centuries ago, indigenous communities roamed these lands, utilizing the passes and valleys for trade and travel. Today, hikers follow in their footsteps, experiencing the same breathtaking vistas that once greeted these early adventurers.

The Four Pass Loop gained popularity as the surrounding area became recognized for its astounding beauty. The trail’s evolution saw the establishment of marked paths, allowing more adventurers to embark on the journey. Starting at Maroon Lake (location), hikers can now traverse through iconic sites like Buckskin Pass, where the elevation gain rewards with sweeping panoramas of the Elk Mountains.

Each pass has its own tale to tell. West Maroon Pass, with its pristine alpine meadows, leads to the enchanting Geneva Lake. Trail Rider Pass opens the door to Snowmass Lake (location), framed by rugged peaks. From Frigid Air Pass, hikers are treated to a stunning waterfall in the Fravert Basin (location).

The Four Pass Loop beckons backpackers to explore its wonders. The trek offers more than just a physical challenge; it’s a connection to history, nature, and one’s inner self. The carefully placed pass loop campsites provide refuge amidst the awe-inspiring mountain ranges.

As you hike through the forested trails and conquer steep switchbacks, you’ll gain an appreciation for the land’s resilience and enduring allure. The loop’s popularity has led to the need for overnight permits, ensuring responsible exploration.

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Key Facts About Four Pass Loop

Total Length: Approximately 27-30 miles (43-48 kilometers) depending on specific route variations.

Elevation Gain: Around 7,000 to 8,000 feet (2,133 to 2,438 meters) throughout the hike.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Days to Complete: About 3 to 5 days, depending on the hiker’s experience, pace, and the chosen route.

Lowest Point: Around 9,580 feet (2,920 meters) at the Maroon Lake Trailhead.

Highest Point: Approximately 12,500 to 12,800 feet (3,810 to 3,901 meters), depending on the specific pass being crossed.

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

The Four Pass Loop is located near the Maroon Bells and is known for its stunning views and picturesque landscapes. It’s a loop with four high-altitude passes, including West Maroon Pass (map) (12,500 feet), Frigid Air Pass (map) (12,415 feet), Trail Rider Pass (map) (12,420 feet), and Buckskin Pass (map) (12,500 feet).

Starting at the Maroon Lake Trailhead, you’ll be immediately greeted by the iconic Maroon Bells, with their reflection dancing upon the crystalline waters. As you venture along the West Maroon and Maroon Snowmass Trails, you’ll ascend through dense pine trees and steep switchbacks, gaining elevation and leaving the world below.

Passing through alpine meadows and a creek crossing, you’ll encounter the first of four mountain passes – West Maroon Pass.

The trail descends quickly into the Fravert Basin, revealing a stunning waterfall and leading you to the mesmerizing beauty of Geneva Lake. As you continue, Buckskin Pass awaits, challenging your determination and rewarding your efforts with panoramic vistas of towering peaks.

The third pass, Trail Rider Pass, offers a gateway to Snowmass Lake (location), surrounded by the imposing majesty of snow-capped mountains. Here, the alpine lakes mirror the sky, creating a breathtaking spectacle. The final stretch involves conquering the Frigid Air Pass, a steep ascent that culminates in a triumphant summit.

Throughout the journey, the Four Pass Loop presents an ever-changing tapestry of landscapes – from verdant valleys and flower-filled meadows to rocky terrains and pristine lakes. The trail conditions vary, from well-maintained paths to rugged terrain, necessitating the use of hiking poles for stability.

Designated campsites dot the trail, allowing weary hikers to rest under the starry night sky while gazing at the silhouette of North Maroon Peak and Pyramid Peak. The loop can be hiked clockwise, starting at Maroon Lake Trailhead and concluding with a descent from West Maroon Pass, or vice versa, each offering unique perspectives of the journey.

As you navigate river crossings and ascend each pass, the awe-inspiring vistas unfold, painting a picture of nature’s grandeur. Whether you’re an experienced backpacker or a novice adventurer, the Four Pass Loop Hike promises an incredible experience that will forever be etched in your memory.

Prepare your trail mix, lace up your hiking boots, and immerse yourself in the most amazing scenery the Elk Mountains have to offer.

