The Maroon Bells Wilderness near Aspen, Colorado is a high altitude, mind blowing wilderness area complete with thick forest, wildflower covered alpine meadows, and crystal clear lakes reflecting snow capped peaks. You've got to earn these views though! I earned the heck out of them this summer with my best friend and partner, Dob. The backpack itself was not permitted, but the parking area has a quota and the road shuts down at 8AM. You must make a parking reservation to park at the trailhead and get there prior to the road closing or book one of the shuttles. Heads up: I got on the website to book the parking reservation the minute it opened for the season and managed to snag the last parking spot for the dates we went so plan ahead if you are wanting to do that hike! Early bird gets the parking reservation! We also had to make multi-day reservations so that our car could remain at the trailhead for the duration of our backpack. Parking reservations, shuttle information, and more information can be located here on the Aspen Chamber of Commerce website. Now that business is out of the way, on to the story:
We completed Four Pass Loop in three nights. It's around 28 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation gain over four mountain passes that are all over 12,000 feet. Looking back, we could have completed it in two nights because we ended up camping about three miles from the trailhead on the last night in designated numbered spots, but we were exhausted, didn't feel like trying to find a place to boondock for the night, and the views from the last night's campsite were absolutely stunning and absent of the mosquitos that had been eating us alive during our entire trip. The can of Salt and Vinegar Pringles waiting in the car did entice us though and it was a tough decision to stay, but it was definitely worth it.
I was fortunate enough to have spent two weeks acclimating to Colorado's notorious high altitude terrain prior to this backpacking trip. I had spent a few days in Salida, Colorado checking out the art scene as well as doing some hiking in the area and visiting hot springs. After Salida, I went to Crested Butte for a week to mountain bike at the resort and complete some epic hikes in the area. One of the best things about Crested Butte is that it's only 30 minutes from Gunnison, Colorado which has a legit recreation center with heated pool, waterslides and hot showers for cheap! So if you're camping long term and need a shower, it's a good spot to check out if you're in the area.
My partner, Dob, flew in a few days prior to the backpack and we spent a few days in Glenwood Springs and Aspen doing some hikes above 12,000 feet to help him get acclimated to the altitude.
The night before the backpack, we camped at Difficult Campground in White River National Forest right outside of Aspen. We started packing our packs by laying out all of our equipment around the campsite, and then packing out packs together. The hike required bear cans and we both had our own cans. Initially, I had thought we would be able to pack all of our food into Dob's bear can as it's a larger model than the one I have. I was wrong. Dob is a big dude that requires a lot of calories and has a general vibe of "what about that weight bench tho?!?!", plus he's a vegan, so we both ended up carrying out own bear cans to accommodate the amount of food we needed. Carrying your own gear is good practice anyway for backpacking trips. However, I very much wanted to save weight. The feminist in me is like "heck no, you are not carrying any of my gear and I'm perfectly capable of kicking ass and taking names on my own" when backpacking with a male friend or partner, but then I'm like "ummm, I have a dude that outweighs me by 70 pounds and can therefore carry more of the shared gear...no need to prove anything at the expense of my almost 40 year old back." So I was like okay, he can carry the stove or the tent...yeah it didn't work out like that. By the time we got his pack packed with food and gear, there was no room for the tent or the stove, so I ended up carrying the gear I carry on solo trips anyway. No big deal but honestly, I was looking forward to loading him up with weight like a pack mule! Mush, you! His pack was pretty small and he ended up having to bungee cord his bear can to the outside of his pack. Make it work however you need to!
While we were packing our packs, there was a group of early 20 somethings across from us also getting gear ready. It's funny when you encounter other backpackers and you start eyeing up their gear and they eye your gear and you try to not act like you're being nosey but then someone strikes up a conversation and the entire conversation then goes to gear! How much weight are you carrying? What kind of bear can are you using? What tent are you using? How much does that weigh? How are you treating your water? Oh yeah, I used to have that backpacking stove but I switched to this one because...This happened to us. They yelled out to us from across the street "Hey are you guys going on a backpack? Where at??" And we found out they were also doing Four Pass Loop. So we took a break from packing to meet and greet, compare itineraries and gear choices, and share stories. The group was from Kentucky. They were college students that had driven all the way out to Colorado for a short trip because they had seen a picture of the cover of a Colorado hikes book. It was the first backpacking trip of two of the three people in the group. Go big or go home! One of the girls was majoring in outdoor recreation so I thought it was super impressive that she had decided to tackle a big trip like Four Pass Loop! I didn't start really enjoying outdoor recreation until my late 20s! I think about the things I could have accomplished if I had started a decade earlier than I did...hindsight...I've definitely been making up for lost time. It's all you can do really.
