guide to backpacking the maroon bells four pass loop

There are many great blogs which I mention at the bottom with detailed descriptions of how to hike the Four Pass Loop at Maroon Bells. However, in this blog I want to give you tips for planning your trip and for when you are on the trail. There were things I was worried about and these tips would’ve helped me a lot when I was planning our trip especially since I’m fairly new to backpacking. 

Overview Of The Hike 

Length: 26.7 mile loop
Elevation gain/loss: 7,500 feet

The trail is very well marked so you don’t need to worry too much about navigation. We average about 2 miles per hour and it was a little slower than that for this hike probably due to the weight of our bags. 

Basically this hike takes you through four valleys and to get from one valley to the next you need to go over the lowest point of the surrounding mountain ranges, or the “pass”.  The four passes in clockwise order are West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider, and Buckskin.  Each pass in over 12,000 feet high and for three of them you must gain and then lose 3,000 feet to get over them.  It’s cruel torture, but oh so worth every grueling step.

 

Overnight Parking: Where to leave your car

Where you decide to park depends on a few factors such as:

  • When you want to start your hike?
  • How many days you want to be in the backcountry?
  • Are you trying to save money?
  • Are you going on a popular weekend or on a less crowded weekday?

We only wanted two nights/three days in the backcountry which meant we wanted to start our hike by 4pm and be done by about noon the third day.  

Important: You can only drive to the trailhead before 8am and after 5pm as the road to the trailhead is only open to busses and campers staying at the campground from 8-5.

Least time consuming, but most crowded option

We contemplated waiting to drive the the trailhead until after 5pm but that meant we’d be risking the parking lot being full or not being able to find a parking spot for our large RV we were driving. 

In retrospect, parking probably wouldn’t have been a problem for us after 5pm on a Sunday night (there were quite a few spots open when we arrived on the bus at 3:30) however, if we had waited to drive up at 5pm, we probably wouldn’t have got on the trail until close to 6pm and I don’t think we’d have made it to the campsites right before the first pass that I had hoped to get to. It is doable though, especially if you don’t intend on hiking very far the fist day.  More on this below.

Cheap option

We chose to save some money and park at Buttermilk Ski Resort. It’s only $6 per day there and you can hop on the free public Aspen bus to get to aspen highland where you will have to pay $8 per adult and $6 per child for a round trip bus ticket to the trailhead. Parking at Buttermilk is allowed for only four days though.  You can park at Aspen Highland but it cost $25 per day on the weekend and $20 during the week so by parking at Buttermilk we save almost $50!

If you are trying to save time, parking up at the trailhead is a better option as long as you can time it before 8am or after 5pm and also get a parking spot. I was surprised that there was plenty of parking on a Sunday afternoon in August and there would’ve been a place for my RV to park. The nice thing about parking up at the trailhead is that when you finish, you can jump right in your car and be on your way instead of it taking a few hours for all the different busses when we finished Tuesday morning. If you do park at the trailhead, you may have to pay $10/day if the ranger station is open. 

Getting To & From The Trailhead By Bus

How we did this was so easy! The bus stop is directly adjacent to the Buttermilk parking area. We hopped on the free BRT bus towards Aspen and rode it just over a mile to the roundabout. When you get off walk behind the bus (don’t cross the street) to the sidewalk and wait at the bus stop on the east side of the sidewalk. It’s pretty obvious. Then you get on the CM (Castle Maroon) bus which will take you for free to Aspen Highland. Both these buses were very short rides (5 min each). 

At Aspen Highland you will be dropped off directly in front of the sports store. Walk in the revolving door to buy your tickets and the clearly marked bus that’s directly in front of the building will take you up to the trailhead on a guided tour. 

If you are not used to using buses, use Google Maps when you get to the buttermilk parking area it might help you feel reassured that you get on the right bus. Open up google and input Aspen Highland. Hit directions. Then tap the bus icon. It tells you which buses to look for and when they will arrive. 

To get back to buttermilk if you left your car there you’ll jump on the CM (Castle/Maroon) bus and get off at the roundabout. Then walk across the street and find the pedestrian tunnel that takes you under Highway 82. You’ll see the bus stop here and the BRT to Glenwood bus which comes by every ten minutes or so will bring you back to buttermilk. Remember to request the stop by pulling the cord when you see buttermilk pop up.

