IntroductionGiven that I spend about 70 hours every week behind a desk, my definitions for words like “epic” are, by necessity, relative. Otherwise I would never have epics of my own because—let’s be honest—there’s only so much adventure to be found staring at a 16-inch monitor all day.
In other words, my epic might not be your epic. It is with this qualification that I tell the story of my last epic, the Four Pass Loop.
The Four Pass Loop is wonderful little hike outside of the wonderful little town of Aspen, Colorado. Not to be confused with Hollywood, Aspen is actually a ski town with several fine mountains, namely Ajax and Aspen Highlands. Down the road a bit is a quaint roundabout designed to make Aspen look even less like Hollywood and more like a European ski village. Radiating southwest from said roundabout is a road of ten miles or so which leads to the perpetually crowded but strikingly beautiful Maroon Lake which reflects “the most photographed mountains in [insert one: the lower 48, North America, the Western Hemisphere, the Universe], the Maroon Bells. To be sure, the “Bells” are beautiful and although I had seen them plastered on many a postcard and fourteener calendar, I couldn’t help but feel the wonder of seeing them up close in three dimensions.
The name “Four Pass Loop” gives much information about the route. First, it crosses four mountain passes, in this case each above 12,400 feet, which suggests that the views are stunning. Second, it is a loop, which many would say is the most aesthetic type of hike, requiring both no car shuttle and no backtracking. (As a side note, an actual hike of the loop would later confirm what the name suggests: the loop is aesthetically stunning). Our party--my girlfriend Megan, good friend Eric (Summitpost member ericb), his girlfriend Liz and myself--began the Four Pass Loop at Maroon Lake. However, one can also access the loop from Snowmass Creek on the north side of the Elk Range and from Lead King Basin or Schofield Pass on the south side of the range, although the hike from Maroon Lake makes for the shortest Loop (24-29 miles, depending on who you ask and which variations you take).
Total Distance: ~25.4 miles
Cumulative Elevation Gain / Loss: ~7,400 feet
Day 1: Maroon Lake to Upper West Maroon BasinFrom Maroon Lake, we hiked south along West Maroon Creek to Crater Lake at the very foot of the Bells. Light gray clouds blanketed the valley just high enough to reveal the guiding handrails of the Pyramid Peak massif on our left and the Maroon Massif on our right.
Rain came three hours into our trip. We happened to be hiking through an island of trees in the slightly-above-treeline zone, so we took cover for conversation and a good cigar. “There is no place I’d rather be,” I thought. When the rain left, so did the clouds, and we foolishly celebrated as if success were assured.
After a hearty meal of re-hydrated chili, we retired at 8 PM meaning that a 5 AM wake-up would afford us 9 hours of sleep. While Liz and Eric had smartly pitched their tent in a brush clearing, Megan and I made home on a wide, flat patch of grass which happened to be the preferred dining establishment for the Upper Maroon Valley’s resident 8-point buck. In consistent five minute intervals between 8 PM and 1 AM, this very large animal made feeding visits to our tent, occasionally sticking its nose in the vestibule to inhale fumes from the finely-ground coffee I had forgotten to remove from my backpack. We barely slept.
Day 2: Upper West Maroon Basin to Snowmass Lake
Instead of waking re-invigorated for the long Day 2, Megan and I stumbled from our tent into the pre-dawn darkness, groggy and grumpy. Eric and Liz had already decided to head down the valley back to the trailhead. Joining them sounded like a great idea. It’s amazing what happens to one’s morale, though, when the sun rises over the easterly ridges on a cloudless day and flushes the valley with warmth. Inevitably, one gains fortitude and the belief that he can continue. And so it was for Megan and me, and we elected to go through with the plan. Following oatmeal and coffee, off we went. Eric and Liz were to join us for the initial climb to West Maroon Pass and would then turn back. In what would become a theme for the day, my physical exhaustion was tempered just enough by the inspiring beauty of the Elk Mountains.
At the first trail junction below the pass, we took the right fork and contoured northwest for ~1.5 miles to a second trail junction, the left fork of which leads to Hasley Basin.
A five-minute hike from our lunch spot led us to the top of an impressive cascade.