Path in Maroon Bells

Route options

Whether hiking clockwise or counterclockwise, the Four Pass Loop promises an unforgettable journey. Each route option offers a distinct perspective and challenges, making the decision an integral part of the adventure.

Clockwise Route:

Hikers begin at the Maroon Lake Trailhead, instantly greeted by the iconic Maroon Bells. The trail ascends steadily toward West Maroon Pass, where the ascent offers captivating views of the valley below. Descending into the Fravert Basin, the path unveils a stunning waterfall before leading to the enchanting Geneva Lake.

Next, Buckskin Pass challenges with its elevation gain, but the reward is panoramic vistas of rugged high peaks. Trail Rider Pass then welcomes trekkers to Snowmass Lake (map), a serene oasis nestled amidst the mountains.

The final ascent to Frigid Air Pass concludes the clockwise journey, granting sweeping views as hikers conquer the last pass before descending to the trailhead.

Anticlockwise Route:

In contrast, the anticlockwise route commences with the ascent to Buckskin Pass (location). The initial climb rewards hikers with expansive views before descending into the Fravert Basin, marked by its picturesque waterfall.

From here, the path leads to Snowmass Lake, where the surrounding peaks create a breathtaking backdrop. Trail Rider Pass follows, guiding hikers through alpine terrain before the descent to Geneva Lake.

The upward journey to West Maroon Pass provides a grand finale, with the iconic Maroon Bells coming into view as hikers conquer the final pass. This route is more popular with runners, conquering the hardest climb right at the beginning while still feeling fresh.

Note that: The clockwise route offers a gradual elevation gain, easing hikers into the challenge, while the anticlockwise route starts with a more demanding climb. Each direction, with its unique viewpoints and trail conditions, contributes to a well-rounded experience.

Four Pass Loop 4-Day Itinerary: A Step-by-Step Guide

Planning your Four Pass Loop adventure requires careful consideration to ensure a safe, enjoyable, and memorable experience.

Here’s a comprehensive 4-day itinerary to help you make the most of your journey through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness:

Lake in Maroon Bells

Day 1: Maroon Bells Trail to Crater Lake Campground

This is a 2-mile (3.2 kilometers) hike with 800 feet (244 meters) elevation gain.

You will begin your Four Pass Loop adventure at the Maroon Bells Trailhead, where the iconic Maroon Bells frame the trail’s entrance.

Next, you will trek through alpine meadows and ascend steadily toward the first challenge: West Maroon Pass. Marvel at the breathtaking views of the Maroon Bells area as you cross over the pass.

Descend through the stunning Fravert Basin (location), taking in the rugged beauty and potentially catching a glimpse of a stunning waterfall.

Reach Crater Lake Campground, nestled near the enchanting Crater Lake, and set up camp for the night.

Day 2: Crater Lake Campground to Snowmass Lake Campsites

Depart Crater Lake and continue your journey through the Maroon Snowmass Trail.

Ascend Buckskin Pass (location), where steep switchbacks reward you with panoramic vistas of Snowmass Lake and the surrounding mountain ranges.

Descend to the North Fork Crystal River and navigate through the Lead King Basin.

Recharge at Snowmass Lake Campsites, surrounded by the awe-inspiring alpine scenery of Snowmass Lake and the iconic Maroon Bells.

Day 3: Snowmass Lake Campsites to Geneva Lake Campsites

Begin the day by ascending Trail Rider Pass (map), a challenging but rewarding climb that unveils breathtaking vistas. Journey through rocky terrain and lush landscapes, descending from Trail Rider Pass.

Experience the stunning beauty of Geneva Lake, surrounded by towering peaks and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness (location).

Find a spot at the Geneva Lake Campsites, where the peaceful ambiance sets the stage for a memorable night under the stars.

Day 4: Geneva Lake Campsites to Maroon Bells Trail

Prepare for the final leg of your adventure by tackling the last pass: Frigid Air Pass (map).

Ascend steadily, soaking in the spectacular views as you conquer the final pass on your Four Pass Loop journey. Descend through scenic terrain, where pine trees and stunning waterfalls mark your path.

Arrive back at the Maroon Bells Trailhead, completing your unforgettable four-day backpacking trip through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike and Weather Conditions

The journey through the four mountain passes—West Maroon Pass, Buckskin Pass, Trail Rider Pass, and Frigid Air Pass—rewards hikers with the most amazing scenery, but being informed about the climate and weather patterns ensures a memorable and secure adventure. But as hikers traverse the trail, they’ll encounter a range of weather conditions and breathtaking landscapes.

