Touring Colorado’s Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness
Meghann Maurer, November 18, 2011
Aspen, Colorado has always been known as a top tier ski resort and while its four mountains and glitzy town offer no shortage of fun during the winter months, the wilderness that lies beyond the resort’s boundaries are well worth the trip for any hardy adventurer year round.
Last September, a small group of friends and I decided to conquer the infamous Four Pass Loop, a 26.5 mile tour of the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness in the White River National Forest. The Loop not only challenges both physical and mental stamina, but takes you deep into one of the most breathtaking regions of Colorado.
For extreme trail runners this loop can be done in a day, however, allowing 3-5 days to complete provides ample time to enjoy the renowned beauty of the rugged Elk Mountains, extensive aspen groves, and wild flowers.
The trailhead to Crater Lake is situated an easy 5-mile drive up CO Rd 13 outside of the town of Aspen at Maroon Lake. The view overlooking Maroon Lake, with “the Bells” towering in the background, is exquisite and arguably one of the most photographed scenes in all of Colorado. During the day, Maroon Lake and the 2 miles of well-trodden trail that climb 600 ft. up to Crater Lake are chronically crowded with tourists. However, don’t let the onset of crowds discourage you. Once you make it past Crater Lake, the crowds will begin to dissipate until you find yourself surrounded only by wilderness.
From Crater Lake it’s up to you to decide which direction to take. Ultimately, the total elevation change is the same no matter which way you go, but if you prefer shorter steep ascents to long ones, head clockwise in the direction of West Maroon Pass (12,500 ft.). Your knees will thank you later for the more gradual descents.
The distance and elevation gain between West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass (12,415 ft.) is the smallest you will cover between any of the passes. My group opted to summit the second pass and camp in Fravert Basin the first night. Although camping is possible, it is not optimal because of the trail’s position above tree line and the scarcity of water. If you decide to camp in Fravert Basin, make sure to refill your water at the small stream that runs along the side of the trail between West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass. The next available water source is several miles into Fravert Basin.
Be wary of weather. Colorado thunderstorms can be unpredictable but generally occur in the afternoon, moving quickly across the valleys. If you decide to summit both passes in one day, make sure to get an early morning start and monitor the sky as you go. Remember to bring appropriate rain and snow gear. Although we were fortunate to have beautiful weather for the entire trip, it is not uncommon to find yourself hiking in 6” of fresh snow after a previously sunny day. Check weather reports beforehand, and plan accordingly. Once you head over the second pass, there is no quick way out. Designated campsites and water will become available further into Fravert Basin.
The earlier you get moving on Day 2, the longer you can spend enjoying Snowmass Lake on the other side of Trailrider Pass (12,420 ft.). The climb up the third pass is incredibly steep and unrelenting. Thankfully, as you gain altitude the views become equally astounding.
From the top of Trailrider make your way down a long descent to Snowmass Lake (10,980 ft.) which sits below the striking mass of Snowmass Peak (14,092 ft.). The lake is an idyllic spot to rest tired limbs and take a refreshing ice cold dip in the water.
The final leg of the journey moves east from Snowmass Lake up Buckskin Pass (12,462 ft.), culminating in a spectacular panoramic view, dominated by North and South Maroon Peaks. The descent back down to Crater Lake is a steep, quick and a rewarding finish to the trip.
When to go
Late summer and early autumn are the best times to embark on your tour. Crowds will always be prevalent on the weekends, so consider planning your trip during the weekdays. Late September is the best time to witness the spectacular changing of the aspen trees, however, the passage between Maroon and Crater Lakes will be bustling with people.
- There is a $10 recreation-use vehicle fee and convenient overnight trailhead parking.
- Wilderness camping is free, but make sure to fill out a wilderness permit at the box along the trail up to Crater Lake.
- Fires are not permitted and campsites should be set up at least 100 ft. from all water sources.
- Remember that you are in bear country. Take proper precautions.
- Summiting any of the various 14ers of the Elk Mountains can also be done along this route, see: http://www.14ers.com/routes.php
- Campsites outside the wilderness area can easily be found off of CO Rd 13 and Hwy 82. However, by late September, these campgrounds will be closed for winter.
- This route can also be accessed from the town of Crested Butte.