One of the funny moments was when we compared weight. The dude in their group had the heaviest bear can ever! I mean twice as heavy as ours. They had brought items like cheese and sausage, partially hydrated foods like soups and rice...we opted for several packs of ramen, backpacking meals for dinners, and cliff bars for breakfast. If there is anything I've learned during backpacking is how to cut weight from my backpack. My four day pack is shockingly light. And I'm okay with that. My knees and back thank me every single time I go out. They say you spend $100 on gear for every pound of weight you cut from you pack. If you have the means, money well spent in my opinion.
They were planning on doing the backpack in two nights rather than three which is definitely doable, but they had only acclimated for one day. It's kind of a gamble when you are at altitude. You never really know how your body will react even if you are prepared. I've never had much issue other than a slight headache here and there, but I've definitely been on trips with hikers that regularly crush it on climbs at altitude and they end up pooping themselves or feeling sick for the duration of the trip. My partner had acclimated for four days and he had serious trouble sleeping on the trail, another symptom of altitude. Best practice: stay hydrated, avoid alcohol, acclimate, and descend every night to sleep if you can.
The next morning we got up early and headed out on our first backpack together as a couple and Dob's first recreational backpack outside of his military field exercises and ruck marches.
We got to the trail head very early. Around 7AM. We grabbed out packs and headed out. The trail initially goes by Maroon Lake and Crater Lake which is where most people turn around. Great day hike for families. Once you get past Crater Lake, the crowds start to dissipate significantly as you start your climb to the first of four passes. We completed the backpack counterclockwise as it offers the best views at the end of your trip. Most trail runners complete the loop clockwise to get the two hardest passes out of the way at the start of their run. We saw several trail runners on our backpack and seriously, mad respect (with a hint of jealousy) that they can complete that entire circuit in one day. I don't think that any amount of training would ever allow me to complete a 28 mile run and 8,000 feet of gain in one day...while running. Noooope.
When I was researching the trail conditions, I have to admit, I was nervous. The snow had not melted out yet and the trail description said there were several snow fields to cross, several deep stream crossings, a cornice overhanging the trail on the first pass, and a gnarly snow crossing above Snowmass lake that required either a steep and very scary traverse across snow with a very gnarly plunge into the lake and boulders below if you slipped or kickstepping up the snow and onto a boulder field saturated with water where the entire hillside was just sliding out from underneath you. I had lots of anxiety about this hike when we started. I recognize this as the place you want to be in occasionally when you are in the outdoors. It's the spot where growth happens. You're still in your element using the things you've learned, but you are stepping outside your comfort zone just a little and pushing yourself to get it done regardless of if you are scared. Getting through this hike made me feel like a badass! This is one of the reasons I advocate for women in the outdoors! Nothing makes you feel stronger and more capable than tackling a snow covered mountain peak with a giant pack on your back! That's right, I slept in a tent, I didn't get eaten by a bear, I found water, I shit in the woods, I crushed it! And it's really awesome when you crush it harder than the men in the group! Humbling for the men, confidence building for the women! It's a win win situation.
The first pass we reached was Buckskin Pass at 12,462 feet. It was a beast! From the valley, you could see switchback after switchback making its way up a very steep mountain. The snow cornice perched atop the pass was definitely directly over the switchbacks. As most things do, they look scarier from a distance, and once we got to the pass, the cornice was just a few moments of sketchy hiking before we were on the other side and above it at the top of the pass.
The hike down from the pass was not our favorite. At this point we were exhausted from the climb, and the hike to camp at Snowmass Lake seemed endless. A classic Colorado afternoon thunderstorm rolled in and we ended up hiking in the rain most of way down.
Once we got to the lake, we looked around for a good campsite that was close to the lake but far enough to ensure Leave No Trace principles. Most of the other campers also respected the camping areas. There was competition for campsites. I ended up trudging though ankle deep mud and almost loosing my boot trying to snag a campsite before a group of four dudes did. We were both going for it at the same time and I was like "seats taken" as I threw down my pack. I have no shame.
We setup camp and went down to the lake to relax and get water. This was when we discovered the mosquitos were absolutely awful. Mosquitos don't really come after me a vengeance, but my partner is a buffet for them. He had not packed any bug repellant and I had just packed enough Picaridin lotion for myself to get me through the trip. Admittedly, I was very selfish the first night and didn't disclose to him that I had bug repellant. I was putting it on secretly in the tent when he wasn't around. The next morning I came clean about the lotion when I heard him slapping his leg and slinging all kinds of profanities while he ate breakfast. Sharing my dwindling supply of bug lotion was an act of love.
