The Colorado High Point and Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness

We first learned about the Four Pass Loop within the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado from a couple while we were backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Seeing as this loop would take us less than four days, we combined it with Mount Elbert, the Colorado high point, and a work conference for a week-long trip.

The Colorado High Point

After flying into Denver, we rented a car and drove to the base of Mount Elbert (we approached from the northeast side off Halfmoon Road), stopping in Leadville to poke around town along the way. Thus we went from sea level to two vertical miles high in a few hours.

A fence made from discarded skis in Leadville. Awesome!

Our plan was to camp along the national forest road where dispersed camping is allowed (this seems common in the west but is a bit weird coming from Minnesota) but given it was the weekend and before Fourth of July at that, we found all the campsites taken. Hence, we parked at the Mount Elbert Trailhead and then went over a knoll to find a spot out of the way since camping wasn’t technically allowed at the trailhead.

We camped by the wetland/pond between the Mount Elbert Trailhead and Emerald Lake.
The spot we found to camp, just east of the Mount Elbert Trailhead.

At 14,439 feet, Mount Elbert matches the high points of Washington and California within mere feet. The trailhead sits at 10,000 which meant a 4,500 foot vertical day- not too bad. We woke early, but not too early, with the plan to summit and be back to tree line by the time the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in as they usually do in the Rockies.

The pond by where we camped with Mount Elbert poking up above the trees.

The trail begins through aspen forest and gains steadily but gentle elevation throughout. After a couple hours we arrived above tree line, around 12,000 feet, and had good views of Mount Massive to the north and the Twin Lakes Reservoirs to the south.

Emerging above tree line, looking northeast towards Leadville.
Erik chugging some water with Mount Massive to the north (another of Colorado’s 14ers).
Alpine grasses with the Mount Elbert Forebay and the Twin Lakes in the background.

Despite gaining 4,500 feet of elevation over 4.5 miles, the trail only got steep in on brief section about half mile below the summit. Otherwise it was a steady grind on good footing. Within 3 hours time we found ourselves on the top of Mount Elbert.

Looking west from the summit.
Back along the northeast ridge, above the steep section.
Some snow with Mount Elbert Forebay on the left and Twin Lakes on the right.
Obligatory summit photo with someone’s borrowed sign.
Coming down the steep section (that’s me below the summit in black with a red pack). For some reason this was hard for me on the way down- I think because there were lots of loose rock on the trail. It was short lived though and by far the hardest part of the trail.
Erik with a selfie that shows the steep area better.
Looking down the steep part.

The clouds on the summit were ominous and we didn’t linger long. Aside from the short steep section, we made good time and got back to our car around noon. While Mount Elbert is the fourth highest high point, it was notably easier than many it dwarfs like Granite, Gannet, and even Mount Washington, owing to relatively gradual terrain and a nice trail.

The Northeast Mount Elbert Trail in green starting at the trailhead on the top left.

Once back to the car, we were glad to have dodged the rain and started driving to the Maroon Bells via Independence Pass on Hwy 82 through Aspen.

Heading west from Twin Lakes on Hwy 82. The scenery was nice but I absolutely hate driving next to cliffs/drop offs. I’ll hike by these any day but no thanks on the driving.

We walked around the town of Aspen while waiting for some rain clouds to pass and the road into Maroon Bells to open for parking. What a swanky place!

Four Pass Loop in Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness

The Four Pass Loop circles around the Maroon Bells, a couple 14ers in Colorado that are some of the most photographed mountains in the United States. Hence when I looked up this trail, it was easy to decide we should go there. We went a bit early season as my conference was the first week in July. Thus we encountered quite a bit of snow and got a bit lucky that the snow had melted as much as it did before we arrived.

The Four Pass Loop is named for a 28ish mile hike that traverses four passes all above 12,000 feet- West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider, and Buckskin- if going clockwise direction, with nearly 8,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.

Erik and I in our Dri Ducks rain suits at Maroon Lake with the Maroon Bells (technically North Maroon Peak and Maroon Peak) behind us.

Erik had aspirations of climbing one of the Maroon Bells but they are incredibly steep with crumbling rock and are some of the most difficult 14ers in the state so after much discussion we planned to go up and over Snowmass Mountain instead of taking the lower Trail Rider Pass.

Since we had already hiked Mount Elbert that day, we backpacked only as far as Crater Lake. The next morning we were up early to begin our hiking trip, passing by Crater Lake.

We hiked in about two miles from the parking lot at Maroon Lake to camp 1 at Crater Lake in the evening after summiting Mount Elbert that morning.
Lush greenery and sunlight on the eastern peaks from our campsite above Crater Lake.
The Maroon Bells from Crater Lake.

