Four Pass Loop
Regular readers of Dondo Outdoors may have gathered that I’m one of those backpackers who prefer solitude in the wilderness. Generally, I figure out where the crowds will be and when they will be there, then go somewhere else. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at this and rarely see more than a handful of other backcountry travelers.
Recently, though, I saw a movie about a guy who embarks on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago from the French Pyrenees to Spain. His fellow pilgrims were an essential part of his hike, and I wondered if I might be missing something by my commitment to wilderness solitude.
So I looked around and chose what is arguably the most famous loop hike in Colorado, the Four Pass Loop just outside of Aspen. This loop is a secret to no one, having been touted by Backpacker Magazine, written about in the Lonely Planet Guides, and sometimes mentioned in lists of the worlds’ greatest treks. I had actually done the loop ten years ago. In my usual fashion of avoiding crowds, I hiked it after Labor Day. Back then, I did see a number of other hikers near Maroon Lake and up to West Maroon Pass, then only three parties for the rest of the trip. This time I would be going into the belly of the beast at the height of the hiking season, from the end of July to the beginning of August.
It is thus that I find myself in Aspen HIghlands standing in a queue of international travelers waiting to board the bus to the beginning of my journey, Maroon Lake.
The bus fills quickly; the rest of us would have to wait. The driver pokes his head out the bus and says, “I got two spaces left.” No response. “How about one?”, I say from the back of the line. “One is good.” he says. And then we are on our way.
From the front of the bus, I study my fellow passengers. There are no other backpackers. A number are wearing hiking boots and carrying day packs, but most have come just to see Maroon Lake, the most iconic and most photographed scene in Colorado.
The driver runs a tight ship and doesn’t tolerate conversation among the passengers as he’s conducting his tour narrative on the way up the valley. Discipline breaks down a bit when some of the passengers in the back spot a bear by the side of the road.
Thirty minutes later, I get off the bus first, then step aside as I adjust my backpack and prepare myself for hiking. Now the crowd is blocking the sidewalk, and I have no choice but to wait as they shuffle slowly toward Maroon Lake. Slowly, I work my way to the front, and then I’m free and start power hiking toward the trailhead. Then I reach a sign reminding backcountry travelers that they need a permit. I’m tempted to skip this step but reluctantly turn around and walk back past the crowd to get one. At the permit station, I meet some of the other pilgrims who will be hiking the loop over the next few days.
It’s early afternoon by the time I reach Crater Lake, 1.8 miles from the trailhead. The snowpack was low this year and much of the lake is dried up. We all sit by the shore eating our lunches and stare at North Maroon Peak. Then I shoulder my pack and hike up Minnehaha Gulch toward Buckskin Pass.
On my way toward the pass, I meet a hiker who is just completing the loop. He tells me of several mountain goats he ran into at the top of the pass. Charmed by his soft southern drawl, I stand and talk for a while. He points his hiking pole at a green meadow on the steep slopes of a mountain opposite us.
“See that white spot in that green area just below the peak?
“Yeah, I see it.”
“I think it’s a mountain goat.”
“It could be.”
His hiking companion comes down the trail.
“What are you looking at?”
“I think it’s a goat.”
“You guys are tripping. That’s not a goat. It’s just a white rock.”
I like this guy immediately. We go on arguing about what we’re looking at for a while and then he notices my Pacerpoles.
“Those are strange looking poles. Where did you get them?”
“A small company in the UK makes them.”
I hand over my Pacerpoles and he tries them out.
“These feel really natural.”
Meanwhile, the first hiker is still looking at the mountainside.
Another pair of hikers comes down the trail.
“See that white spot in the meadow. I think it’s a mountain goat.”
“How long you been looking at it?”
“Did it move?”
“It’s a rock.”
Hiking up Minnehaha Gulch, the exertion feels good. It’s been too long since I’ve been in the mountains.
The approach to the pass is steep and narrow, with loose rock in the trail. My focus sharpens. At the top of the pass, I stop and take in the breathtaking views in every direction.
On the way down, I notice marmots sunning on boulders and pikas scurrying about. Once back in the trees, wildflowers take center stage.
Crossing Snowmass Creek, I see that a number of other backpackers have chosen to camp here. I decide to press on toward Snowmass Lake. By the time I get there, all the good camping spots are taken. People are cleaning their dishes and hanging their bear bags. I finally find a stealth spot at the far side of the lake just large enough to fit my shelter.
Much of Snowmass Lake is fjord-like with steep mountainsides plunging directly into the lake. I carefully let myself down to the lake to gather water, grabbing onto tree roots for support. It’s dark by the time I finish dinner and hang my bear bag, and I go directly to sleep.
The first light of the day awakens me, so I grab my camera and tripod walk out to explore the shores in the first light of dawn. It’s a beautiful lake, especially in this light, and I expose frame after frame.
People start to stir from their tents. A couple with hammocks right by the shore are the first to leave. I go back to my camp, and after a quick breakfast, pack up and head up the trail toward Trail Rider Pass. While I’m photographing on a trail through a steep rockslide, two women come up behind me with day hike gear. Apparently, they were base camping at Snowmass Lake. I step aside to let them by.
