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A Beginner Backpacker's Trek in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness

The story of first-timer backpackers completing four passes in 3 days in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area.

By: Chris Kulakowski + Save to a List

My wife and I conquered the Four Passes in 3 days, 2 nights on July 28-30, 2020. Our mileage splits were 10, 8, and 10 miles each day, respectively. Temperatures ranged from high 30s-70F and there was light isolated showers every afternoon, including one day we had 5 minutes of corn sized hail! There was more hikers than we expected, more so near trail heads, and less so the more remote we were. Our recording is linked at the end of this article for reference which includes waypoints for our campsite locations.


We stayed in Snowmass at a BNB that offered a ride to the Maroon Lake Trail head. It was quite an experience getting to the trailhead. Personal vehicles are not allowed past the Maroon Lake welcome station on Maroon Creek Road between 8am-5pm so we had to (and preferred to) get an early start. We did not have reservations to park at the trailhead hence why we needed to be dropped off. We tried to hail an Uber and Lyft the morning of between 5 and 6:30am and there was none. Politely begging, the shuttle driver at our BNB that typically just transports airport passengers agreed to take us to the trailhead. It was about 45 minutes from Snowmass to the trailhead. There was a $10 fee at the welcome station (even just to be dropped off) and we began our hike about 8am.

The views of Maroon Lake are amazing and the iconic Bells make for an epic backdrop. The morning of was quite cloudy but offered nice shade to keep the sun off our backs. It was just the opposite on our return, with the scorching sun beating down. Kinda cool to see it from both perspectives.

Maroon Lake early morning at the start of our hike

Once past Maroon Lake, about 1/4 mile in is the registration station, required for all overnight backpackers where we fill out a permit form, leave one copy and take the other.

Registration station for overnight permits

At mile 2 we came to the fork with a sign for Crater Lake to the left and Buckskin Pass to the right. We went Buckskin as we planned to make the loop counter clockwise. I believe clockwise is a more popular route but with our split plan and campsites already decided on, counter clockwise was preferred. We saw Crater Lake from a distance and will later pass right by it.

Passing by Crater Lake

After the fork, it was straight up for 3 miles to Buckskin pass.

Almost to Buckskin Pass

At the pass, mile 5, we had 360 views while we ate lunch. We ate 5lb (it seemed) wraps we purchased the day before in Snowmass Mall.

Hard earned lunchBuckskin PassBuckskin Pass

Buckskin’s elevation was approximately 12,500ft.

We encountered a small rain shower and hail storm about 30 minutes later but it only lasted for a few minutes and was actually quite fun!

Rain and hailing but we had fun!Still raining but views did not disappoint

Around mile 7 the scenery was breath taking, I expected fairies to come out of the trees at any moment. It was surreal.

Views that should be paintings

At mile 8 we came to Snowmass Creek, which I believe used to have a log bridge but it was washed out. We backtracked a little and found a few tree branches that allowed us to cross without wading across.

Crossing Snowmass Creek over branches

We made it to Snowmass Lake at mile 9.3 around 2pm. Including our lunch stop, a few other breaks, and many picture moments, it took us about 6 hours.

Snowmass Lake

There was 20+ other backpackers at the lake, and a few more trickled in that afternoon. The campground at Snowmass Lake is well spread out and we luckily found a site that was private and overlooking the lake, with tree cover.

Our campsite overlooking Snowmass Lake

After a long day of hiking I felt it was necessary for a swim.

Taking a dip in Snowmass Lake

We enjoyed our evening with wine, whiskey, and I had a cigar. We had a few rain showers off and on while enjoying our happy hour but it didn’t last long. Dinner was a freeze dried spaghetti and meatballs meal which was actually delicious. We passed out around 8pm, exhausted, but ready for the next day.

The night was quiet and peaceful. We occasionally heard the pines squeaking above rubbing against each other, some falling rocks in the distance, and I believe there was a light rain shower or two overnight.


First light was around 530am but we didn’t get up until 7. It was a brisk 38F that morning but very calm and quiet. The lake was like glass.

Early morning at Snowmass Lake

We had a friendly deer eating breakfast in the woods behind our site. The chipmunks were overly friendly trying to get into our tent.

I brewed up some coffee and we had oatmeal to energize us for the day. It was a slow morning and we were fine with that. Sipping coffee and listening to the wilderness wake up was all we wanted.

We packed up camp and headed out about 9am. Snowmass Lake seemed to follow us for over an hour that morning as we made our way up above the tree line towards trail rider pass. 

Snowmass Lake as we slowly ascended to Trail Rider PassSnowmass Lake still in view, almost to Trail Rider

We made it to trail rider pass just after 10am (12,400ft). It was quite the climb and we ended up shedding our jackets a few minutes in despite the cool morning temperatures. The lake was still visible at the top of trail rider. We could even make out the camp ground despite being 1.5 miles away. Trail Rider Pass is approximately at mile 12 of the loop.

Snowmass Lake view from the top of Trail Rider PassView from the top of Trail Rider Pass in the other direction from Snowmass Lake

At mile 13 we arrived at a decision point. Our original plan was to see Lake Geneva but it would add 4 miles to our hike for the day, 12 miles in total. After much discussion at this fork we decided to take the 1 mile cut-through trail and bypass Lake Geneva, making our day 8 miles total.

