This is a weekly series that highlights an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. The goal is to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. I know for us, just seeing amazing photos and reading about a great hike is enough to get us motivated.
This week's hike is the Maroon Bells / Four Pass Loop in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
Featured Photo: Maroon Bells (photo by John B. Kalla)
Why this hike?
The Maroon Bells Loop provides an intimate, close up view of the Maroon Bells and other peaks in the Elk Mountain Range. Add in challenging river crossings in early summer, a sea of wildflowers in mid-summer, and golden aspens in the fall, and you have an epic adventure waiting for you any time of year!
How long is the hike?
As the name suggests, the hike is a loop which starts and ends at the overnight parking area near Maroon Lake. The loop is approximately 27 miles, so we recommend 3-4 days to really enjoy the trail.
How do I get there?
Maroon Lake is located only 10 miles southwest of Aspen, about 3.5 hours west of Denver, Colorado. If you're traveling from out of town, it's best to fly into Denver International Airport, rent a vehicle, and drive west on Interstate 70 and south on State Route 82 to Aspen.
From Aspen, drive west on State Route 82 for approximately 1/2 mile and then turn south on Maroon Creek Road. Proceed for about 9.5 miles to Maroon Lake.
From mid-June to early October, Maroon Lake is only accessible via a public bus between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., unless you grab an overnight pass from the Forest Service Entrance Station along Maroon Creek Road. There is also a shuttle from downtown Aspen to Maroon Lake operated by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
The following map shows our recommended route.
As shown, we recommend a 4-day, 3-night itinerary. You can certainly do the hike in just 3 days, but the high altitude and significant elevation gains will make it more challenging.
- Day 1 - Maroon Lake Trailhead to just before West Maroon Pass (6.5 miles)
- Day 2 - West Maroon Pass to Crystal River (5.5 miles)
- Day 3 - Crystal River to Snowmass Lake (7.0 miles)
- Day 4 - Snowmass Lake to Maroon Lake Trailhead (8.0 miles)
What will I need?
The trail is well maintained and the conditions are excellent. Weather is generally very good from July through September, however be prepared for afternoon storms and potential snow late in the season. A lightweight tarp that you can pitch quickly for cover during storms is highly recommended. Lightweight dry bags to keep your sleeping bag and food dry can also be very helpful.
Since this is a multi-day trip, you will need a full backpacking set up. Check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List for a complete list of things that we recommend and a handy printable checklist.
What do I need to consider?
Although the trail conditions are good, this is a difficult hike due to high elevations and having to traverse four passes that top out near 12,500 feet. Be well prepared for some tough climbs and steep descents.
Acclimating to the high altitudes by spending a night or two in Aspen is recommended, especially if you traveled to the area from lower elevations. Altitude sickness can quickly ruin a backpacking trip.
Trips during the early season may require some difficult stream crossings. Appropriate footwear, such as sandals or water shoes, is recommended. A pair of trekking poles could be invaluable during the crossings.
There are bears in the area, so practice bear safety at all times. A bear-proof food storage container is also required.
Permits are not needed, but all visitors are required to self-register at the trailhead and carry a copy of the registration with them on the trail.
Here are a few great resources to check out for more detail:
US Forest Service Information
Transportation Information from the Aspen Chamber
Four Pass Loop - Trail Description at Hiking & Walking
Four Pass Loop Write-up at Backpackers-Review
Have you conquered the four passes along this loop? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.
I have hiked the loop 3 times. I plan to go back summer of 2021. Any takers?
Im thinking of hiking it in the fall. Whats the earliest snow anyone has run into?
I plan on doing this trail in Late June. My only concern is snow and if the passes are passable that time of year?
Early June could be a challenge. I’d keep an eye out on the amount of snow that falls in the spring. Colorado can get hammered with snow in February and March, so it’s hard to say. If you can push the hike to late June, I think you odds of a successful trip will be better.
If you do decide to go, check for trip reports on www.14ers.com and other sites to see how the conditions are. Plan to bring a GPS or smartphone navigation app with the trail mapped so you can make sure to stay on it. Also, you’ll probably need a 15-20 degree bag for that time of year, since it could still be very cold at night.
Any advice on hiking in early June? I’m mostly concerned about traversing snow on the passes and/or losing the trail.
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