It’s also important to note that there are more than one bus running on Highway 82 that can get you to and from the roudabout besides the BRT.  That is why we recommend using your Google Maps app to cross reference which bus is fastest when you get there.

Storing Food

Bear canisters are required for all backpackers. Since we only carried one bear canister among 3 hikers, it was hard to fit enough food in it for all of us for two nights.

We didn’t bring rope to hang our bear canister however we met other hikers who didn’t hang their bear can and they said a bear moved theirs during the night (I don’t know if it’s true or not but just a warning). 

Carrying Water

We carried in two water bottles each plus one extra (a total of 7 water bottles) so we didn’t need to stop and fill water from the creek the first night. That gave us enough water to drink when hiking to the campsite, drinking water at the campsite, boiling water for pasta in our Jetboil, washing out the Jetboil, and making coffee in the morning.

When we started hiking day 2, we crossed a stream early on and refilled all 7 water bottles. We didn’t have our gravity bag and while that may have been helpful towards the end of the hike, our HydroBlu Clear Flow water bottles which have filters built in seemed to be enough. You could easily bring a Gravity Bag instead and just use it to fill all the water bottles you’ve brought with you each time you get to a water filling location.

We carry 4 Hydro Blu Clear Flows that have filters and then 3 backups that we pour into the filtering bottles when needed. 

Overall, there aren’t a ton of places to get water but there are enough.  If you are hiking clock wise, there are places to fill water at these points:

  • If you are camping at Crater Lake campground, the only place to fill water is from Crater Lake which, due to the drought, is more like a pond than a lake in the summer.
  • Mile 4.5: When you cross the stream from west to east
  • There is nowhere to get water between West Maroon (Pass 1) and Frigid Air pass (Pass 2)
  • Mile 12: After you descend from the 2nd pass through Fravert Basin, you’ll enter a forest.  A long 3 mile descent wil bring you to a river crossing where you’ll have to remove your shoes and cross the frigid waters.
  • Mile 15.5:  When you crest the incredibly steep hill and the final stretch of Trail Rider Pass come into view, you will aslo have an incredible view of Snowmass Peak towering above a small lake.  If you must, you can fill water from this pond.
  • Mile 17.5: After descending Trail Rider Pass, Snowmass lake is your next water source
  • Mile 18.5: A mile after leaving Snowmass Lake you’ll cross a creek on two large logs.  This is a good spot to fill water and is the last good water source for a while.
  • Mile 22.8: .8 miles after descending Buckskin Pass and just after the junction to Willow Pass (stay right), there is a straightaway descent and there will be a wide open space for a camping.  To get to that site you have to  hop over a stream.  The stream isn’t large but it’s sufficient if you need water.
  • Mile 23.5: A mile and a half from Buckskin Pass, you will cross a stream and though the stream may be running very small in late summer, you can still fill here if you need to.

What to Pack

Dehydrated meals may be better for this type of trip just to save space. I’m not a fan of dehydrated meals and I prefer having whole foods but that made it hard to fit it all in the bear canister.  

Here’s all the food we packed, and we were never hungry on our 3 day Maroon Bells backpacking trip:

  • 1 loaf of cranberry walnut bread
  • 1 tub of peanut butter
  • 1 large bag of Bark Thin chocolate (probably didn’t need such a big bag)
  • 1 package of organic pasta (1/2 for each night)
  • 1 large roll of salami (1/2 for each night)
  • Large ECOLunchbox of raw nuts (a small box would’ve been enough)
  • Medium ECOLunchbox of coffee beans + GSI manual grinder and pocket pour over (yes, we’re coffee snobs)
  • 1/2 of a large bag of Stacy pita chips (these worked the best for me)
  • Snack bag of goldfish each (they didn’t get eaten until the bus ride at the end)
  • Two Kind bars each (more of these would’ve helped)
  • Emergen-C packets for electrolyteswhen we climb the passes (I highly recommend one for each pass) 

Important: It’s really cold at 10-12,000 feet (duh). The forecast for aspen said a high of 70-80 and low of 48. Totally reasonable. Except Aspen is 3000 ft lower than where we camped.

I knew better and should’ve packed more layers. So here are a few odd things i wouldn’t normally pack, but you will want in the Maroon Bells.  Note that we could’ve used these things and it was mid-August.

