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Backpacker Magazine – January 2011

Rip & Go: Four Pass Loop

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

by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

The iconic view from Maroon Lake's northeast shore. (Glenn Randall)
The iconic view from Maroon Lake's northeast shore. (Glenn Randall)
Wildflowers on the West Maroon Trail. (Carr Clifton)
Wildflowers on the West Maroon Trail. (Carr Clifton)
Reader expert Randy Van Winkle.
Reader expert Randy Van Winkle.
Reader expert Steven Van Goff.
Reader expert Steven Van Goff.

Download a printable version of this entire trip right here.

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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Reader Rating: -


Star Star
Jul 07, 2014

Whoever wrote this should be fired. Tell me to go counterclockwise and then layout the trip as if going clockwise. WTF! I figured it out and will do the trip counterclockwise and find my own path. I'm so mad at BPM

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Mike G
Oct 14, 2013

There is no way on earth this thing is 26 miles. It might be in some linear sense, but actual trail miles its more like 40 or else my GPS is completely wrong (and its not)---take your time. Its a beast. If you go clockwise, get as close as you possibly can to the first pass (West Maroon)(take two days if you have to) before setting up camp because your gonna have to do two passes in one day West Maroon and Frigid Air if you want to keep any sort of pace...This means climbing up to Maroon Pass, descending to the valley below, climbing all the way back up to Frigid Air pass, and descending all the way back down to the valley search of a good campsite...and last time I was there, every time I found one, there was a sign that said "No Camping" which when you are absolutely exhausted--is incredibly infuriating.
The place is unbelievably gorgeous though and well worth the trip--Im not from Colorado or a Mountain state, so my perspectives on distance and exertion might be different from people from those types of states, but I found this loop to be quite strenuous, also make sure you go in late summer, else those passes will all be snowed in and you will need an ice axe, and a good idea of where the pass actually is...
Bring your blister patches...your gonna need em.

Star Star Star Star Star
Oct 10, 2013

Did this trip in September of 2012. This was the best backpacking trip I've ever experienced. We spent two nights along the shores at Snowmass Lake. Did a lot of fishing and relaxing. I'm looking forward to taking my children on this hike when they get a little older. Quick heads up, going clockwise, time your 2nd pass right so you're not caught up on top with storms blowing in.

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Glenn Beaton
Jul 19, 2012

It should be noted that the winter route to Conundrum crosses many avy paths.

Aug 25, 2011

Did this clockwise loop in five days/ four nights at the beginning of August 2011. Wildflowers were peaking, weather was excellent and the ever-changing views of the Bells and the rest of the Elk Mtns. was worth the effort. Saw a lot of people doing this is two or three days which was a shame. Plan in an extra day so you can enjoy the scenery that is only accessible by your feet. There are hidden campsites near treeline on the west side of buckskin that affords unblocked views of Snowmass and North Maroon. That is an excellent place to chill out and soak up some solitude like we did. Enjoy.

Aug 13, 2011

So the first part of the article says to go counterclockwise by taking a right at the first junction; but all of the landmarks from that point in the article are laid out as if you were going clockwise by taking a left. Glad I caught that before I started hiking, would have been really confusing.


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