HIgher up, I notice a group of four backpackers moving slowly toward the pass. I catch up with two of them and stop to talk.
They introduce themselves as John and Peter from Kansas City. They say that the elelvation here is taking its toll. Wisely, they’ve chosen to do the trek in five days. Even more wisely, they’ve let the other two backpackers, the sons of one of them, carry the weight of the food. We talk about the mountains, acclimation, gear, and the trade-offs in going light.
Taking my leave, I move on, and am the first to arrive at the pass.
The two women arrive shortly after and introduce themselves as Jennifer and Lori, from Boulder and Denver. The two met at summer camp when they were thirteen and have been friends ever since. Every year they plan a high-adventure vacation together. Last year, they rafted down the Green River during the highest flow rate in years. This year, it’s the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
Next up are Mark and Alex, the two sons. Mark tells me that Trail Rider was easier for him than Buckskin Pass and that he’s getting used to the altitude.
Peter and John arrive next.
While we are all talking, a couple arrives at the pass who look like they just stepped off the front cover of Outside magazine.
Counting heads, I realize that nine of us are congregrated at the top of Trail Rider Pass.
Eventually, we all slip away down the other side. I don’t really have much of a plan or even know the miles I’ll be putting in today. Figuring that things usually work their way out, I just hike down the trail. At a trail junction, I have to make a decision. The North Fork Cutoff looks to be a couple of miles shorter and would knock off some elevation gain. But I’ve never seen Geneva Lake and it’s looking pretty enticing on the map.
I decide to go for it. At the lake, I’m a bit disappointed to find that the water is low here too. On the other hand, some of the mountains here have a beautiful white color that perfectly complement the clouds billowing up from the west.
As I round Geneva Lake, I meet two men on the trail. One considers himself a local. He has a cabin in Marble and has spent many years exploring the mountains around here. His friend is from Virginia, and loves to come out here whenever he can.
The day turns hot and I’m getting tired. After passing a waterfall cascading down from Geneva Lake, I become disoriented and manage to convince myself that I’m hiking in the wrong direction. I turn around and hike back tens minutes toward the waterfall. It’s only then that I realize that I was on the right course all along. Time for a break. I sit in the shade of an aspen forest, have a snack and gulp down water while studying the map. Feeling better, I hike on toward Fravert Basin.
Later in the day, I see a boy and a girl playing in the mud at a stream crossing. I see several camps set up at the other side of the stream. A man tells me of several good campsites farther along the trail. Tomorrow will be a two-pass day and I want to get as close to the first one, Frigid Air Pass, as I can.
At the head of the North Fork Valley, I spot several more camps. A hiker camping solo is watching me as I climb out of the valley. I call out a greeting and we talk.
He tells me that there are only a few flat spots farther up and probably filled by now. Also, he has heard that water was scarce this year once you leave the valley. We talk about the number of people in the backcountry, and I try out my new Dondo attitude.
“I guess it’s a good thing, everybody out here to enjoy this place.”
He’s having none of it.
“This place is too beautiful to have everyone out here.”
And, of course, I know what he means.
He invites me to share his camp spot , but loving my solitude, I politely decline, and walk back down to the valley.
I find a secluded spot tucked away in the trees and set up camp for the evening. After dinner, I go wandering in the waning light of the day.
This trip has been dry so far, but I wake up in the middle of the night hearing rain bouncing off the roof of my shelter. Since it’s been so dry in Colorado lately, this rain is a comfort, and I fall contentedly back to sleep.
In the morning, hikers are stirring about. From my hiding place in the trees, I spot one heavily burdened solo hiker passing down the trail. Two campers are down by the stream. The couple who look like cover models for Outside magazine reappear at the other side of another stream.
Climbing up toward Frigid Air pass, more people appear. Opinions vary on the availability of water, but the consensus seems to be that you can get some before the final climb to the pass and also a trickle before West Maroon Pass. Loath to carry any more weight than I have to, I dump a liter of water onto a tree that looks like it needs it, and continue upward.
Fravert Basin is a beautiful place. It’s hard to believe that these reds and greens are real and not the result of someone cranking up the colors in Photoshop.
Lifting my camera from my face, I notice another solo hiker with his camera pointed toward me.
” I just took a picture of you taking a picture.”
Fair enough. We’re all fair game out here.
We talk photography for a few minutes and then hike on.
The crowd thins out, and I find myself climbing Frigid Air Pass all alone. By now I’m getting used to these passes. Good trails and switchbacks until you get near the top, then steeper with loose rocks and narrowing tread. You do not want to slip off the trail here.
At the top, I get a feeling of exhilaration. The beauty is almost to much to bear. Below, I can see a couple making their way slowly up the trail toward me. They wait on a spot on the trail wide enough for two to pass, as I make my way gingerly down the loose rock.
Once safely on flat ground, I turn and watch as the couple carefully negotiate the last few yards up to the pass.
The hiking now is easier now on a narrow, smooth tread with no roots and rocks, and beauty spread out below in every direction.