Maroon Bells essentials:

  • Gloves.  Don’t forget them! You will need them if you’re hiking early in the morning or late in the day and if not they’re helpful for when you’re sleeping.
  • Kuhl Destroyr Pants + a base layer.  I hiked up in Kuhl destroyer pants but slept with a pair of leggings under them. I hiked up on just a tank top but three on a long sleeve shirt to sleep plus my down Patagonia. I also slept in sooo
  • Socks. 30 degree lows in August, need I say more.
  • A warm sleeping bag. My sleeping bag is a Big Agnes 20 and I was still cold. Honestly, it’s a fantastic sleeping bag and think it had more to do with our tent.
  • A warm tent. We sleep in the REI Passage 3 and it would be great for a warm summer night but not a summer night at 11,000 feet.  Our tent’s walls are pretty much all mesh but has a good rain trap so it breathes nicely and would’ve kept the rain out however too much air drafts in. I do like that it comfortably fits all three of us plus a few of our belongings at our feet. 
  • Sleeping pads.  We carried REI Flash sleeping pads.  I like that the Flash only take 20 breathes to inflate and it’s very light to carry. 
  • Water filtration system.
  • Lighting for hiking or camping.  We LOVE Luci pro lights because they’re solar but they actually work.  We just attach them to the sides of our packs with carabiners while we hike then when we stop they’re good to go.  Plus, they have a USB charger to charge our phone so we can take photos and access beta we’ve saved.

Related: Backpacking Pack List for ultimate comfort

Backcountry Camping

There are a few regulations about backcountry camping and campfires that you have to follow:

  • Camping is not allowed within one hundred (100) feet of any lake, stream, or trail
  • Camping is not allowed within 1/4 mile of Crater Lake or Snowmass Lake except for designated campsites. In addition, campfires are not permited within 1/4 mile of Crater Lake or Snowmass Lake.
  • Camping and campfires are not allowed within 100 feet of a water source such as lakes or streams
  • Campfires are not allowed above 10,800 ft. elevation

Related blog: Hawaii on a budget (coming soon)

Which direction is best?

Right before Crater Lake there is a sign to go left on trail 1970, if you are hiking clockwise, or right on trail 1975 toward Buckskin Pass if you are going counterclockwise.

I was very happy hiking it clockwise because then the views continuously get better throughout the hike. Also, coming up Trail Rider Pass from the valley is super steep so I preferred doing that section uphill only because I think it would’ve hurt worse downhilling it.

In my opinion, Trail Rider Pass to Buckskin Pass was the best part on the Four Pass Loop but honesty, the whole thing is incredible so don’t worry too much about the direction, just leave enough time to take in the views at the bottom of lake and by the lake below Trail Rider Pass. 

Here’s our itinerary of how long it took us to hike each section an where we camped.  We did also include distances, elevation gain, and other recommended camping spots because while we had an epic time, hiking all 4 passes in 1 day is hard.  On the other hand, if you follow our itinerary you get total Badass cred to say you hiked all 4 passes in 1 day with a heavy backpack.

3-Day Four Pass Loop Backpacking Itinerary

Day 1- Trailhead To Our First Backcountry Campsites

Trailhead to Crater Lake campsites: 2 miles, 800 feet elevation gain, 1:00 hour
Crater Lake campsites to first Backcountry campsites: 2 miles, 800 feet elevation gain, 1:15 hours

When you start the hike it’s very straight forward. Follow the signs for Crater Lake and it will take you about an hour to get to the lake since it’s pretty steep and rocky right from the get go. There were many designated campsites right by the lake (and almost all were open on a Sunday night). They are numbered 1-11. If you start late and are worried about how far you can make it before nightfall; this is an easy place to camp if you just want to get out there and start to your adventure. 

Crater Lake, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Crater Lake

Like I said, we wanted to cover more ground, which I’m glad we did because there isn’t as huge of a wow factor between Crater Lake and the first pass. Plus, it’s a solid climb the whole way up to the first pass and it was nice to get most of the ascent done with that first night. 

As you leave Crater Lake you will be hugging the right side of the valley for the next 5.5 miles. About an hour past Crater Lake you will reach the first creek crossing at 3.5 miles. When we were there the creek was very low but it’s obvious by the number of rocks lining the creek bed that at certain times of the year it is a huge creek. 