This 1 mile cut-through trail seemed like forever. It was very steep and hard on the shins and thighs. However, we were glad we choose to loop counter clockwise as this would have sucked climbing. Several other backpackers passed us going up and they were almost crawling up to trail rider. This 1 mile section had an elevation change of 1500ft.

Descending Trail Rider Pass

Eventually it leveled out and we got back onto the loop trail. We stopped for lunch at mile 14 at a vacant campsite. It was a quick lunch because the bugs in this area were vicious.

PBJ Tortilla for lunch

Trekking through this area was fascinating as we we would change micro-climates so frequently. We observed heavy forested areas to wide open rocky, rolling, hills.

Fairy-like scenery around mile 14.5

At mile 15 there was a fairly wide creek to cross but down trees allowed us to make it without getting our boots wet. There was some other backpackers filling up water.

Creek crossing over down trees

At about mile 16, we came upon a beautiful, green, valley, with a huge waterfall and many surrounding campsites. It would have been a great place to stay the night if we weren’t trying to make it a little further. There was several campers already setup in this area, I can imagine staying 2 nights here. It was that beautiful! We saw a deer in this area too.

Waterfall at North Fork Crystal River

About 2pm (mile 17.5, 11000ft) we found a campsite, exhausted. But it was totally worth it because this site was AMAZING!

Day 2 campsite

It was very private - the closet campsite to us was at least 100yds away and we had our own private creek as a water source for cooking and bathing!

Our campsite on a pristine creekBathing in the creekNapping on an old tree after a long day

We made camp, cleaned ourselves up, and I napped on an old down tree. We explored the area a little bit, gave some directions and info to hikers passing by, and later had wine and whiskey happy hour.

Enjoying happy hour in the wilderness

For dinner we had freeze dried beef stroganoff and chicken fried rice meals that did not disappoint. I’m getting better about cooking these meals, it seems the key is letting it sit for 5 minutes after the water has been absorbed up. It was really good!

Cook setup for dinner

That evening was really nice. We had a light rain shower and then the blue sky opened up the rest of the evening. It was so quiet and peaceful with the stream trickling next to us. I would guess the temps were in the 50s with an occasional breeze and relatively low humidity. It was a very comfortable night.

Night sky of campsite


We got up the next morning just after 6am trying to get an early start. My thermostat read 35F degrees and again, it was another extremely still morning. For some reason it felt much cooler this morning than the day before.

35F in the morning

While sipping coffee several deer wandered right through our site eating their breakfast and curious of us.

Friendly deer wandering through our campsite

We packed up camp, filled our water bladders and started our hike out at 8am. We had 10 miles ahead of us and two passes to conquer. At least our packs were significantly lighter having eaten all our food and no more booze left.

It was a gradual climb that morning, not too bad. There wasn’t any tree cover but it was very green.

Our climb to Frigid Air Pass

At mile 19.5 we made it to Frigid Air pass at 9am (12,400ft). It’s named appropriately as it was very windy and I actually lost my hat that I later recovered by scrambling down.

View from the top of Frigid Air Pass

We took a few pictures and carried on quickly because of the chilly wind. It was a very steep decline and hard on the lower body.

We were still above the tree line and the sun was extreme.

Hiking down from Frigid Air, making way to West Maroon Pass

At 10:45am (mile 22, 12500ft) we made it to West Maroon pass. It was a very steep incline but short lived. There was a surprising amount people at the pass including day hikers since we were closer to the trail head.

View from the top of West Maroon Pass

Continuing down, there was no shade. The views of course were not disappointing.

Once it leveled out a little bit we stopped to adjust, snack, and tend to our feet.

Stopping to tend to needs

We were still descending from West Maroon pass but it was a slight decline giving our legs a break.

Descending - still above the tree line

At mile 24, just before noon, we found a nice vacant and shaded campsite for lunch. While I was pulling out lunch a family of four moose walked by. They had to be at least 25 yards from us, it was incredible!

Still in awe from our moose encounter we continued our hike. At mile 25.4 we passed the turn off to summit North Maroon Peak.

Crater Lake seen in the distance

Inching closer, we came upon Crater Lake at mile 26 just after 1pm. It’s a rather small lake, deep in one end and shallow at the other. There were many people laying out on the bank of the lake drying out clothing and boots.

Almost to Crater Lake

It wasn’t far after Crater Lake that we arrived back the fork of the loop. From here it was 2 miles to go! We were exhausted and hurting but still loving it.

The next 2 miles seemed endless. There was too many people on the trail and frankly they were just in our way, so eager to get back. We dropped our permit at the registration box and a few minutes later arrived at Maroon Lake. It was nice seeing the lake and bells with blue skies this time.

Maroon Lake with Maroon Bells in background at the finish line

At the trailhead we waited about 15 minutes for the Maroon Lake bus to take us to Aspen Highland Village. Due to COVID-19 the bus was capped at 15 people at a time. At Aspen Highland Village we transferred to a local city bus which took us into Aspen at 8th street. We transferred again to another bus that got us back to Snowmass Mall where we parked.

Overall, this was an epic trip and we can’t wait until the next. It’s a very popular backpacking route but given the length it certainly felt like we were alone most of the time. We couldn’t have asked for better weather conditions and luck obtaining really nice campsites. If we ever hike this loop again we are going to add another day and camp at Lake Geneva.

Below is our recording in AllTrails:

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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