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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.


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, 

USGS Maroon Bells and Snowmass Mountain ($8,

Register at trailhead; (970) 925-3445

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

Trip ID

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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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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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