That night in camp we noticed the Kentucky group's dog and located their campsite to see how it was going. They were feeling the altitude. They ended up deciding to turn around the next morning and hike out the way they came in rather than continuing on to do the next three passes. One of the girls was feeling very ill and they didn't want to risk it. Smart move but also disappointing for them I am sure. The couple of the group had day hiked up to the second pass and it was nice to get intel from them about the super gnarly part of the hike that we had to tackle first thing the next morning. It was the steep snow slope or boulder field area that was giving me the most anxiety. Trail reports said things like "we had to turn around" and "I feared for my life while I was crossing" and "very dangerous, recommend doing later in the season..." They pointed out the gnarly part and when I saw it in real life, it didn't look too bad. I had definitely been in worse situations. We wished the group a safe journey home and made our way back to camp to turn in for the night.
I woke up feeling very refreshed after a glorious night of uninterrupted sleep. Dob, on the other hand, had slept very little and was feeling it. I'm not sure if it was the altitude that kept him up or the fact that we were out in the wilderness and he was hyper vigilant about our surroundings? He's a military guy and that's a thing sometimes. I woke up to him brushing the hair out of my face and watching me sleep which is super sweet but also kind of embarrassing...my hair is all gross and sweaty, I smell awful, terrible breath, dirt on my face...like backpacking gross...he didn't seem to mind!
When we got to the gnarly part, it was no joke. We contemplated going across the slope as there was a trail cut into the snow, but I didn't feel comfortable doing it without an ice ax so we opted on going up and over. There were steps kicked into the snow that went straight up. When we got there, there were two guys helping a girl get up the slope. She was having a full on melt down like sob crying because she was so scared. If you slipped out of the foot holds you landed on ankle shattering boulders so I get why she was freaking out. He partner was right behind her stabilizing her feet so she could get up. She would take a step and then pause and cry, she was shaking, I felt so bad for her. They ended up getting her above the snow bank and onto the rock so we started up behind them once they were off to the side. Once we got up the snow bank, it got so much worse. Once you stepped off the snow, the scree and mud under the boulders just liquified under you. Like the entire hillside just caved. And then it was scrambling over huge boulders requiring you to find hand holds and test every boulder you stepped on to make sure it was stable. Rocks were dislodged and went hurtling downhill. I was screaming "ROOOCCCCKKKK" every five seconds. Definitely the gnarliest scramble I've every done. Dob got through it much quicker than I did'. He has a serious lack of fear sometimes. It's incredible! I've seen him jump off of waterfalls, scramble over boulder fields, and do really scary stuff with zero hesitation or experience. It's impressive.
The painting I painted of this hike is from the top of the scary boulder field. The red rocks in the foreground are the boulders and Snowmass Lake is in the middle ground. I have several more I would like to complete from this hike. I completed this one first because I like the color scheme, the composition, and it was the crux of the hike for me.
Once I got past this point and back onto established trail, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. That was the most challenging part of the hike other than just the general physical challenge of climbing high altitude mountain passes with a heavy pack.
The next pass was Trail Rider Pass (12,415). A pretty straight forward hike up a snow field. Once we got to the top, the valley on the other side opened up before us in amazing views! I would say this was the high point of stoke for us during the trip. Completing the most difficult technical part of the hike, checking off two of the four passes of the trip, and taking in the views had us feeling incredible! We joked around on the pass and took a bunch of photos. One of my favorite things about my partner is the way he is always goofing off and making me laugh. The man almost never takes anything seriously which can be frustrating for me because I'm very much type A planning type, but most of the time I appreciate his easy going demeanor especially when we are adventuring together. He's always a yes man. Any adventure I've every asked to go on, he's been like "yup, I'm down" without hesitation and I need that in a partner. I've very spontaneous, but in controlled and calculated way. For example, I'll randomly decide I want to travel to a place I've never been, but then create a detailed slide presentation with all the minute details I've planned out. It's a weird dynamic.
The hike down from the pass was BRUTAL and never ending. We got to a meadow that was beautiful and had abundant water sources as well as large boulders for us to lounge on. We were like "hell yeah, the rest of today's hike is going to be chill."
It was not chill.
The hike down was long and very steep and our thighs were searing from the exercise. It didn't help that it started raining on us and the red dirt trail turned into red clay that had us slipping and sliding all over the place. At one point, Dob's bear can went flying off his pack and down the hillside when we stopped to put on our wet weather gear. It got caught in some heather so it wasn't hard to retrieve but it was definitely a "let's take a break because I'm about to lose it on this trail" moment.
