This has to be one of our top multi-day hikes. For sheer beauty the Maroon Bells 4 pass loop has it all. Not too long; coming in at 29 miles, a little hilly; the total ascent around 7,500ft, and right on the doorstep of Aspen and Snowmass. If it wasn’t for a good friend who hiked it the weekend before us we would never had known about this little gem, nor would we have had the required bear box! Our decision to head off into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness wasn’t even made until the evening before. We were in the area and with Andrea not wanting to knock off Colorado’s toughest 14er, Capitol Peak with me it made sense.

Beginning early Friday afternoon we planned on knocking off 12,500ft West Maroon Pass before spending the night somewhere in Purity Basin, followed by 12,400ft Frigid Air Pass and 12,420ft Trail Rider Pass on Saturday en route to our camp at Snowmass Lake. Sunday would be an easy 10 miler over 12,462ft Buckskin Pass back to the trailhead.

Snowmass Lake with 14,098 ft Snowmass Mountain in the center
Circling the iconic 14,156ft and 14,014ft Maroon Bells the entire loop was showcased by impressive looking class 3 and 4 fourteeners of the Elk Mountains. These included the summits of Snowmass Mountain (3), Pyramid Peak (4), Maroon Peak (3/4), and Capitol Peak (4). With a bit of planning we could definitely have had a crack at Snowmass Mountain, perfectly located at the opposite end to our Snowmass Lake campsite and a relatively comfortable 3,000ft above us.

First we had to get away from the masses milling around Maroon Lake and along the couple mile stretch of trail that led the daytrippers to Crater Lake. From there on out it was all about equipped hikers and minimal runners doing the full loop, the latter in a single day!

The first of four; 12,500ft West Maroon Pass
Purity Basin with West Maroon Pass in the distance
As soon as we made it past Crater Lake the solitude immediately reminded us of our 2017 John Muir Trail hike, just not as long nor remote – this was both good and bad. The bad were the crowds bussed in from the Aspen Highlands parking area, the good being the short drive to the trailhead with immediate wilderness access. It was all about the incredible scenery of mountains, meadows, crystal clear streams, coupled with amazing weather.

All of these endless distractions were what made hiking up the passes seem easy, or was it the way we plowed through a full bear canister of food. By the end of the first day we were still full, by the second we were almost empty. Fortunately burning big calories allows us to eat big! Andrea had packaged freezer ziploc bags with pre-packaged breakfasts and dinners just as we had done on the JMT, allowing us to only ever have to boil water – we were becoming good at this wilderness camping gig.

Snowmass Lake; campsite for our second night
Heading down from Buckskin Pass, Maroon Peak in the distance
Standing atop the final ascent, Buckskin Pass
Upon cresting the first of the passes we realized why people rave about this hike, the views down into the Purity Basin and beyond looked amazing. A few dispersed tents were already setup a mile or so ahead of us within access to the small creek – this would be home for the night. The location was perfect, at least it would have had we been able to find a flat spot that was big enough even for our tiny 2 person tent. From our oversized scrub and shrub covered plot we were close to the trail fork that would lead us up towards Frigid Air Pass early the following morning, the other split in the fork heading down a well worn trail to Crested Butte.

If it wasn’t for a sleeping mat that required re-inflating a couple of times in the early hours it was an uneventful star filled and bear-free night. Why then if it was so uneventful do either of us never get a good nights sleep when in a tent? A little tired but well fed after a large portion of oatmeal with freeze dried berries and banana we hit the trail. Conditions were looking perfect for a good day of hiking, beginning with a 700ft ascent to Frigid Air Pass followed by over 2,000ft to the top of Trail Rider Pass.

Hiking up towards the pass we noticed a steady stream of people along the trail from Crested Butte; seems like this is extremely popular and maybe something worth looking into. Whilst the hike is barely 11 miles its more than 100 miles if you decide to return by car! To avoid the crowds it’s something for the winter maybe.

Snowmass Lake; campsite for our second night
Standing atop Frigid Air Pass high peaks of the Elk Mountains surrounded us, the Maroon Bells towering above the Fravert Basin and 14,092ft Snowmass Mountain looking imposing to the northwest. At this point I was still hoping the latter wouldn’t be too far from our lake campsite to tag! The second of the days passes would see us descend down through forest, scrub and meadows; perfectly located campsites scattered along the trail, to a little over 10,000ft. The later the morning pushed on the more trail runners we passed, their goal to do in a day what we were doing over 3 days – I think in a long day we could probably travel light and hike the entire 4 pass loop too.

A couple of significant but comfortable switchback climbs bought us out at the top of Trail Rider Pass a little after lunchtime. The much hyped camping area a further 2.2 miles away on the shores of Snowmass Lake beckoned. From our vantage point Snowmass Mountain looked very doable, the elevation changing drastically for the worse after we drop down to the surprisingly empty campsites below. From lakeshore to the summit would be a 3,000ft gain in altitude and already being mid afternoon meant a no-go for today! The popular campsite filled up over the course of the afternoon, most people planning on an early start to bag the impressive looking fourteener – a little more advance planning and we would have known that this is the normal route up Snowmass and could have structured our hike better to fit it in.

Maroon Bells Day 1 Route
Maroon Bells Day 2 Route
Maroon Bells Day 3 Route
A rapidly deflating sleeping mattress and the noise of hikers leaving camp for Snowmass at 4am ensured that another crap night of sleep was had. Incidentally just to get to this campsite for a shot at the mountain meant an almost 20 mile roundtrip hike! Instead we had a relatively easy Buckskin Pass to ascend followed by a few miles of in-ya-face views of Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells. Both 14ers looked unclimbable, that is until we noticed hikers on the summit of 14,156ft Maroon Peak – the route totally indistinguishable.

Excited about heading back to knock off the Elk Mountains we arrived back at Crystal Lake and the start of a busy couple miles to our car. Everything about this hike was perfect; the most amazing mountain scenery, blue skies, the feeling of remoteness …and the thought of returning for some fun technical climbs.

Day 1
August 24th 12.52pm: Maroon Lake to Purity Basin
Mileage: 8.3 ● Elevation Gain: 3,094’ ● Total Mileage: 8.3 ● Total Elevation Gain: 3,094’

Day 2
August 25th 7.12am: Purity Basin to Snowmass Lake
Mileage: 11.2 ● Elevation Gain: 2,815’ ● Total Mileage: 19.5 ● Total Elevation Gain: 5,909’

Day 3
August 26th 7.36am: Snowmass Lake to Maroon Lake
Mileage: 9.5 ● Elevation Gain: 1,742’ ● Total Mileage: 29.0 ● Total Elevation Gain: 7,651’

August 24th – August 26th 2018


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