Over the course of that hour after you pass designated campsites at Crater Lake, you’ll hike past all the rock scree at the base of the Maroon Bells.  About an hour past Crater Lake you will reach the first creek crossing at 3.5 miles. When we were there the creek was very low but it’s obvious by the number of rocks lining the creek bed that at certain times of the year it is a huge creek. After that, you will start a steady ascent up through willow trees and shrubbery, then finally you get to a patch of pine trees that have some nice campsites. This is where we chose to spend our first night and it was almost precisley at mile 4.  It was a pleasant spot to pick but if I had known there were campsites closer to the first pass, I would’ve pushed on and slept as close to the pass as I could.

Backcountry camping, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

The first backcountry camping spots at mile 4

There are actually quite a few sites 1/2-1 mile before the summit of Maroon Pass that looked even more stunning but remember, the higher you get, the colder it becomes at night.  When hiking past those sites the next morning we saw everyone’s tents covered in frost.

We didn’t get much sleep because of the cold and when we hiked past the tents higher up the next morning we noticed how much ice were on them. (see packing tips below)

Day 2: Over All Four Passes In One Day

6:00-8:00 am
First Backcountry Campsites (Mile 4) to West Maroon Pass: 2.5 miles, 2000 feet elevation gain

From where we slept the first night to the top of the pass was about 2.5 miles and took exactly 2 hours. There was one creek crossing early on where we refilled all our water bottles and that lasted us until the creek by Fravert Basin at about noon that day.

Going over the pass is exhausting. You gain the last 800 ft in .7 and your legs feel it.

At the top of the pass we dropped our bags and scrambled up the rocks to the left to take in the gorgeous views that extend south to Crested Butte and beyond. A great 15 minute detour if you ask me. 

West Maroon Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

 

8:15-10:00 am
West Maroon Pass to Frigid Air Pass: 2.4 miles, 800 feet elevation loss, 700 feet elevation gain

Descending West Maroon Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Descending West Maroon Pass,

The downhill off the pass was quick and the views really start getting good. It was a pretty short 1 hour and 45 minutes to cover the 2.4 miles from Maroon Pass to Frigid Air Pass.  The only really hard part is the last 15 minutes to the top of Frigid Air Pass.

There are signs marking the trail but remember there will be two junctions and both times you go right.  The second right is where a pond used to be but it was completely dried up when we were there.

Base of Frigid Air Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Junction at the base of Frigid Air Pass where a pond used to be

Take in the views from the top and power up with a snack and second cup of coffee because the next seven miles to Trail Rider pass is really long.  Some parts get quite boring and some, extremely hard.

Frigid Air Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Frigid Air Pass

10:15-12:15
Frigid Air Pass to River Crossing: 4 miles, 1900 feet elevation loss

The descent to Fravert Basin campsite is 4 miles and took us exactly 2 hours.

Fravert Basin, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

It was 1.3 miles to get to the forest (this section had some great campsites if you are making this a longer hike) and then another 1.4 to get to the waterfall that drops into lower basin. There are even better campsites with views of the waterfall here.

A short stint here will get you to a creek crossing that we did have to take our shoes off for. This is where we also refilled our water bottles again.

River Crossing, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

River crossing

12:20-12:40
River Crossing to Trail Junction: .9 miles, 200 feet elevation loss

Next, it’s .9 to get to the junction where you go right towards Trail Rider Pass and here’s where the fun begins. Fuel up, and take your Emergen-C so you can power up the next one hour climb. 

1st trail junction, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

When you reach this trail junction, it’s time for the steep ascent

12:40-1:50
1st Trail Junction to 2nd Trail Junction: 1 mile, 1100 feet elevation gain

It took us exactly 1 hour and ten minutes to climb the one mile from the start of the hill to the junction for Geneva. By the time you reach this junction you think you have to be at the pass and can’t imagine climbing more but you’re just getting warmed up!  Be warned, even though you’ve been climbing a steep trail for more than an hour, you’ve still got over an hour to the top of Trail Rider pass on equally as steep terrain. 

Lead King Basin, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Lead King Basin

1:50-2:15
2nd Trail Junction to Lead King Basin:
.5 miles, 200 feet elevation gain

It took us 25 minutes to get to the lake where we rested for 15 minutes and took in the best views of the entire hike. I love alpine lakes and this one did not disappoint. If you want to extend your adventure, camp on the small lake here for a night. 