Maroon Bells Landscape

Spring (March to May)

In spring, temperatures on the Four Pass Loop can vary widely, ranging from 0°C to 15°C (32°F to 59°F). Snow may still blanket higher elevations, especially around the four mountain passes.

As the snow begins to melt, river crossings can become more challenging due to increased water flow. Hiking during this time requires careful planning, appropriate gear, and the possibility of encountering muddy trails.

Summer (June to August)

Summer graces the Four Pass Loop with milder temperatures, averaging around 7°C to 24°C (45°F to 75°F). This is the prime hiking season, as most of the trail becomes accessible and the iconic Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is alive with vibrant flora.

But prepare for afternoon thunderstorms, especially at higher elevations, by starting hikes early, checking local weather reports in advance, and watching the skies.

Fall (September to November)

As autumn arrives, temperatures start to drop, ranging from 0°C to 15°C (32°F to 59°F). The changing leaves paint the landscape with golden hues, creating a stunning backdrop for hikers.

It’s a great time to experience the Four Pass Loop’s amazing scenery without the summer crowds. Be aware of potential snowfall at higher elevations, which can affect trail conditions.

Winter (December to February)

Winter transforms the Four Pass Loop into a serene wonderland, with temperatures ranging from -18°C to -1°C (0°F to 30°F). The trail is generally not recommended for inexperienced winter hikers due to deep snow, icy conditions, and potential avalanche hazards. You can check out our guide to winter hiking to learn more about this epic journey, its dangers, preparations, and things to consider.

However, these seasons are more suitable for experienced backcountry adventurers who are well-equipped for challenging conditions and find backpacking the Maroon Bells Challenge invigorating.

No matter the season, it’s crucial to be prepared for rapid weather changes and challenging trail conditions.

Best Time to Hike

The best time to hike the Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness largely depends on your preferences and hiking experience. Each season offers unique advantages and challenges.

So, the best times to hike are in the summer (June to August) and Fall (September to November). Trails are accessible, the temperature is mild, and there are fewer crowds.

Spring (March to May) and winter (December to February) are less recommended for most hikers due to potentially hazardous conditions. Spring may have lingering snow and difficult river crossings, while winter presents significant snow accumulation, icy terrain, and avalanche risks.

Wildflowers in Maroon Bells

Essential Gear for a Successful Four Pass Loop Hike

When gearing up for your unforgettable Four Pass Loop hike through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, ensuring you have the right equipment is crucial. As you traverse through iconic locations like West Maroon Pass, Trail Rider Pass, and Frigid Air Pass, you’ll have the peace of mind to enjoy the journey, even with tired feet and a few hours left on the trail.

Hiking gear

Here’s a comprehensive list of recommended gear to ensure a safe and enjoyable journey:

Hiking Shoes: Sturdy, well-fitting hiking shoes provide essential support and protection as you conquer steep switchbacks and traverse rugged terrain. We have a guide on how to choose between trail running shoes and hiking boots.

Backpack: A comfortable and spacious backpack is essential for carrying your gear, food, and other essentials for the journey.

Clothing Layers: Be prepared for changing weather by dressing in moisture-wicking, breathable layers that can be added or removed as needed. You can find more information in our hiking clothes guide.

Rain Gear: Pack a waterproof jacket and pants to stay dry during unexpected rain showers or river crossings.

Navigation Tools: A detailed map, compass, GPS device, or any hiking app will help you stay on course through the Four Pass Loop’s intricate trails. Here’s a guide to help you navigate your way in the wilderness.

First Aid Kit: Carry a well-equipped first aid kit to handle minor injuries or emergencies. Don’t forget to check out our basic wilderness first aid tips.

Trekking Poles: These aids provide stability during river crossings, steep descents, and ascents.

Water and Filtration: Bring ample water bottles or a hydration system, and consider a water filter for refilling along the way.

Nutrition: High-energy snacks, trail mix, and easily prepared meals ensure you stay fueled throughout your journey. You’ll find more tips in our backpacking food ideas.

Sleeping Gear: If planning overnight stays, a suitable tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad are essential for a comfortable night’s rest.