We exited the trees and, thankfully, resumed our downhill trend. After a few minutes, we rejoined the trail from Hasley Basin and a quarter mile later reached the banks of the North Fork, which would be our only shoes-off water crossing of the entire trip. Needless to say, the water was freakishly cold, but at least it woke us up. Now on the river’s north side, we continued mostly west for about ¾ mile to the turnoff for Trail Rider Pass. This was the climb we had been mentally preparing for all day.
After an hour of hiking, we reached another trail junction. The left fork traverses the hillside west to Geneva Lake (if only we had more time...), but this being a clockwise loop, we took the right fork which bends around to the East. At a stream crossing five minutes ahead, we encountered a man who looked like he knew the area well. “Where are you headed,” he asked. “Snowmass Lake,” I answered in fatigued monotone. “Jeez; well, it’s 3 o’clock. That’s not exactly inhuman, but it’s a long haul from here,” he said. My blank stare didn’t change as I mumbled, “thanks, have a good hike.” As it would turn out, we weren’t really as far from the lake as this gentleman made it sound, but his weren’t the most inspiring words one could hope to hear.
Twenty minutes up the path, Trail Rider Pass came into view. A party of
The trail descended 200 feet or so from this point and passed a lake and some fir stands which would be the last decent campsites before Snowmass Lake. We passed said horses (or they passed us) and we began the climb to our third and final pass of the day. It was slow going, and I had ample time to contemplate such topics as “how does a horse make it down a 35 degree slope without falling?” In any event, after putting one foot in front of the other for a while, there we were at the pass with large views everywhere, including the amazing emerald, Snowmass Lake.
We should have learned from looking at the horses that judging distance based on the perceived size of an object can be misleading. From Trail Rider Pass, Snowmass Lake looked close. It turned out not to be so close
Day 3: Snowmass Lake to Maroon LakeDay 3 began much as the previous day had: crisp and cloudless. I awoke just in time to witness the sun’s rays striking the tops of Snowmass and
We began hiking after a leisurely breakfast. A quarter mile from the lake, the trail reached a junction with the Snowmass Creek trail. We continued east and then southeast for about a mile until we reached the broad valley of Snowmass Creek proper where the work of the beaver is readily apparent. We crossed Snowmass Creek on a pair of unstable logs and after following the creek for a few more minutes, began the climb to
Buckskin Pass brought the mixed emotions of accomplishment on the one hand and, on the other, disappointment that our epic was nearing its end. It also brought spectacular views of the Pyramid Peak massif, North Maroon, Snowmass and Capitol peaks. We stayed on the pass for a while, soaking in the moment. I took note of the fact that I hadn’t seen a threatening cloud since Day 1; we were very lucky.
Shortly after beginning our descent into Minnehaha Gulch, we were passed by two runners coming up the trail, serving us lowly hikers a healthy dose of ego deflation. At the Willow Pass Trail junction, we again took the right fork. At this point the desire to continue hiking through the awesome Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness became overshadowed by the desire to get to the car. Soon, the overused trail deteriorated into a rubble gully. An hour after the Willow Pass junction, we reached Crater Lake. The ~1.75 miles from Crater Lake to Maroon Lake were spent walking silently staring at the ground, offering “hellos” to countless passing hikers only when prompted.
The tourism circus aside, Maroon Lake was a welcome sight as were our dear friends Eric and Liz, who had experienced their own epic hiking out from
In ClosingAt the Denver airport the next day, Megan and I bid farewell to Eric and Liz. They were on a redeye to Boston (Eric had to work the following morning); we were on a flight to Vermont for a two-day wedding trip, then back to San Francisco—back to the rat race.
Every so often I question my desire to go walk around in the mountains; I consider the effort required in planning and organizing. And those are the things I can control. Throw in the weather, various carnivores, microbials and other indiscriminate risk factors and a trip to the woods can rapidly turn sour. This trip didn’t work exactly as planned, but everything worked out, reminding me why I go to the wilderness to begin with: to escape structured normalcy and be surprised by places that are much, much larger than me.
Related PagesFour Pass Loop Album
External LinksMaroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness
Elk Range Trail and Road Conditions from the Forest Conservancy
GORP Trail Description