I recently was in Colorado with the intention of hiking the Four Pass Loop in the Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen. Unfortunately, I was not able to complete the loop. In fact I didn’t even get up the first pass. Bad weather, altitude, and lack of time forced my Dad and I to adjust our plans.
Our original plan had been to spend four days on the trail. On the first day we would hike from the trail head to Crater Lake. On day two we would go over the first two passes, West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass. The third day would be spent going over pass number three, Trail Rider Pass. And finally, on the fourth day, we would make it over Buckskin Pass and back to the trail head where we started.
The sad truth is that this itinerary is a bit unrealistic for two people who are unaccustomed to high altitude and on a somewhat strict schedule. Here are a few recommendations I would give to anyone planning on hike the Four Pass Loop in Colorado.
1. Give yourself enough time
If you are not one who is acclimated to high altitude, allow yourself six days to complete the loop. Each pass’s summit is over 12,500 feet. There isn’t a lot of oxygen at that altitude and it is an uphill climb. We certainly would have been able to to hike the entire loop had we have had more time. Four days and four passes is really quite a challenge, especially when you need to summit two passes in one day in order to stay on schedule.
2. One pass per day
This goes along with the last tip. Do only one pass a day. Again, the altitude is not a joke and the passes are incredibly steep in some places. It will be slow going all the way to the top. Hike past Crater Lake and try and make it as close to the first pass, West Maroon Pass, as you can on the first day.
We camped near Crater Lake on our first night and that was our biggest mistake. Although it isn’t necessarily a long distance from Crater Lake to the summit of West Maroon Pass, it is up hill nearly the whole way. By the time we arrived at West Maroon Pass we were all out of energy, and there was no way in hell we were going to make it up a second pass. Not to mention we probably would have run out of daylight.
If you do one pass per day with the first day making it a third of the way to the first pass, five or six days would be the optimal amount of time one would need.
Ok, I mention this simply because of the encounter that I had with a Moose. As I mentioned in my last post, Chased by a Moose, the warnings of Moose living in the area and being territorial are not untrue. Keep you eyes and ears open. It turns out, Moose are indeed very territorial and if you get lost in thought and do not pay attention, you may happen upon one and piss it off.
Moose are not the only animals you will pass along the trail. I saw at least a dozen Marmots, maybe more. I also saw a number of deer along the way. And while we did cary bear cans, which are required in the Snowmass Wilderness, I did not see a single bear. That does not mean they are not around, be mindful.
4. Bear Cans
Speaking of wildlife, you will need a bear can as I mentioned previously. I hadn’t ever camped in a place that required bear cans before, and I hadn’t planned on having to include it on my packing list while I packed my bag at home. They are necessary evil. You have to have one, so suck it up and make room in your pack. Don’t feel bad though, we all hate them. I rented an 11L canister for $8 per day from Ute Mountaineers in Aspen. The team there was very knowledgeable and knew the area well.
As you plan your trip to the Snowmass Wilderness you will hear over and over again, "the weather can be crazy." Take heed, it really can be crazy. I remember one day in particular as we were making our way up West Maroon pass, the weather went from perfect, to chilly and windy, to freezing and sleeting, and finally back to perfect.
The bad weather almost always arrives after noon. It is best to get up early and get on the trail without wasting to much time. I can't say we always did get up and hit the trail first thing, but it is what is best.
6. Don’t push yourself to hard.
The scenery all along the trail is absolutely breathtaking. Don't become so focused on trying to climb a pass that you forget to, “ Stop and smell the roses” or the Columbine, as is the case in Colorado. There really is no reason to push yourself to the point exhaustion. As a matter of fact, since the trail is almost always uphill, you may not be able to push yourself that hard anyway.
I am actually quite happy that my Dad and I chose to spend our time not rushing from one pass to another. We took our time and really relaxed and enjoyed Crater Lake and the surrounding area. Our trip went from being potentially a relentless dash through the mountains to a relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable backpacking trip.
If you decide to do attempt the Four Pass Loop, you won't be disappointed. Even if you just hike up to West Maroon Pass you are bound to enjoy the experience of a life time. You can go and watch my Dad and I on our trip on my YouTube channel, lifeofaking.
Go out, explore, and have fun!