Overview map of the Four Pass Loop. We hiked clock-wise from the trailhead at the 2 o'clock position. Our campsites are marked in green, fords are in blue. Total distance is about 26 miles with 8000' of elevation gain.
Day 1: After a week in Baltimore, I was feeling sluggish and tired. We got a late start Saturday and had a leisurely drive over Independence Pass to Aspen. Despite the fact that the uber-popular access road is closed to normal cars between 8 and 5, we were able to drive in to the overnight lot at 3:30. We hit the trail soon after and quickly covered the 1.7 miles up to Crater Lake where we'd been with Jen last year. We proceeded around the lake and climbed the talus pile from the east face of the Bells. Soon we were in virgin territory and, with the sun sinking in the west, started looking for a campsite. After 3.5 miles, we found a couple that were already occupied but a few hundred yards later, we found a nice unoccupied spot with partial views of the walls lining the steep West Maroon Creek.
Day 2: We figured this would be our hardest day with two fords to manage and two passes to scale. With luck, night would find us almost half way around the loop. We set out at 8 and quickly encountered the first of the fords, an ankle-deep crossing perhaps 30' wide. However, farther up stream in a narrow gully was a large remnant snowfield. Hoping to keep our feet dry, I tried it and found it solid. Luna and Amy came across, and we bushwhacked back to the trail.
Luna and I approaching West Maroon Pass.
One down, three to go! Amy and Luna with a view of Purity Basin beyond.
The trail wound through beautiful forest for a half mile before attaining the grassy meadows of the upper West Maroon Basin and the second ford. No such luck here with the snow bridges; we were forced to take off boots and wade the shin-deep, ice cold creek. But the bright sun soon dried things out and all was well. We proceeded through open fields of wild flowers and climbed the steep trail to West Maroon Pass, the first and highest of the trip at 12,500'. Suddenly, we could see into Purity Basin on the south side of the loop. Amy and I camped in Purity Basin two years ago, but never made it over either pass.
Frigid Air Pass marked the transition to the third basin of the trip. Fortunately, this one was easier as we only dropped 1000' from West Maroon as we traversed the southern face of Bellview Mountain. This pass was also a lot less obvious. What I thought was the pass turned out to be too far west and we followed the trail up a steep climb below a remnant cornice. The view from Frigid Air more than made up for the sore legs and high temperatures. The amazing Fravert Basin was spread below us with the Maroons guarding the far side. While we'd both seen the previous two basins before, from here on it was new territory.
The time was getting on and, though the weather continued to be cloudless and calm, we decided to get a move on. The trail dropped steeply into Fravert Basin and, after a mile of more wildflowers, shrubs, and occasional patches of snow or mud, depositted us an open grove of tall spruce trees. We followed the path along the Crystal River toward the bottom of the basin. We ended the day with a very steep quarter mile down switchbacks beside the impressive King Falls, a 300' cascade down into a set of beaver meadows. Despite the holiday weekend, we found a stunning campsite at the base of the falls unoccupied and, after setting up camp, spent a while wading in the creek and admiring the fine view. Dinner was a buggy affair, however, and we soon retired to the tent to escape the insect life.
King Falls drops 300' from Fravert Basin to nice meadows below. This view is from our second campsite.
Beautiful evening light on the meadows below the falls.
Day 3 didn't start exactly as planned. While filling a water bottle, I managed to slip off a large log and land in cold, waist-deep water! Fortunately, we were about to set out and a day of hiking in the hot sun dried out the boots pretty well.
We hiked a mile down the river and negotiated our third ford, the widest and coldest to date, but still nothing too exciting. Then, it was another mile through trees to the Cutoff Trail. Technically, the loop continues down, across another ford and up a steep climb to Geneva Lake. However, most hikers cut a few miles off the trip by taking a steep trail avoiding the lake. We were no exception and slogged our way up a thousand feet of switchbacks in the impressive heat through 45 degree slopes of wildflowers. Once we rejoined the main trail, the slope eased a bit, though not the heat as we hiked through a beautiful basin below Trail Rider Pass.
Crossing the Crystal River on Day 3
Approaching Trail Rider Pass
Trail Rider was the steepest yet (and certainly the hottest), but the view... wow! Below us stretched the Snowmass Basin with the large lake of the same name bounded by not one, but two Snowmass peaks. Our goal for the night were the several campsites surrounding the lake, and from the pass it looked like an easy goal.
Things were settling into a pattern. We switchbacked steeply down from the pass through wildflowers, rocks, and occasional snow. We'd been in the sun all day and sunburn was becoming a real threat. Finally, we gained some spotty trees before dropping steeply on really rugged trail across talus fields to the lake itself. And what a lake it was! We waded about at the outlet, refilling water bottles and cooling our heels. Numerous trout swam about unaware of the lurking carnivore (Luna) standing in their midst. The sun glittered off the water and the brilliant snowfields of the appropriately-named Snowmass Mountain.
