Dawn paints my dust as I charge up the trail. I’m on a mission, marching past groups of overnighters who are moving at a more leisurely pace. Knowing I’m in a race against time puts a jump in my step, and I power past Maroon Lake, barely noticing the reflection of the Maroon Bells in the water.
The Four Pass Loop in Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is one of the best backpacking routes in the country. Named for its four 12,400-foot passes, the trail follows a 26-mile loop, gaining and losing over 7,000 feet of elevation. Most people tackle it as a multiday backpack, and some do it as a hard trail run, but I’m short on time and am no runner. So I decided to hike it all at once. The idea of packing so much scenery into a day thrills me, plus, I’m naturally drawn to endurance challenges. An epic dayhike was born.
My 20-pound pack bounces on my shoulders as I climb the first rocky incline. The weight isn’t ideal for a fast-paced day, but it’s my safety net in case fatigue becomes an issue or a storm forces me to hunker down. I’m bringing enough gear to pass an uncomfortable night should my plan fail.
I crush the first 5 miles and 1,500 feet of gain in less than two hours, then begin the sharp ascent to the top of West Maroon Pass. The valley is wet and green from the previous night’s rain and the lush floor contrasts starkly with the reddish-brown, rocky peaks that jut out above treeline. But there’s not a lot of time to linger—the trail climbs nearly 1,000 feet in the last mile up to the pass. Breathing hard, I top out at the 12,500-foot pass around 8:45 a.m.
I stop for a minute to take in the view and choke down an energy bar, but then it’s back to business. My goal is to return to the car before sunset, so I descend hurriedly into the valley. It’s only 2.5 miles and 745 feet of gain to the top of 12,405-foot Frigid Air Pass, and I reach it in an hour.
Again, there’s only time for a quick breather on the summit to devour the two pieces of pepperoni pizza I brought. Five minutes later I’m on my way. Wildflowers line the trail, and I take photos without stopping. I descend 2,100 feet and pass a gushing waterfall that I can only imagine would be a great place to chill. I’ve hiked 12.5 miles in 4 hours and 40 minutes, and it’s about 11 a.m.
Two passes down, the hardest two to go. The climb up Trail Rider Pass is more stair-stepping than switchbacks. It slows me to a crawl, my legs burning after 14-some miles and 5,000 feet of climbing. A trail runner passes through, his 5-liter pack sparking jealousy. He’s gone in a flash, and I continue on, step by laborious step. Clouds start to move in and hang over the peaks. The threat of rain motivates me to push harder. I pass a lake—no idea what it’s called, no patience to pull out my map and figure it out.
Looking down from Trail Rider Pass, I believe I have enough daylight left to slow my pace. But storms are still an issue, and at this point, 16 miles in, I’m ready to be done. So I march on. Snowmass Lake—one of the most heralded areas of this pristine backcountry—goes by in a flash. I tell myself I have to come back and see it for real.
I start the climb to Buckskin Pass with a sigh and end with a slew of curse words. But the top of the pass is one of the most beautiful parts of the trail, with panoramic views over ragged peaks that scrape the sky. Here, 22 miles into the hike, I finally sit down to appreciate my surroundings.
As I gaze out over the mountains, I realize the foolish nature of my ambition. Sure, this sort of thing makes sense for a trail runner with training goals. But I’m not sure that mentality fits my mantra for hiking. I hike for solace and relaxation, but the only thing I’ve done today is flex my muscles. I wanted to see all of the Four Pass Loop at once. Instead, I focused so hard on my pace that I saw almost none of it. I sit at the top of Buckskin for twenty minutes, soaking in the vista. It makes me sad, thinking about how much I missed along the way.
I arrive back at the parking lot around 6 p.m., beyond tired, cranky from hunger, and feeling far less satisfied than I had hoped. In total, I hiked 26.4 miles with 7,808 feet of gain (and the same amount of descent) in 11 hours and 52 minutes.
Driving out of Aspen, I think about what a good time those slow-moving backpackers must be having. Lying in bed that night I look back through the photos. They seem foreign, like I took them from a moving car—just some mountains I passed by one day.
The Verdict: Fail
Sure, I completed the hike, but I didn't truly experience the trail. I'll have to come back with my camping gear.
How to Crush a Long Dayhike
Fuel up beforehand. Eat a big dinner the night prior and a hearty breakfast before setting out on the trail. Pack plenty of calorie-dense snacks and be sure to consume something every hour.
Be prepared to make camp. Don’t get caught going too light. Bad weather and/or fatigue can creep up on you. Scout bail-out routes or bring a sleeping bag, layers, bivy, and overnight rations, just in case your dayhike lasts into the night.
Cut water weight. Minimize the load on your back by carrying a water filter or purification and refilling throughout the day. Electrolyte tablets and drink mixes will also help you keep energy up when you start to drag.
Assess your goals. If the idea of a leg-crushing physical challenge excites you, then go for a high-mileage objective—keep morale high by building in time to enjoy viewpoints and take rests. But if you want to enjoy the more intricate details of a hike, consider breaking it up by camping.