Meyer: Four Pass Loop is an assault on the senses

Crater Lake in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is at the gateway of the popular Four Pass Loop.
Courtesy of Aspen-Sopris Ranger District

Climbing up the seemingly endless switchbacks of Trail Rider Pass, I wasn’t sure if I would reach the top or capitulate to the bursting feeling that had taken over my lungs first. But, upon reaching the top, my efforts were rewarded with stunning views in every direction. From the top, I could spot my next campsite: Snowmass Lake, which appeared as a glint of sparkling blue topaz in the valley below me.

Though Trail Rider was the most painful of the four passes (partially because it was my second pass of the day), each ascent of the Four Pass Loop provided a similarly arduous climb followed by breathtaking views.

The popular trail traverses four passes in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, all of which surpass 12,000 feet of elevation: West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider and Buckskin. The 28-mile route typically takes hikers three or four days to complete. At the end of July, the wildflowers are at the peak of their blooming stage — I spotted blossoms in nearly every color of the rainbow.

I traveled clockwise, as most backpackers do (trailrunners completing the loop in one day often go counterclockwise in order to get the more difficult passes over with first).

Starting each day early in the morning is essential — weather proved to be a predictably volatile force, punctuating each afternoon with some combination of rain, hail and thunderstorms. The characteristic mountain weather dealt me several close calls: Minutes after setting up camp at Snowmass Lake, my tent was pelted with a relentless assault of grape-sized hail. The next day, as I began my final descent from Buckskin Pass, an especially vicious thunderstorm forced me to seek shelter momentarily before being able to continue through to the end of the trail.

To get to the trailhead, arrive before 8 a.m., when the Maroon Creek Road gate closes for public vehicles, or make reservations for the shuttle or parking permits. The trail begins with a jaunt by Crater Lake, then continues far beyond the well-traveled trail into less crowded terrain.

Though I can’t deny that the brutal inclines and erratic weather made me question what masochistic motivation had compelled me to embark on this journey, the vibrant blossoms bursting from every inch of basin floor and sweeping views of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness made it worth the trek.

Anna Meyer is an editorial intern at The Aspen Times for part of the summer. She will be a sophomore at Vassar College this fall.