But the time was still pretty early, so we decided to put in another mile or two towards tomorrow's goal, the car, and the comforts of home. We shouldered our packs and hiked the better part of a mile along easy trail to a marsh where the Snowmass Creek plunged over a rocky shelf. Just shy of the fourth ford, Amy found a spectacular campsite with amazing views of the Bells and the surrounding peaks. Like many other spots on this trip, it felt like being in a calendar. We set up camp and had another buggy dinner. Later, I wandered around the area taking pictures in the superb light and scouting out the final ford.
Snowmass Lake from a lower altitude.
The view from our third camp.
Day 4: As usual, we started the day with a creek crossing. However, unlike the previous three, this one turned out to be distinctly non-trivial. For one thing, it was quite narrow and deep as the entire marsh drained out through a steep, rocky gorge. The main trail lead over a pair of logs balanced precariously a few feet above the water. In the evening, the logs looked like a good option, but this morning they were narrow, poised above a substantial water fall, and slicker than teflon. A fall was likely and would have serious consequences. Option #2 was to cross on the long, curving beaver dam at the upstream end of the gorge. This would be safer, but beaver dams are notoriously composed of masses of sharpened sticks and we were without foot protection we wished to get wet. Again, not the most attractive option.
We finally choose the middle path; a submerged rock dam mid-way through the gorge blocked by a fallen log in the middle and a short cliff on the far side. After stealing my nerves, I started across finding the water knee-deep and bitterly cold. I spent a minute breaking limbs off the intermediate log, before stepping gingerly over (onto some nice beaver-sharpened sticks) and attaining the far shore, shivering violently. I clung to the cliff and managed to pitch my poles and pack up into the bushes above.
Luna, finally released from the other shore, came flying across without apparently touching the water. I boosted her up the cliff and that worry was over. Uncharacteristically, she seemed content to stay up there out of the way rather than come be in the thick of things. Amy, clearly not believing my reassuring words about how it really wasn't too bad, started across, got hung up on the log, and only through sheer will power made the cliff. I went back into the water to help her make the final transition and I can tell you it wasn't any less awful the second time in. I hurled her pack up the cliff, scrambled after it, then hauled her up after.
My best columbine photo to date!
The wicked fourth ford from the eastern side. Nasty!
Wow, that combination of frigid water, sharp sticks, brush, and some low-grade rock climbing in bare feet was really painful! We stomped around, shivering violently, in some incredible pain for about 20 minutes waiting for our feet to dry off and warm up. Mostly, we were glad that we'd done all four of the fords and that we wouldn't have to do anything as painful or, quite frankly, dangerous, for the rest of the trip.
The day definitely improved and improved fast (once our feet settled down to the usual aches of four days of hiking). We hiked past the rest of the meadow before climbing 1000' through forest to the small basin below Buckskin Pass. More alpine meadows brimming with flowers, snowpatches, bright sun, and numerous birds. Yawn. We'd gotten our earliest start yet this morning (7 am), so it wasn't hot yet and the climb up the remaining 1000' to the top of Buckskin Pass was actually quite nice. We arrived on top, after an extensive switchback, around 10 am and took an extended break on some view-ridden rocks. Buckskin was widely regarded as the hardest of the passes, but it seemed pretty mellow. Perhaps this was the direction of travel, the fact that our packs were almost empty, or that we'd become lean and hard over our previous three days in the wilderness.
In any case, we weren't sorry to leave, switchbacking rapidly down into the Maroon Creek basin in which we'd started three days before. Buckskin is clearly a popular destination for day hikers as we passed a great many huffing and puffing their way up. Come to think of it, it would be a pretty stiff hike from this side being almost 3000' of elevation gain in a little over 4 miles. Like previous days, it was getting hot as well. We were glad to be headed down toward air conditioning, ice cream, and other comforts of home.
With two miles to go, it crossed the threshhold of Not Fun Anymore. It was hot and our feet hurt. This part of the Wilderness, by far the most visited, is actually some of the least attractive (which is not to say it is ugly, of course!). Luna was clearly feeling the miles and the heat as well. Typically she is more energetic than any four people I know and would sooner die than hike behind someone else. As it was, I had to constantly encourage her on and even carry her for a few hundred yards. I think we may have finally broken our dog.
At long last, we reached Maroon Lake again and our waiting car. We'd come 26-ish miles, crossed four passes, four major creeks, and climbed 8000' in 72 hours. The scenery was spectacular throughout and the trail a good deal rougher than I'd expected for such a popular route. We never summited any actual peaks, but each pass felt a bit like a summit. They were all at respectable altitude (12,400-12,500') and lacked nothing for inspiring views in several directions. Given the fact that it was Fourth of July week, we'd seen surprisingly few people. Certainly we never had trouble with finding campsites or anything like that.
Lately, I've been doing a lot of hard, one-day trips by myself or with my various "Special Idiot" friends. It was really nice to do a long backpacking trip with my lovely wife in a new region of the state for a change. The differences between the Elks and my home turf Front Range are pretty substantial. Much as I like winter, it usually overstays its welcome in the high country. Thus it's great to get out and see the brief, intense Colorado summer in all it's glory.
The Wilderness Journal