We passed by a few campsites that were really nice but we wanted to get a little more distance in that day. We ended up passing by a flowing river and I stripped down and went for a swim. So incredibly refreshing and the icy waters helped my aching muscles and joints feel so much better. That was one of my summer goals in 2022: swim in more mountain lakes and rivers.
We ended up stopping at a horrible site for the night. It had a view of waterfall which was nice, but the ground was not flat and we had to pitch the tent on a slope. The mosquitos were murderous at this site. I mean awful. I crawled into the tent and refused to come out until the next morning.
I'd like to say our last day was epic, and it was, but the stoke was super low. Dob had not slept and we had to tackle two passes that day. The third pass, Frigid Air Pass at 12,405 feet, was killer. I sat down half way up the pass and was all "leave me here, just leave me." I imagined my body just resting there in that spot forever until the land just absorbed me as a relic. Every step was extreme effort. Once we got to the top, we were rewarded with amazing views of the valley that leads to Crested Butte. Many hikers will hike over West Maroon Pass (the last pass) and then through the valley to Crested Butte to stay for the night in a hostel or hotel, and then hike back the next day to Aspen for a short, but more comfortable backpacking trip. It's definitely on my list of things to do.
As we made our way up to the last pass, the bottom feel out of the sky and the trail became a literal river of water. In addition to the rain, there was booming thunder all around us. There was a part of me that wanted to stop and hunker down, but I was in sight of the pass and decided to push through. The rain didn't let up until I got to the top of the pass. ! was so stoked to get the forth and final pass, West Maroon Pass, over and done with. The only thing we had to do after that was one supposedly gnarly river crossing, locating camp for the night, and an easy hike out the next morning. Dob got to the pass several minutes after me and was a little irritated I had left him behind. I do wish I had waited and hiked with him so we could have made the last pass together. We started the journey together, and I should have waited to end it together.
The hike down from West Maroon Pass was very chill and the stream crossing that everyone was telling us was gnarly (hikers hiking the loop clockwise) was not even a thing. We just put on our sandals, unbuckled our waist straps, got out or trekking poles, and got across the water easy peasy. Dob ended up tossing his crocs across the river to another hiker that had not brought sandals with him for river crossings. Trail magic!
When we were approaching the campsite area, we passed by a group of four girls that were hiking in the same direction as us. Once we passed them, one of the girls ended up running past us to snag a potential site as there were only 11 sites available in that area. It was kind of comical the way she ran ahead. Dob and I had a conversation before that happened about if we snagged the last campsite, we'd invite them to camp with us for the night. They did not have the same plan apparently, ha ha.
That last night offered us relief from mosquitos and the best campsite views of the entire trip. I even found a rock that looked like it had a gold vein in it, but I accidentally left it there. It would have been an excellent addition to my ever growing rock collection. It was meant to belong to someone else's rock collection, I reckon.
The last day, we got up early, didn't even eat breakfast, and just hiked out to the truck. I was so stoked to throw my pack down off my back, take off my boots, and get down on the Coke Cola, Pringles, and Oreos I had left in the car. A total dumpster fire of a diet, but I think we earned it. When we got to the truck there were a few rangers who were walking around with a teenage boy. I guess their friend had gone on a hike in the area, but had never returned and had been missing for a day. Yikes! I'm not sure how that turned out, but I'm hoping he was found healthy and uninjured.
We ended up driving to Buena Vista that night. It was a two hour drive and Dob slept in the bed of the truck while I drove. We found an awesome laundry mat with showers! The local park was having a 4th of July festival with a beer garden, live music, and art vendors. We grabbed some brews and found a comfy spot in the grass to watch the band play. I love Colorado vibes so much. Just easy going, outdoor oriented folks living the good (but very expensive) life. I'm thinking about relocating there this year, but they pay teachers the lowest of all 50 states. We will see.
We ended our trip with a day spent at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort! An epic place nestled right at the foot of Mount Princeton. Totally affordable and a great way to ease sore hiking muscles!
This was one of my favorite backpacking trips for several reasons. It was the first backpack I have done in Colorado, I did all the planning and reservations on my own, it was Dob's first backpack and our first true backpack together (we've done a lot of day hikes and sleeping at trailheads in my truck), but mostly because of the challenges and fear I had to overcome. There were moments when I had to tell myself to flip the fear switch off and just go for it! I'm proud of myself for completing this early season hike and I'm also grateful I had good company for the duration! My painting "Snowmass Lake, Aspen, Colorado" honors this experience and the landscape of White River National Forest!