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Microadventure: Four Pass Loop – Maroon Bells

The Bells
The Bells
Trip DateSeptember 7-9, 2017
LocationFour Pass Loop in the White River National Forest near Aspen, CO (Click for GEOPDF Map)
Special RegulationsBear canisters are required; arriving via shuttle bus is required during most hours.
Distance28 Miles
Elevation Change16,000 feet total (8k up and 8k down)
WeatherPerfect – highs in the upper 50s, lows in the 40s
Water SourcesNot a problem for us – there were plenty of small creeks and springs to choose from throughout the route.
GroupDevin, Greg and Mat
Start with two of the most photographed 14ers in the world (Colorado slang for peaks over 14,000 feet).  Then wrap a 28-mile, picturesque route around them.  Add enough elevation change (16,000 feet of combined up and down) to deter the masses that are anchored near the trailhead by the beauties of Maroon Lake.  Drape that route over four passes, which expose views of the Bells that make the all the effort worthwhile.  The result is the Four Pass Loop, which connects West Maroon Pass (12,500 feet), Frigid Air Pass (12,415 feet), Trail Rider Pass (12,420 feet) and Buckskin Pass (12,500 feet) around the maroon-colored peaks.

The popularity of this area has induced the Forest Service to mandate a shuttle ride from Aspen, Colorado if you arrive between 8AM and 5PM.  We intentionally timed our arrival after hours, securing an overnight parking spot because we only had a couple of days to complete this bucket-list route.  A short and relatively easy hike put us 3 or 4 miles along the route that evening.

Valley of Crater Lake
Valley of Crater Lake

The leaves were just starting to change colors.  Two weeks later would be peak season, but would also be peak crowds.  We hiked past Crater Lake (sounds cooler than it looked) and followed West Maroon Creek to our camping spot for the night.  We took in a wonderful moonrise and were awakened in the night by enough rain to make us appreciate our tarps.

We started hiking Friday morning at 7:30AM and first worked our way up West Maroon Pass.

Looking Back
Looking Back

The trail drops down briefly after West Maroon Pass before climbing up Frigid Air Pass.  Frigid Air has approximately zero switchbacks.  It goes straight up the mountain, but results in some amazing scenery.

Following the pass, we enjoyed a relatively easy hike down North Fork Basin for several miles.

Waterfall2
Waterfall

After a short stop for lunch, we started the long climb towards Trail Rider Pass.

Towards Geneva Lake
Towards Geneva Lake

On the way up Trail Rider, we envied this hawk, which was coasting easily on the air currents.

Hawk
Hawk

Remember that scene from Lord of the Rings – Return of the King where Frodo and Sam are almost to Mount Doom?  They are thirsty, hungry, footsore, and feeling the burden of the load they carry.  Yep – felt just like that making it over the third pass of the day.

Trailrider
Trail Rider

We chilled for a bit on top before heading down to Snowmass Lake (yes, those are sandals on Devin – crazy man) and then headed on to Snowmass Lake.

Devin & Greg on Trailrider
Devin & Greg on Trail Rider

We passed 4 or 5 groups that day, which was less than I expected, but Snowmass Lake was fairly busy.  We set up our tarps and enjoyed the view of Snowmass Mountain.

Shores of Snowmass
Shores of Snowmass

The next morning we were on the trail again at 7:30AM.  With fresher legs, we made good time over Buckskin Pass, the last of the four.

Down from Buckskin
Down from Buckskin

We passed about 50 to 100 day hikers and photographers on the mile or so closest to the trailhead, but with all the attractions this area brings that is understandable.  By 11:30 we were back at the car and ready for the post-hike burger and shake.   This is an amazing route through a beautiful place that merits all the attention it gets.

Final Bell
Final Bell

Planning and Preparation

For me, nothing stops a backpacking trip faster than trying to plan all the details before committing to the trip.  Life tends to get in the way or the “burden” of working through the details takes the energy out of the whole deal and three months later I wonder why I haven’t done anything.  Instead, I now pick a date, figure out who can come (sometimes that results in a solo trip), and then we decide where the trip will be.  After that, working out the associated details is easy and exciting.  We did exactly that for this little adventure.

All my trips begin with Caltopo.com and I learned plenty from caltopo before this adventure.  (See SectionHiker’s post for more information about this great on-line mapping tool).  Before we settled on the Four Pass Loop, we evaluated a lot of other routes in this area.  Caltopo makes it easy to quickly determine mileage, elevation change, get ideas on likely sources of water (toggle between the various maps and aerial images to facilitate this) and to get point weather forecasts.

I started by turning on the Shared Maps option (use the drop down in the upper right hand corner).  This displays routes that other users have made public. Since this is a popular area, there are a lot of routes that already exist and some are very detailed with campsites marked along the route.  After getting a feel for what others have done and what was nearby, we decided on the Four Pass Loop.  I traced out our route (use the Mapbuilder layer to make that really easy), shared a link to it with my hiking buddies, and printed hard copies for use on the trail.

I grabbed the URL to the weather forecast for a spot where I thought we would be camping as well as one of the passes (just right click on the map, select Point Info, then select NOAA Forecast) so I could keep an eye on expected conditions as the date of the trip approached.  I also read through the Forest Service regulations for this area, which can be accessed here 

Gear Selection

Greg, Devin, and I go on a lot of trips together, so that makes sharing gear easy, which keeps weight and pack volume low.  I’m a Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar fanboy and Devin and I shared that since he packed the BearVault bear cannister, which we all crammed our food into each night.  Greg rolls with an A-frame style tarp and homemade alchohol stove and I like the TrailDesign’s Sidewinder stove.  We all made use of a 4-liter Platypus GravityWorks filter that I picked up for a large group trip I helped lead, and it was a relaxing change from the typical Sawyer Squeeze I often use.

The weather forecast had us all packing a bit warmer than we actually needed, but that was fine because the promised rain only appeared one night so we could enjoy the perfect fall weather during the day.  Finally, the hit piece of gear for the trip was the Garmin inReach Explorer Plus because our wives could track our progress as we periodically pinged out our location via satellite throughout the trip (preset messages don’t add to the monthly plan you choose and can include your location).  I also used the weather forecast feature from the inReach, which is a nice feature in the ever-changing Colorado weather.

About the Author

Mat Fielding works 55 hours per week as a geotechnical engineer and relies on excursions like this one to relax, recharge, and thrive.  His microadventures include leading youth group trips, backpacking with his family, and doing more intense two or three day adventures with friends.  Check out https://microadventures.myportfolio.com/ for more trips/photos and inspiration for your own microadventures.

Written 2018.

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7 comments

  1. Matt, You rock, what a great trip.

  2. Thank you for info like this, Matt. I live in nearby Nebraska, became an avid backpacker a few years ago, am in my 60’s and working on skills to safely hike the Colorado wilderness areas in my upcoming retirement.

  3. Love the pics. I have done the trip twice, but never gone clockwise….it is probably more fun that way

  4. So if you get there before 8am or after 5pm you can drive your own vehicle? Not big on taking shuttle buses.

  5. Going to the area with a 4 and 6 year old…interested in doing part of the loop (10-14 miles) and sleeping out there only one night. Any suggestions for what section to hike and/or where to camp?

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