A Guide to Backpacking Colorado's Legendary Four Pass Loop
Film photography, gear essentials, and do's & don'ts for managing crowds and finding solitude on Aspen’s most legendary backcountry trail
Kodak Portra 800, Kodak Gold 200
The loop begins at the foot of the Maroon Bells in the Elk Mountains, just outside Aspen. It spans 28 miles, includes 7,000 feet of vertical gain, and crosses four mountain passes above 12,400 feet.
Over a recent long weekend a friend and I took on the loop. What seemed like thousands of others had the same idea. We arrived at the trailhead just before 6am, luckily out to grab the last spot in the lower lot. Car trunks opened as we headed to Maroon Lake to enjoy sunrise, revealing hikers who'd spent the night to reserve their own spot. That's Colorado for you.
We decided to travel counter-clockwise, which fewer people do because it's supposedly harder. While the jury’s still out on the complete truth of that, a tougher first day was well worth it to avoid some of the crowds.
Ten miles and 3,000 vertical feet later we arrived at Snowmass Lake. I could've ended the trip there completely satisfied.
"I was constantly reminded that we don't conquer mountains, they let us exist in their world."
Over the next four days I was constantly reminded that we don't conquer mountains, they let us exist in their world. We enjoyed perfect weather, and every day a new pass greeted us with another spectacular view completely different than the last. The usual attention tung of war between social media, TV, and advertising was replaced by towering peaks, pristine alpine lakes, and fields of wildflowers.
We met an older man from Australia who joked about rules against running on the trail when we passed him. A lady from New Hampshire said the exposure in the mountains here makes her cry. Her husband mouthed "thank you" when we told her the rest of the way was well protected. Our final day was spent with a crew of guys from Salt Lake swapping stories and quotes from Dumb and Dumber.
It wasn't a quiet trip by any means, but meeting people from all over the world is a part of the Four Pass experience. It reminded us how special this place is, how lucky we are to live in Colorado, and how many experiences are better shared.
6 Gear Essentials for Backpacking Aspen’s Four Pass Loop
Thermarest NeoAir XLite, $123
Extremely comfortable and packs down small. A good sleeping pad pays dividends in the mountains.
Darn Tough Merino Hiking Socks, $23
The best hiking socks I’ve ever worn. Period.
Osprey Aether AG 70 Backpack, $310
Dependable and comfortable, this pack has been a lot of places with me.
BearVault BV500 Food Container, $80
Required for this trip—and other areas in California, Montana, etc where bears are prevelant—to make sure your food stays yours.
Alpine Start Coffee, $9
For when you don’t want to haul your Aeropress, this stuff is actually pretty good.
Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Liner, $64
For when you don’t feel like sticking to the inside of your sleeping bag after a long day of hiking. Also great for shoulder seasons when an extra couple degrees of warmth make all the difference.
10 Do's and Don'ts for Backpacking Aspen’s Four Pass Loop
DO go when the wildflowers are in bloom. Usually before September.
DO take four days to finish. It's worth taking the time to soak it all in.
DON’T forget rain gear. Especially in early season there's a high chance you'll get stormed on at least once.
DON’T be selfish. With so many people on this trail, you'll witness a lot of disrespect for the rules. Read the regulations and leave no trace. Please.
DO catch a sunrise at Maroon Lake, Crater Lake, and Snowmass Lake.
DO bring a bandana or wide brim hat. You'll spend a lot of time above tree line with no shade. Pro tip: soak your bandana in a stream and then put it on. Life-changing.
DO share the adventure. People come from all over the world to hike here. Swap stories and get to know those on the journey with you.
DON’T forget trekking poles. They help immensely with all the steep uphill and downhill on this route.
DON’T go the typical way (clockwise) if it's busy. The first day is tougher, but you'll have more solitude.
DO drive Independence Pass on your way in or out. The views are simply spectacular.