We slowly gained elevation after Crater Lake as we hiked along West Maroon Creek.

The trail crossed the creek, except it was all covered with snow so we crossed on the sun-cupped snow bridge.
Dense vegetation near the creek and so green with the recent snow melt.

Eventually we left the creek and started climbing to West Maroon Pass. This meant leaving the dense vegetation behind. It also meant more snow. Some hikers told us there had been significant snow melt in the past 24 hours and they had tried the pass the day before but given up after watching a woman slip out and slide a long ways. We only encountered brief patches of snow on a couple of the switchbacks that had good level footing.

Hiking high above the valley, with plenty of snow on the peak to the south.
Erik airing out his feet on West Maroon Pass, 12,500 feet.
Looking west from West Maroon Pass.

Traditionally the Four Pass Loop is hiked over three days with West Maroon and Frigid Air Passes done the same day as there is only a couple miles between them without much elevation change. Thus as the trail curved back north after West Maroon Pass we quickly saw Frigid Air Pass in the distance. We dropped less than 1,000 feet before hiking back up less than that to Frigid Air Pass.

Our 15.7 mile route for our first full day in the Maroon Bells from camp 1 on the right to camp 2 on the upper left.
Stats for the day- you can see in the elevation profiled West Maroon and Frigid Air Passes and that we ascended 5,786 feet and descended 4,117 feet on the day.
Hiking towards Frigid Air Pass.
Looking north from Frigid Air Pass towards Snowmass Mountain, our destination for the next day.

After Frigid Air Pass we still had some serious miles to walk to get to the base of Snowmass Mountain on the west side. Sure we took some photos but mostly we kept up a swift pace.

Me working through some snow on the west side of Frigid Air Pass. I’m tiny in this photo on the upper right.
Looking down on the pond above the waterfall on the North Fork Trail.
And looking back up at the waterfall.
By now it was getting to be late afternoon as we headed up the North Fork Cutoff Trail towards Geneva Lake. Here’s Erik with the Maroon Bells behind him.
Getting our first look at the west face of Snowmass as we hiked up the trail north of Geneva Lake- and evening coming on. The next photo is taken from atop the waterfall.
Looking south towards Geneva Lake.
The view south near Little Geneva Lake.
Our tent on the west side of Snowmass Mountain.

We spent much of the evening looking at the formidable west face of Snowmass. Online reports said if we stuck to the ridges it should be class 3 all the way and no harder than Angel’s Landing. After studying the mountain, we decided to approach in the center and then skirt left, towards the last big north ridge after crossing the big patch of snow. I tried to not worry too much and slept well.

Day 2 route from camp 2 on the left to camp 3 at Snowmass Lake on the right. 2,500 feet of ascent, 3,200 feet of descent, only 3 miles but all off trail.

The hiking from camp was relatively easy- we were able to largely stay on grass and small rock until we hit the slope. Then it was talus that was easy to walk on. The snow was soft enough it didn’t pose much sliding hazard. We made it through the cliff band on what was largely stable rock with some vegetation and then above there it was all boulders.

Hardy flowers in the cliff band. Here you can see Little Geneva Lake on the right and Geneva Lake in the valley. This also puts the steepness in perspective. Definitely steep but also far from vertical.

The reports also said to keep looking up to avoid any cliffs. We never saw any cliffs. Class 3 usually means boulders and even though some people can technically rock hop, I largely used my hands and arm strength to climb the mountain.

Taking a snack break after a brief hail storm (this photo is supposed to show the hail in my hair). That’s Little Lake Geneva down there.
Looking north as we got higher on Snowmass. It was all boulders, sometimes steeper than other times.
Ha, aptly named Siberia Lake half covered in snow to the west of Snowmass.

It didn’t take us too long to climb Snowmass and before noon we were on the summit. I was glad we weren’t headed back down the way we came up as I’m not very good at descending boulder fields. Since it was nice and sunny we spent some time on the summit.

The ridge that extends north to Capitol Peak, another 14er.
First glimpse of Snowmass Lake over 3,000 feet below us to the east.
Erik was stoked to begin the descent on the snow (to his right) but I was intimidated.
The view south over Hagerman Peak and the area we had hiked the day before.

Our next challenge was descending Snowmass to the east. First we began climbing down on the ridge to the south until we met snow level (there was a cliff directly below the summit). Once we found the snow it looked pretty scary to get on since it was melting away from the rock. We put on our Yaktrax and I followed Erik as he kicked in steps. While I’m from Minnesota and used to snow, our slopes aren’t terribly steep.