Permits and Documentation: Carry any required overnight, trail, and entrance permits, and identification, for reference.

Sun Protection: Pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to shield yourself from the high-altitude sun.

Headlamp: Essential for navigating in low-light conditions and exploring after sunset.

Bear Canister: Required for food storage to prevent wildlife encounters and protect the delicate ecosystem. You would want to check out some tips for wildlife encounters along a trail.

Camera: Capture the stunning landscapes and memories of your Four Pass Loop adventure.

Hiking Socks: Durable and high quality hiking socks can prevent blisters and keep your feet comfortable during long hikes. Check out Silverlight socks below:

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Permits and Regulations

Before you embark on your exhilarating Four Pass Loop hike through the Maroon Bells Wilderness, it’s essential to understand the permits and regulations that help preserve this stunning natural wonder.

Here are the important details to ensure a seamless and responsible journey:

  1. Overnight Permits: You’ll need to secure an overnight permit to embark on your Four Pass Loop backpacking trip. These permits regulate the number of hikers and campers, ensuring a sustainable and enjoyable experience for all. Permits must be purchased in advance here
  2. Reservation System: The Four Pass Loop has a reservation system that allows you to plan your trip ahead of time and secure your spot. Be sure to book well in advance, especially during peak hiking seasons.

Regulations

Maroon Bells Wilderness Area: The Four Pass Loop falls within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, a protected area managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Adhering to regulations helps preserve the pristine landscapes and iconic Maroon Bells.

Leave No Trace: Follow the Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Pack out all waste, avoid disturbing wildlife, and stay on designated trails to protect fragile ecosystems.

Campsite Regulations: Utilize designated campsites along the Four Pass Loop, as camping in non-designated areas can harm the landscape and disrupt wildlife habitats.

Wilderness Ethics: Respect the wilderness by keeping noise levels down and minimizing your footprint.

Backcountry Safety: Be aware of path conditions, weather forecasts, and river crossings. Prepare adequately for the Four Pass Loop’s challenging terrain and potential changes in weather.

Parking and Access: Plan your access to the trailhead carefully. Limited overnight parking is available at Maroon Lake Trailhead, and using shuttle services from Aspen or Snowmass is encouraged.

Group Size Limits: Group size limits apply to the Four Pass Loop to prevent overcrowding and maintain the wilderness experience. Check the regulations for specific group size restrictions.

Where to Stay: Camping and Overnight Stays

Camping along the Four Pass Loop is an integral part of the adventure, allowing you to immerse yourself in the breathtaking landscapes of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Here’s a guide to the available campgrounds and permits required for a memorable backpacking trip:

  1. Maroon Lake Campground: Located at Maroon Lake, this campground is ideal for starting your Four Pass Loop adventure. However, overnight permits are required, so make sure to secure yours in advance. You can get the permit here.

You will wake up to stunning views of the iconic Maroon Bells, creating an unforgettable backdrop.

  1. Crater Lake Backcountry Campgrounds (location): Situated near Crater Lake, this campground offers a serene setting amidst the towering peaks. It is a perfect place to rest after conquering the challenging West Maroon Pass. But remember to adhere to Leave No Trace principles to preserve the pristine surroundings.
  2. Snowmass Lake Campsites: Nestled near Snowmass Lake (map), these campsites provide a tranquil refuge along your journey. You can gaze at any surrounding mountain range and reward yourself after ascending Trail Rider Pass. Overnight permits are essential for camping in this awe-inspiring area. You can check for permits here.
  3. Geneva Lake Campsites: These campsites near Geneva Lake (location) offer a serene retreat and breathtaking alpine views. These sites are ideal for a peaceful stopover before tackling the final pass, the Frigid Air Pass. However, ensure you have the required permits, which can be found here, to enjoy this remarkable campsite.
  4. Capitol Lake Campsites (location): For those continuing the journey towards Capitol Peak, these campsites are strategically located. Camping here requires proper permits and adherence to regulations to protect the pristine environment.
  5. Fravert Basin Campground: This magnificent campground offers superb views of Capitol Peak. It is nestled at the end of Fravert Basin and surrounded by vibrant meadows. Overnight permits are, however, required to stay here, which can be found at recreation.gov.