Little lake in Lead King Basin, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Little lake in Lead King Basin

2:30-3:10
Lead King Basin to Trail Rider Pass: .6 miles, 700 feet elevation gain

From the lake it took us 40 minutes to get to the top of Pass and seeing the view of Snowmass lake after three hours of climbing felt like we had just reached heaven. We again rested for ten minutes while taking in the views of the two lakes on each side of the pass. It was mind blowing!

The final ascent of Trail Rider Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

The final ascent of Trail Rider Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

3:20-4:30
Trail Rider Pass to Snowmass Lake: 2.2 miles, 1500 feet elevation gain

It was just a little over an hour to descend the 2+ miles to Snowmass lake during all of which you have insanely beautiful views of the Lake.

Snowmass Lake, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Snowmass Lake

4:30-5:30
Dinner & Chill at Snowmass Lake

We followed the sign toward the campground at Snowmass lake but only to give us a spot to sit for almost an hour to prepare dinner and take pictures. 

Snowmass Lake, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Snowmass Lake

5:30-8:00
Snowmass Lake to Buckskin Pass:
3.8 miles, 1700 feet elevation gain

We wanted to go for all four passes in one day.  There was rain in the forecast for the next day and we didn’t like the idea of crossing the last pass in possible lightning storms so we decided to push on and hoped we could make it over the last pass and find a campsite before it was dark. (We barely made it btw)

Head back to the sign junction where you turned to Snowmass Lake and this time head on the for Maroon Snowmass Trail.  Follow it through some mellow forest trails before two even steeper but much shorter climbs. It was 6 miles to go from the Snowmass Lake to the first campsite on the other side of Buckskin pass and it took us three hours. 

It takes only an hour and a half to get to the top of the first climb.  This is the point where you leave the safety of the forest and campsites, which meant getting over the pass and down to the next set of campsites took another hour and a half. This is good to remember in case nightfall is approaching and you aren’t sure if you’ll make it to the next campsite. There really isn’t anywhere to camp in between these two spots. 

Ascending Buckskin Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Ascending Buckskin Pass

8:00-8:30
Buckskin Pass to Treeline (first campsites): .8 miles, 700 feet elevation loss

Buckskin Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Buckskin Pass

Once you arrive at the top of buckskin pass it’s only 4.6 miles back to the trailhead.

The trail descends quickly down switchbacks into a steep gulch. After .7 you’ll pass a trail junction to Willow Pass where you keep right, heading for the tree line that harbors great campsites. This is where we spent our second night. 

Descending Buckskin Pass, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Descending Buckskin Pass into the gulch

Day 3: A Quick and Easy Descent

8:00-8:30
Treeline (first campsites) to Trailhead: 3.8 miles, 2200 feet elevation loss

We woke to the sound of rain and thunder the next morning and were glad we didn’t have any passes to cross.  It was only 3 miles back to the trailhead but with tired feet, it felt like forever. 

The final 4 miles, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

The final 4 miles

Luckily the rain didn’t last long and the clouds stayed high allowing us to soak in the gorgeous mountain views for our final hour and a half hike back to the start. We were a little early for the bus so we had to wait at least 45 min plus the 20 min ride back to Aspen Highlands. 

The Maroon Bells, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

The Maroon Bells at dawn

There you go. All our insider knowledge into backpacking Maroon Bells. It was wonderfully hard and absolutely stunning but next time I plan on thru hiking it from Crested Butte to Maroon Bells trailhead via the Trail Rider/Snowmass side. No offense to West Maroon Pass but I liked that side a lot more.  

While I love to backpack, I’m still a huge fan of extra hard/long day hikes and getting to stuff my face with beer and burgers afterwards, then curl up in my warm bed at night. Another way I would do it if I went back would be just day hiking it.  We passed a lot of trail runners who were day hiking it and it was interesting to see that how they would just run the downhills and the flats but just hike the uphills.  Considering we did 20 of the 27 miles in 1 day with heavy backpacking packs, I think doing all 27 in 1 day with lighter backpacks be equivalent.

If you still need for info on hiking this, check out hikingwalking.com’s post about the Four Pass Loop.

Be sure to share you experience with us by tagging #BraveForAdventure on social media and get featured on our account.

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guide to backpacking the maroon bells four pass loop