guide to backpacking the maroon bells four pass loop

The Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop is 1 of the most stunning backpacking trips in North America! Here are our essential tips for planning this backpacking trip and for hiking all four of these strenuous mountain passes (P.S. you can do it in 1 day).

This blog was updated in July 2020 for accuracy and updated info.

There are many great blogs that 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 Backpacking The Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

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 we were 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 Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass, and Buckskin Pass.

Each pass is 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.

Related: Ultimate Colorado Adventure Itinerary

Getting a Permit to Backpack Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

No fee is required to backpack in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness or hike the Four Pass Loop, which most people start from the Maroon Lake. You do, however, need to self-register at the trailhead kiosk. This is easy to do and pretty self explanatory. Be sure to hang the permit from your backpack while hiking.

Overnight Parking: Where to leave your car?

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

  • When do you want to start your hike?
  • How many days do 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.

Parking at Maroon Bells Trailhead – Least time consuming/most crowded option

We contemplated waiting to drive to the trailhead until after 5 pm 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 started 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.

Parking in Aspen + Bussing – 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 4 days though.  You can park at Aspen Highland (where you get on the bus) but it costs $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 8 am or after 5 pm 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.

To get to the Four Pass Loop trailhead:

  • 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