Eventually, I find the trickle of water coming down the mountainside and stop here to gather water and have lunch. Peering at a valley below, I’m surprised to see a number of people on the trail. From my high perch, I count eighteen spread out over a mile or so. Then it clicks. This must be the famous hike from Aspen to Crested Butte. Having been mostly alone for the last few hours, I mentally prepare myself for crowds on the other side of the pass.
While photographing rock formations near the top of West Maroon Pass, I hear shouting from the top of the pass. I look up and realize that they are shouting at me. Something about wanting me to take their picture.
It turns out they are three young women from Colorado Springs, who seem to be serious about documenting their pilgrimage along the Four Pass Loop. One of them, Andraya, agrees to pose for Dondo Outdoors, then scares the hell out of me by doing a yoga pose on a boulder atop the pass. We wish each other a good hike and make our ways down the opposite sides of the pass.
It’s surprisingly quiet on this side of the pass. Since it’s afternoon, everyone doing the day hike to Crested Butte is probably already on the other side.
The Maroon Creek Valley is gorgeous. When I did this hike ten years ago, I was just getting started with digital photography and was wondering if I had screwed up the settings on my camera. The colors just seemed so vibrant. I’m happy to see that my old photos of the place captured what is really there.
Originally, I had planned three nights out on the loop but now am getting near the end. The last bus leaves at 5:00 PM, and I may be able to make it if I hustle. So I do for a while, taking pleasure in speed and in placing my feet exactly where they need to go. Then I meet a couple who are hiking the loop from Crested Butte with their young daughter. They tell me Crater Lake is a great place to camp and that campsite #9 is especially nice.
So I decide to spend my last night out at Crater Lake.
Walking the trail by the lake, I see a bearded man and a woman headed toward me.
“DId you see it?”
“The bear. There’s a bear running around here.”
“No. I didn’t see anything. I just got here.”
“He was right by our camp. We’re moving from #6 to #2.”
“You mind if I camp at #1? There may be safety in numbers. If I hear any screams, I’ll come running,” I joke.
“And I’ll come running if I hear you scream.”
Camp #1 is just awful. It’s everything I hate about designated campsites. Unlovely, no views, hard compacted soil, ash scattered about, slanted ground. The opposite of what I would choose when picking my own campsite. But it’s late and I’m tired, so I start to set up my shelter.
A few minutes later, the bearded man appears. He tells me he has decided to stay at site #6. I check out site #2. Not as bad. It’s smaller, no scattered ash, and best of all, the ground is level. This will do.
Quickly, I set up my shelter, then look for a bear bag hanging tree at a distance from my camp. Since the bear nearby is most probably an experienced camp robber, I take special pains to find just the right tree with a branch at the right height.
Then I go down to lake to gather water, and cook dinner, and watch the day become night. Swallows swoop up and down over the lake. A family of ducks swims by.
Just as I am finishing dinner and drinking tea, it starts to drizzle. I start to pack up and notice that the couple is also getting ready to leave.
It turns out that they are the same people I first met when arriving at Crater Lake. The bearded man stops to talk, while the woman heads back toward her camp. He introduces himself as Jonathan. He and his wife are students in Houston and are taking a trip through the Rockies before school starts again. Their trip is centered around spending time in nature. Before they got here, they spent two nights camping in the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park. After this, they’ll be heading up to Rocky Mountain National Park. Jonathan has the soul of a poet. We speak of “many things, fools and kings” as the song goes. Then we head back to our camps.
The drizzle lets up a bit, and I wander along the muddy shore of Crater Lake. At the far end I find the stream feeding the lake and the channel it has cut into the mud. A sandpiper hops along a few feet ahead of me , his cheep, cheep being the only sound in the fading light of the evening.
Back at camp, I sit on a log and stare out into the darkness. A crashing sound invades the silence from close by. My pulse starts racing, then slows when I realize that it’s only a deer.
The rain begins again, and I go to sleep listening to the gentle sound of moisture returning to the land.
At first light, I skip breakfast, pack quickly, and hit the trail early hoping to get to Maroon Lake early enough to get my own classic “Maroon Bells” shot. I’m surprised to find so many people on the trail this early. Two climbers with helmets strapped to their packs are hoping to bag West Maroon Peak. Various backpackers and day hikers come by. I step aside for two guided hiking groups. As I get closer to the lake, I resign myself to the fact that I’ve missed the good early morning light for my photo.
Sitting on a bench by the lake, I pull out some trail mix and wash it down with water for breakfast. Then I walk along the shores of Maroon Lake toward the bus stop.
Clouds emerge from below the eastern horizon and start to drift toward the sun. I may still get my shot. Stepping out into the lake with my shoes and socks and pants on, I get my tripod set up just as the clouds cut the contrast from the sun. As if on cue, four Canada Geese step out from shore and appear in the frame swimming single file toward the Maroon Bells.
It’s getting close to nine, so I walk up the hill toward the bus stop. Turning back to look at the lake one last time, I spot a group of Amish people walking single file along the the path beside Maroon Lake. They look like pilgrims to me.
You lookin’ at me?
A special thanks to everyone who agreed to pose for Dondo Outdoors. I think you all look great, and your photos really helped to make this post special. If I misidentified anyone or screwed up the spelling of your name, please comment and I’ll fix it immediately.