We had been warned about black bears tearing through hikers’ campsites on Colorado’s Four Pass Loop trail. We had taken the mandatory precautions of traveling with an absurdly heavy bear canister and making sure that nothing with a smell was in or anywhere near our tent. Still, as Jennifer and I lay in our tent on the first night of our Four Pass Loop adventure with a creature now rubbing up against our tent we had to ask ourselves did we make the right choice venturing into bear & cougar country with nothing but bear spray to protect us for a 26-mile remote adventure. Answer: Yes, we did!
The Four Pass Loop – Colorado’s quintessential backpacking adventure
For many, the Four Pass Loop trail is the quintessential Colorado backpacking adventure. As such it is one of the most popular summer trails. The Loop has some of the most rugged and varied beautiful terrains that any trail has to offer much less one only 26 miles in length. As the name suggests this hike takes you over four 12,000′ mountain passes as you circle around the infamous 14,000′ deadly Maroon Bells. It is located in the remote Maroon Bells – Snowmass wilderness of the White River National Forest. The trail leads hikers through gorgeous wildflower valleys. It passes snowmelt waterfalls, lakes, and ponds. There are ample opportunities to spend moments of solitude with the wildlife amongst evergreen forests, rugged maroon mountainous outcroppings, and swampy bogs. It is one of the most amazing adventures we have ever been on.
But, you are probably wondering if it was a bear we heard the first night… it wasn’t. We are fairly certain it was a family of porcupines passing through our small campsite at tree-line. The small creatures eat the bark off the trees and they really like cork handles on hiking poles. We have such handles and always hang the sticks from tree branches at night. So far that has kept them from getting eaten. I’m fairly certain they were porcupines as we saw the needles scrap against our thin orange tent canvas.
People actually run the 26-mile trail in a single day… those people are insane! While this trail starts at 9,580′ and tops out at 12,465′ at West Maroon Pass the overall elevation gain is 8,115′. to clarify, the trail both climbs and descends 8,115′. So, if you want to break your legs in half go ahead and run it, but for normal humans I recommend backpacking. This trail has too much elevation and far too much beauty to rush it so I highly recommend a 5-day adventure, but anywhere between 3-5 is normal.
Day 1: (about 5 miles)
We arrived in the Aspen area just after lunch and had to ride the bus in from the Aspen Highlands Ski Area. See the “Things to Know” section on the “Day 5 post” to get the bus/parking schedule. We were slowed down on the trip in by an Aspen tree that had fallen onto the road. The men on the bus took it upon ourselves to drag the fallen tree out of the road. This was a memorable start to our adventure especially since Jennifer and I had traversed this stretch of the road 20 minutes earlier when we had attempted to drive to the Maroon Lake lot (we had bad info).
The park rangers shut down the road during the summer to traffic and so the bus is mandatory. This is an attempt to help nature survive the throngs of tourists arriving in the area every day. I am sure the income from the bus tickets helps as well.
The bus drops off in the Maroon Lake parking area so either way, this is where the adventure begins. Make sure you grab a wilderness permit at the West Maroon Portal area. It is located at the bus drop off.
On the Trail and up to Crater Lake
The trail starts by passing along the northern shore of Maroon Lake. Follow the signs up to Crater Lake. The trail up is well established and mostly climbs through the woods before arriving at a small boulder field. On the other side of the boulder field and just before Crater Lake the trail will split. Stay left and head towards Crater Lake unless you wish to do the loop in a counter-clockwise direction in which case you would stay to the right at this junction. We went clock-wise (left) which is how most backpackers seem to do the loop.
After taking in the reflective views of the Maroon Bells from Crater Lake follow the trail along the northern shore. There are campsites in this area, but they seem to be closed often due to bear activity which was the case when we were hiking the loop. On the western side of the lake, the trail will pass through dense brush and is at times hard to follow. This was one of the worst sections for trail location, but it is navigable and once passed the trail is very easy to follow. It is also well-traveled by day hikers making their way up to the West Maroon Pass so if in doubt just ask a fellow traveler.
Heading up the West Maroon Valley
From Crater Lake, you will head up the West Maroon Valley towards West Maroon Pass. Just before tree line you will pass over the valleys large central creek and start to climb up the right side of a hill. It is in this area you will start to see several campsites areas located in the trees. We passed by most of these and found what was possibly the highest campsite on the ridge located in a small patch of pine trees. This is also where we had our encounter with the porcupines. It was a nice spot with a small snow-fed stream about a 1/8 of a mile ahead on the trail. This was the last stream before heading over the West Maroon Pass so it made for a perfect camping spot.