Four Pass Loop, Colorado
The Four Pass Loop is a roughly 26-mile trail that regularly finds its way onto the list of Colorado's best hikes every single year. The trail gets its name from the four passes that the trail ascends (and descends) along the way - West Maroon Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass, and Buckskin Pass. Whether you like to fish, feel like you're dying of oxygen deprivation, or enjoy photography and scenic mountain views, this hike's got it all.
The typical start for this hike begins at Maroon Lake at the end of Maroon Creek Road outside of Aspen. One has a choice to do the trail in the clockwise direction (West Maroon Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass, Buckskin Pass) or in the counterclockwise direction (Buckskin Pass, Trail Rider Pass, Frigid Air Pass, West Maroon Pass). The general consensus is to do the hike clockwise. For me, I would have to agree simply to avoid the very steep and loose descent off Frigid Air Pass. However, either direction will provide amazing scenery and experiences.
If backpacking, the trail can typically be done in either 2 nights/3 days or 3 nights/4 days. I chose to add another night (and pass) on the trail making mine a 4 night/5 day excursion. Going clockwise, camping can typically take place in between West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass, at Snowmass Lake, and finally at Crater Lake. If you're feeling extra strong, add Willow Pass onto your hike once you descend Buckskin Pass. Willow Pass is very short compared to the other passes and you will have near guaranteed isolation (and good fishing) at Willow Lake. Plus, this combination only adds another 4 miles or so to the trip.
Crowds are typical at Maroon Lake and Crater Lake (the next lake above Maroon Lake about 1.75 miles away) during the warmer weather months. Once past Crater Lake, however, the crowds completely thin out. Although a very popular trail among hikers, fishermen, and trail runners, you will be able to experience backcountry solace many times on this hike.
The first pass encountered going clockwise is West Maroon Pass. Beautiful views abound and this pass is relatively tame compared to others you'll ascend. The second pass is Frigid Air Pass and is extremely steep in places. The trail tricks you into thinking you're headed for the nice looking, moderately elevated saddle straight ahead, but then turns 90 degrees to the right and has you clambering for oxygen and good footholds the rest of the way up. Bring hiking poles as they will certainly add balance and stability to your steps. The third pass, Trail Rider Pass, actually has 2 different parts: one very steep ascent across the side of a mountain and through aspen groves up to a stream and a flat, then the actual pass itself which is not all that steep. Finally, Buckskin Pass is pretty moderate compared to the others and involves gentle climbing most of the way.
If fishing is you're thing, you're in for a rare treat at Snowmass Lake. Bring both your spinning and fly rod! Every year is different, of course, but the fishing is generally spectacular in the summer months. If using a fly rod, fish will respond to the basics of elk hair caddis and parachute adams. If using a spinning rod, try a blue rooster trail with 2 of the trebble hooks clipped off.
Water is plentiful along the route making filtering easy. The trail itself is very well marked with cairns and other signage. The only wet crossing on the trail is near the end of Fravert Basin when crossing the North Fork of the Crystal River. Be aware this water is ICE cold and will make your feet go numb in a matter of seconds.