It turns out I’m an impatient person (OK, I already knew this) and wasn’t paying super good focus at kicking in steps and all of a sudden I slid out and started sliding down the snow on my butt towards a rock pile. I tried not to panic as I rolled over onto my stomach to try to self arrest by digging in my poles as Erik had prepped me to do. This proved futile as the snow was too soft so I went to my next plan. I rolled back over onto my back and figured I should at least try to move laterally to avoid hitting the rocks below. As I did this by pushing my legs and kind of swimming, snow began to pile in my crotch and as the slope eased ever so slightly I came to a stop.

Erik quickly got down to me while I caught my breath. Then we continued on, Erik glissading while I carefully kicked in steps. This was some of my first off trail experience in the mountains and I was woefully under prepared but I like gaining experience on the fly best.

Erik’s glissade tracks below me while I slowly kick in steps to avoid another slide.
Erik waits for me while I keep kicking in the steps. He’ll then glissade this section. The part I fell on was above this and much steeper.

As the terrain got flatter there were more exposed rocks. When we neared the rocks we would post-hole. This got kind of frustrating and I was afraid of breaking my ankle every time I post-holed. Thus when we got the opportunity, we stuck to the rocks.

Looking back up at the east face of Snowmass. I slid on the steep section just left of the summit cliff and above the big patch of exposed rocks. I could see my slide marks by zooming -in on this photo.
Finally done with the snow. From here we headed down on the rocks, mostly on the left side of the stream, to Snowmass Lake.
These water springs were everywhere in the grass!
Getting closer to the lake and trying to figure out our route through the boulders and the thickets on the bottom. We crossed the stream around here.
There was a decent trail on the south side of the lake. This also shows the way back up to Snowmass. Coming down we mostly stayed by the stream, crossing where it made the jag to the right in this photo. We tried to take the boulders close to the thicket at the bottom but inevitably eventually had to fight our way through it for awhile.

The trail along the south side of Snowmass Lake got better and better as we got closer to the foot of the lake. We made good time and got to the camping area by mid-afternoon. There were a handful of others campers around. Erik and I picked a tent location and set up our tent far away from the others. We walked around the campsite and watched some fly fishermen, found our trail for the next morning, and made dinner by the lake. All the while other backcountry campers slowly filed in and by the time we went to bed there were at least twenty tents within a 50 meter radius of ours. We’d never seen the backcountry so packed.

Eating dinner and enjoying views looking back up at Snowmass Mountain.

After making it down Snowmass I was quite obsessed with looking at that mountain and found I couldn’t stare at it enough. So the next morning we ate breakfast down by the lake so I could get one last good look. We could say I was quite impressed with myself. Ridiculously proud.

Early morning sunlight on Hegerman Peak on the left and Snowmass on the right with great reflections on the water- kinda looks like an oil painting.

Then we headed out for our last few hours in the wilderness, up and over Buckskin Pass, and then back down to the trailhead at Maroon Lake.

Day 3 in red from Camp 3 on the left to the trailhead on the right. 8.5 miles, 2,000 feet up, 3,500 feet down.

We were hiking before most of our fellow backcountry campers made it out of their tents. Near the meadow section we passed the most impressive beaver dam I’ve every seen. It was even rounded. What an engineering feat!

Extensive curved beaver dam!

After the meadow area we started gaining elevation and had views back to Snowmass.

The “maroon” color that gives the wilderness its name on the left and the snow that gives Snowmass its name on the far right.
Nearing Buckskin Pass on a switchback with Erik and Snowmass.

At Buckskin Pass we had a snack but I started feeling not so good. Kinda had some brain fog. We didn’t even take any photos on the pass. I kept feeling worse as we descended, eventually getting nauseous. Altitude sickness? I’d never had it before and doubted it. Eventually I realized it was a migraine. I stumbled into the trailhead and was glad to let Erik drive to my conference by Keystone.

Me descending on the east side of Buckskin Pass with my small red pack. It was so green out there but likely cause it was early July and the snow had just melted.

Of the high state high points, Mount Elbert is among the easiest- comparable to New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak and Arizona’s Mount Humphrey’s. Easy driving, no glaciers, a really good trail, and not much elevation gain. And there’s other big mountains nearby. It’s almost like cheating!

The Four Pass Loop is certainly stunning and can be made more challenging by bagging some peaks, but after our experience at Snowmass Lake with throngs of people, I worry about its popularity. While permits still aren’t mandatory, registration at trailheads and bear resistant canisters are required. It’s also highly recommended to carry and pack out human waste bags. Check out the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness website for changing info.

I don’t think I’d go back. There’s simply too many other places to go and I want to minimize my impact on this incredibly beautiful and special wilderness.

2 thoughts on “The Colorado High Point and Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness

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