Backpack the Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells
Colorado › Maroon-Snowmass (Willow Lake) Trail
Added by Kevin Kaminski
You'll hike challenging ascents over four passes and be rewarded by stunning views of the Maroon Bells wilderness. There are numerous waterfalls, some over 200 ft. high, impressive mountain lakes, and fields of wildflowers. This is a well-marked and easy-to-follow trail.
The Four Pass Loop begins at Maroon Lake, famous for its iconic view of the Maroon Bells (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak), deemed the “most-photographed spot in Colorado.” After taking in this majestic view, continue to walk down the Maroon Lake Scenic Trail until you reach a fork for West Maroon Trail No. 1970 to the left, and Maroon-Snowmass Trail No. 1975 to the right. Although the loop can be hiked in either direction, hiking clockwise is the most popular option, so opt for the West Maroon Trail.
The loop can be completed in three days, if you hustle, or stretched out to five or more, if you prefer taking your time and enjoying the beautiful scenery. A four-day/three-night trip is ideal, however, as it allows for a perfect balance of vigorous hiking and down-time to explore, take photos, and relax.
Day 1: After only a few miles on the West Maroon Trail, you reach Crater Lake, another beautiful, though less touristy, mountain lake. If you’re extending your trip beyond four days, this is a good first campsite, although bears have been known to frequent the area.
Past Crater Lake, the trail becomes significantly more secluded and you begin to feel that your wilderness adventure has officially begun. Another few hours of hiking will bring you to the base of the first pass: West Maroon Pass (12,480 ft.). This pass is steep and long, and may be a little shocking as your legs and back adjust to the first day of carrying weight.
When you reach the top of West Maroon Pass, likely sore and out of breath, your efforts will be more than rewarded by the magnificent views. Behind you, looking back at the trail you just traversed, are sprawling fields of wildflowers encompassed by jagged mountain peaks, serving as a perfect, picturesque backdrop. Looking down over the other side of the pass is a completely different, but equally gorgeous, view of the trail ahead.
Once you have gotten your fill of the view, begin your descent down West Maroon Pass. There are several campsites, both hidden beneath trees and in open fields, about a quarter mile to half mile past West Maroon Pass. Fill your belly with a hearty dinner and prepare for Day 2!
Day 2: Wake up early and fuel up for what will be your longest and most physically challenging day of hiking, covering about 9 miles, a very steep pass, and a “false” pass.
The trail doesn’t waste any time kicking your butt with the second pass, Frigid Air (12,415 ft.), less than a mile into your hike. Frigid Air Pass is shorter than West Maroon, but makes up for distance with steepness. Yet, again, the beautiful views from the top of the pass made the work worth it.
The trail then winds through wide open meadows, over quaint creeks, and past several waterfalls, one of which was over 200 feet tall! Day 2 also includes the only major river crossing of the loop. Although there are sporadically scattered rocks and logs, the safest bet to keep your boots and socks dry is to wade through the river barefoot. Even in August, the water is freezing cold, but anything is better than hiking in wet shoes!
Past the river crossing, the trail starts to climb again, and then keeps on climbing and climbing. But do not be fooled; this is not the third pass, just a very steep and challenging ascent. As the trail finally levels out, you get a view of the true third pass, off in the distance. Here you can choose one of several idyllic camping sites surrounding a small lake on the left-hand side of the trail, with a small creek nearby for easy water access.
Day 3: On day three, you will cover the shortest distance of the loop, so take your time enjoying the gorgeous views over coffee and a hot breakfast. Trail Rider Pass (12,400 ft.), looming right above your campsite, will be waiting for you when you finish packing up.
As always, enjoy the view from the top of the pass. You may be surprised by the individual beauty and uniqueness of each pass you have conquered. Although within the same mountain range, the colors, vantage points, and scenery from each pass are distinct in their variety.
Soon after descending Trail Rider Pass, you will reach Snowmass Lake. Although your day of hiking just began, take a morning snack break and snap some photos of this gorgeous mountain lake, surrounded by a dense forest of pine trees. There are camping sites at Snowmass Lake, but fires are not permitted here. Continue hiking a couple miles further and camp along a river, instead, for a convenient water supply.
Day 4: The final day of your backpacking trip will cover about 6-7 miles and one pass. After a few miles of hiking, you will reach the fourth and final pass, Buckskin (12,462 ft.). Taking in the views on top of Buckskin Pass is bittersweet: while you’re sure to be anxious for a hot shower and food other than trail mix, you will miss the fresh air, stunning views, and rhythm of the wilderness once you return to civilization. Sure enough, the trail becomes increasingly crowded after you descend Buckskin Pass and make your way back towards the Maroon Lake parking lot.
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Water filtration system
- Bear-proof food canisters
- Bear spray
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
Backpacking, Camping, Fishing, Hiking, Photography
Are we missing something?Suggest an edit
ReviewsLeave a Review
It was definitely a difficult four days, but every moment was worth it. I backpacked this trail with my brother and cousin, and it was truly amazing. The views were better than anything i'd ever seen. I did it last month, and already want to do it again. A once in a lifetime adventure.
My friend and I, along with our four pups, attempted this loop in early June. However, there was still too much snow for us to feel comfortable continuing on. Will be trying again in July or August this time! Beautiful area nonetheless and we thoroughly enjoyed the camping we did in the back country.
Choose one pass for a day hike
If you're looking for a day hike, either West Maroon or Buckskin Pass can be completed as day hikes. We did Buckskin when we were in the area and the views were spectacular. From Crater Lake you bear right at the intersection to travel up Minnehaha Gulch up to Buckskin Pass. The roundtrip mileage is about 9 total and the gain up to Buckskin can be challenging, but it's definitely worth the effort!
One of the best runs in the U.S.
If you're up for an adventure find a group running the 4-pass loop and join them! You'll see so many amazing things in one day and have earned the right to eat all you want that night.
Love Maroon Bells
One of our favorite places we went to while we were in Colorado. It is a must see. Especially the Bells at sunrise. However, we were not able to do any backcountry camping while we were there because of the bears.
Added by Kevin Kaminski
It is my goal to build a life I don’t need a vacation from.” I am an architecture photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona, and my current job takes me around the world to photograph hotels and resorts. While I love having the opportunity to travel and experience differenFollow
More Adventures Nearby
Snowshoe Jim Creek Trail
Colorado / Jim Creek Trailhead
Starting at 9,220 feet of elevation, this 5 mile out-and-back snowshoe begins its 965 foot elevation gain meandering through a quiet forest.
Run the Challenge Hill
Colorado / Challenge Hill Parking
The Basics: The Challenge Hill, or as I like to call it, the Mini-Incline, is a shrunken version of its big brother to the south in Manitou.