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The Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness Area is extremely popular and with good reason. Stunning mountain scenery, extensive trail networks, abundant wildlife, multiple 14,000′ peaks, and beautiful lakes attract lots of visitors. To protect the areas natural resources a comprehensive permitting system has been developed. We secured an advance permit for our loop trip.
The Four Pass Loop is most often done in a clockwise direction. Starting at Maroon Lake backpackers cross over West Maroon Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass and finally over Buckskin Pass to descend back to Maroon Lake. The route essentially circumnavigates the Maroon Bells.
Ultra runners run it in 1 long day. Ambitious backpackers tackle the loop in 2 nights/3 days. Most folks plan for 3 nights out. We spent 4 nights out and that seemed just right to us.
Just getting to the trail head at Maroon Lake is challenging. Private vehicles are allowed to drop off hikers between 7:00-8:00AM. After 8:00AM the only way up the road to the trail head is with an advance reservation for a ride via shuttle bus. Very good friends from Snowmass let us leave our car in their parking lot and drove us up to the trail head at 7:00AM on the Tuesday morning after Labor Day.
The permit requires that you specify a zone where you will camp each night. Only a certain number of people are allowed in each zone each night. Our first night required us to camp below West Maroon Pass. West Maroon Pass is about a 3-4 hour hike from the trail head and, having arrived at 7:00Am, we had all day.
After the first mile we dropped our packs at Crater Lake. From there we spent the morning hiking up and back to the top of Buckskin Pass. Buckskin is typically the last pass of the loop and done on day four. So, we did the last pass first. Back at Crater Lake, we had lunch and then started up West Maroon Creek. After a couple of hours we set up camp on some cool glacial polish near treeline.
Day two, we hiked up and over West Maroon Pass. The route up to this point followed one of the most popular Aspen to Crested Butte day hikes. We passed quite a few of those day hikers on the trail. Instead of descending down towards Crested Butte our route stayed high, traversing a beautiful alpine basin and then climbing up Frigid Air Pass.
From the top of Frigid Air Pass we descended into Fravert Basin. A long hike following the North Fork of the Crystal River brought us to the next big climb. We headed up to Trail Rider Pass and some distance below the top we deviated from the standard route. A spur trail took us over to our second nights camp at Geneva Lake. That was a pretty long day.
Day three we went up and over Trail Rider Pass and descended down to our third camp at Snowmass Lake. We went for a quick dip and had a relaxed afternoon at the lake. Snowmass Lake is the most beautiful alpine lake we have ever seen.
The next morning we started out early with day packs and spent the morning climbing to the summit of Snowmass Mountain 14,099′. It was a varied climb up including cool low angle polished granite slabs in the basin and then route finding through looser class 3 terrain above 13,000′. We were the only people on the summit and weather was perfect. The atmosphere was astonishingly clear and we could make out the La Sal mountains in Utah, the 14ers in the San Juans, the Crested Butte Ski Area and more.
Back down at Snowmass Lake we took another quick dip in the lake, picked up our packs and started down West Snowmass Creek to find a camp site outside of the permit zone. With an early start on day five, we arrived late morning at the trail head in Snowmass. Another fine backcountry outing was had.