As you plan your camping itinerary for the Four Pass Loop, keep in mind that due to the popularity of this iconic backpacking route, permits help manage the number of visitors and preserve the wilderness experience.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Embarking on the Four Pass Loop backpacking trip in the heart of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is a thrilling adventure.

Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to get there and navigate the area:

Nearest Airports

The nearest major airports are Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (ASE) and Eagle County Regional Airport (EGE).

Upon landing, you’re just a scenic drive away from the Maroon Bells area.

From Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (ASE)

The airport is approximately a 10-mile (16-kilometer) drive from Aspen, where you can find supplies and gear for your journey.

From Aspen, take Maroon Creek Road to reach the Maroon Bells Trail.

From Eagle County Regional Airport (EGE)

Eagle County Regional Airport is located about 70 miles (112 kilometers) from Aspen.

You can rent a car or use shuttle services to travel to Aspen and reach the trailhead.

If hiking with a group, consider carpooling or using ride-sharing services to minimize the number of vehicles at the trailhead.

Navigating the Area on Foot

The adventure begins at the Maroon Bells Trail, leading you through captivating sights like Maroon Lake and iconic landmarks.

Follow the West Maroon Trail as it winds through landscapes that include Buckskin Pass, Crater Lake, and breathtaking Geneva Lake.

The Maroon Snowmass Trail takes you further, unveiling Snowmass Lake and an awe-inspiring mountain range.

Trail Rider Pass and Beyond

Descend the Trail Rider Pass, taking in the awe-inspiring elevation gain and the beauty of North Fork Crystal River.

Journey through the final pass, reaching Capitol Lake and the remarkable Maroon Bells area.

Hike on the Pass Loop Trail, immersing yourself in the beauty of West Maroon Pass and the enchanting Fravert Basin.

As you plan your Four Pass Loop adventure, keep in mind that transportation and accessibility play key roles in your journey.

Overnight Parking: Where to Leave Your Car When Hiking the Four Pass Loop

As you gear up for your epic Four Pass Loop adventure through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, one crucial logistical consideration is where to leave your car safely and securely while you’re out exploring the trail.

Parking options and considerations are vital. So, here are the details to help you plan your parking logistics effectively:

  1. Maroon Bells Trail Parking: The Maroon Bells Trailhead is the starting point for your Four Pass Loop journey and a popular choice for parking.

However, limited parking spaces are available at the trailhead. So, arriving early is essential, especially during peak hiking seasons, to secure a spot. Keep in mind that once the designated overnight parking spots are full, you may need to explore alternative options.

  1. Shuttle Services: To mitigate the limited parking situation at the Maroon Bells Trail, consider using shuttle services from Aspen or Snowmass Village. Shuttles provide a convenient and environmentally friendly way to access the trailhead without the hassle of searching for parking.

Research shuttle schedules and availability in advance, and plan your transportation accordingly.

  1. Public Transportation: If you’re staying in Aspen or Snowmass Village, utilizing public transportation is another viable option. Buses and shuttles operate between these areas and the Maroon Bells Trail, making it easy to access the trailhead without needing to park overnight.
  2. Aspen-Pitkin County Airport Parking: If you’re flying into Aspen, you might consider parking your car at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport parking facilities.

From there, you can explore shuttle services or public transportation options to reach the trailhead.

  1. Private Parking Facilities: Some lodging accommodations in Aspen or Snowmass Village may offer overnight parking for guests. Check with your lodging provider to inquire about parking options.

Regardless of your chosen parking option, planning ahead is key. Research parking availability, shuttle schedules, and transportation options well in advance of your trip.

Parking Regulations and Considerations

It is essential to familiarize yourself with parking regulations and any applicable fees or permits required before leaving your car. Also, ensure you follow designated parking areas and respect any posted restrictions to avoid potential issues.

Conclusion

The Four Pass Loop is one of the best backpacking trails in Colorado, and it offers a challenging and unforgettable hiking experience. The trail highlights natural beauty and picturesque landscapes that offer stunning views of the Maroon Bells, Snowmass Mountain, and Pyramid Peak.

If you’re a hiker, trail runner, backpacker, or thru-hiker, this trail is worth the effort. Follow these tips, and you will have a memorable hiking experience on the Four Pass Loop.

Check out our hikes and trails page to discover some of the best hikes to attempt.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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