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Rip & Go: Four Pass Loop

Like peaks, lakes, and wildflowers? You'll love this Rockies classic in White River National Forest.


DO IT

BACKPACKER editors just named the Four Pass Loop one of our favorite trips ever—and Rockies readers agree, voting this their #1 hike. Here’s their advice for getting the 26-mile, four-day route’s sparkling creeks, peak-ringed lakes, and, yes, a quartet of 12,000-foot passes all to yourself. Go counterclockwise, starting at Maroon Lake (1), where the purple-streaked Maroon Bells dominate the sky. Follow the north shore on the West Maroon Trail, then turn right at the signed junction (2). Switchback .2 mile to Crater Lake (3) and a showstopping photo op of the Bells (see next page). Continue on West Maroon Trail 3.7 miles, then choose one of the established campsites edging the meadow (4). (Resist the urge to press on—the next campsite isn’t for five miles.) On day two, continue uphill, gaining 800 feet in .9 mile as you inch toward 12,480-foot West Maroon Pass (5), perched between the Mars-like rock of Belleview Mountain and Mt. Bellview. The trail then descends into Hasley Basin, where you’ll hike past meadows of Indian paintbrush and columbine (peak flowers: late July) before turning right at a junction (6). Turn right again at a three-way junction (7) and gain 400 feet to the crest of 12,415-foot Frigid Air Pass (8). From here, drop into lush Fravert Basin before reentering a conifer forest (9). Continue west for 1.3 miles to your second campsite, one of several spots scattered among ponderosas 150 feet from the North Fork of the Crystal River (10). Next morning, you’ll ford the 20-foot-wide creek (11). At mile 13.7, turn right and switchback steeply through aspen groves en route to pass #3: 12,400-foot Trail Rider Pass (12), just below Snowmass Peak. Drop to Snowmass Lake (13), your next camp. On your final day, turn right at the junction (14) and hike beneath sheer, red-rock cliffs and across Snowmass Creek before powering up to 12,462-foot Buckskin Pass (15). Look for mountain goats at mile 21.5; you can often spot nannies with kids in summer. Rejoin the West Maroon Trail (16) to finish the loop.

ice age trail
Trip Planner
Get there From Aspen, go west on CO 82 for .5 mile. Take second exit at traffic circle to Maroon Creek Rd. Drive 9.5 miles to trailhead. Or take the Aspen Highlands Village shuttle ($6 each way, rfta.com). 

Maps USGS Maroon Bells and Snowmass Mountain ($8, store.usgs.gov)

Permit Register at trailhead; (970) 925-3445

Gear up Ute Mountaineer, 308 S. Mill St., Aspen, CO; (970) 925-2849

Trip ID 551196

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6 Comments

  1. seansean2424yahoo-com

    Its CLOCKWISE dummies! The description above regarding the route is correct besides that first and major “counterclockwise” part lol. I just got back, absolutely stunning scenery and fantastic hiking. Many suggestions for you, but to start with the above description, the directions follow a “Clockwise” route, starting from the Maroon Lake Trailhead and heading South East to Maroon Pass and then North West to the Wall and finally East to end and connect back to the main trail in between Crater Lake and Maroon Lake, a clockwise route. That being said, you can follow a counterclockwise route, but the directions above would be backwards, and this route starts off rather steep, vs the clockwise route that starts off moderately steep. Also, the campsite #’s on the maps at Maroon Bells are incorrect, although placed correctly, the #’s are backwards. Major suggestion that I learned the hard way: this is a MISSION backpacking trip, not a leisurely trip; pack extra light, those 4 passes will beat you with a heavy pack, and prepare for anything, ice and snow on the passes with strong wind, thunderstorms and lightning in summer afternoons. Bear canisters are required. Fires are restricted in some camp sites, “discouraged” in others, I brought my hatchet and was well worth it, my trip was end of Sept 2016 and the temp dropped to 20f in the early AM with everything frosted over, keep your water inside tent when sleeping. I regrettably brought fishing equipment, wouldn’t suggest it, Snowmass Lake might give you some luck, but once again this route is a mission, not much time for leisure, depending on daylight. If you want to park your car at the trailhead you need to get there before 8am, after the only way up is on the tourist bus, which I drove overnight to avoid. Good luck and have fun!

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    • littlebuddy

      I ran the Loop several years ago in late August. Took 9-10 hours – spent a lot of time looking at the incredible scenery. No problem wading the creeks that time of year. Carried the ice axe, but did not need it. July 2015 might need an axe on some snow patches, but if you are comfortable on soft snow or can find away around the snow, maybe not. Best part was during the week, I only met two backpackers, so I had the place to myself most of the time. It is an incredible adventure run!!

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