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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.

KEY SKILL: Photograph iconic peaks

The Maroon Bells are unofficially known as “the most-photographed mountains in Colorado”—with good reason. How can anyone resist a shot of the Bells reflected in an alpine lake? But make your pics stand out from the Flickr pack with these tips from two local reader-photographers: Randy Van Winkle and Steven Goff (right).

Hike farther Most daytrippers drive to Maroon Lake and immediately start snapping; for a different perspective, keep your camera stowed until you reach Crater Lake, 1.8 miles up the trail. Bonus: You won’t have to dodge crowds to get your shot. Van Winkle found the ideal composition from a vantage point on the lake’s northeast side.

Check the weather For the most dramatic shot, says Goff, wait for a day when the peaks rise above low-hanging clouds. You’ll also want calm weather so wind doesn’t disturb the lake’s glassy surface. Hedge your bets by shooting from a sheltered spot along the shore: “A small inlet or cove will give you a better chance at a perfect reflection,” says Van Winkle.

Rise earlier The east-facing Fourteeners pop most vividly within 20 minutes of sunrise. “The morning light on the walls of the Bells is crazy,” says Goff. Dawn also offers a good chance of calm weather—when the water is most likely to be smooth.

Get equipped Tote a lightweight Manfrotto M-Y Micro carbon-fiber tripod ($106, for low-light photos at dawn or dusk; add a graduated neutral density filter to balance bright skies.

For the most flowers-per-square-inch, Goff favors the 11-mile (one-way) West Maroon Trail from Aspen to Crested Butte. From Hasley Basin, continue south along West Maroon instead of turning to complete the Four Pass Loop. In late July, you’ll pass fields of elbow-tickling blooms, including larkspur, columbine, aster, sky pilot, and lupine, as you trace the East Fork of the Crystal River. End at Schofield Park, 14 miles from town.
Shuttle:, $15

Nearby Conundrum Hot Springs and its muscle-soothing 100°F waters are no secret, but time it right and it can feel like you’re the first human to lay eyes on the swimming-pool-size spas underneath 14,279 foot Castle Peak. Hike in nine miles on Conundrum Creek Trail midweek during fall or winter snows for the best shot at enjoying solo soul-warming bliss at 11,200-feet. The strenuous ski route is only for the “very fit and very determined,” warns Aspen’s Tess Weaver. “But if you put in the work to get there, you’ll have these amazing hot springs to yourself.”

THE EXPERTS Randy Van Winkle, 36, of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and Steven Goff, 38, of Snowmass Village, make multiple pilgrimages to the Elks each year. Goff says to go in September’s last two weeks for peak aspen color.

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  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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