Fantastic Four Pass Loop, Maroon Bells -Snowmass Wilderness, CO

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14159A, Backpacking


  • Enjoy spectacular alpine scenery and wildlife
  • Experience high-country travel through mountain passes and river valleys
  • Visit four alpine lakes, including Snowmass Lake


  • All meals on trip
  • Group equipment, including cooking gear and bear canisters
  • Experienced leader, camaraderie, and adventure


DatesJul 13–19, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffLaura Bonds-Johnson

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Designated as a wilderness area in 1964, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness encompasses 181,535 acres of massive mountain ranges, 14,000-foot peaks -- including the uniquely shaped and famously picturesque Maroon Bells -- wide glacial river valleys, and glistening alpine lakes. Mountain meadows display a colorful palette of wildflowers. Situated in the White River National Forest, this wilderness provides prime habitat for moose, black bear, elk, deer, mountain goat, and many species of birds. The area boasts nine mountainous passes above 12,000 feet. Our group will traverse four of these (West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider, and Buckskin) on a famously popular route called the Four Pass Loop in the Elk Mountain range. Although the area is heavily visited, our itinerary takes us further into the backcountry, where the unparalleled beauty of this high-country region of the Colorado Rockies will inspire us. 


Day 1: Starting at picturesque glacier-sculpted Maroon Lake, we’ll ascend West Maroon Creek Valley on rocky, uneven trail, through thick aspen forest. Starting at 9,850 feet elevation, our group will be breathless yet exhilarated by the beauty and stark relief of the 14,000+ foot Maroon Bell’s North and South Peaks ahead, and surrounding rugged mountainside. Our intended travel distance is less than three miles and 900 feet of elevation gain to our camp near Crater Lake. Due to the popularity of the Maroon Bells area, we may travel beyond Crater Lake in search of available campsites.

Day 2: We’ll continue our ascent up West Maroon Creek, topping out at 12,500-foot West Maroon Pass. We’ll marvel at the alpine panorama, taking in views of the Elk Mountains, Crystal Canyon, and wildflower-strewn meadows below before descending toward the East Fork of the Crystal River to set up camp. Five miles travel. Elevation gain 1,900 feet, elevation loss 1,500 feet.

Day 3: We’ll climb back up through the meadow trail to 12,380-foot Frigid Air Pass, where views of lush Fravert Basin greet us. Making the switchback descent into a vast and green valley flanked by steep mountainsides and snowmelt fed waterfalls, we’ll pass through dense conifer forest and look for camp. Five miles travel. Elevation gain 1,200 feet. Elevation loss 1,600 feet.

Day 4: We’ll descend through forested switchbacks and below a waterfall, continuing down the wide Fravert valley. Our trail levels out as it meanders alongside and across the North Fork of the Crystal River. Aspen groves, wildflower-laden hillsides, distant Treasure Mountain and Lead King Basin will be in view. We’ll cross the river through knee-deep water, before climbing steeply 1,000 feet up to camp at Lake Geneva, situated at 10,900 feet. Five miles travel. Elevation gain 1,100 feet. Elevation loss 1,050 feet.

Day 5: We’ll ascend 1,400 feet to Trail Rider Pass at 12,400 feet and enjoy expansive views of Snowmass Lake, Snowmass Mountain, and distant mountain ranges beyond. We’ll set up camp near the southeast side of Snowmass Lake. Five miles travel. Elevation gain 1,600 feet. Elevation loss 1,600 feet.

Day 6: We’ll travel three miles through dense forest and river valley, then ascend 900 feet to camp near the base of Buckskin Pass.

Day 7: We’ll ascend through alpine meadow to 12,462-foot Buckskin Pass and take in 360-degree views of Snowmass Mountain, the Maroon Bells, and Pyramid Peak before heading downhill for the rest of the day. Steep and rocky trails of Minnehaha Gulch will challenge us on our way back to the trailhead at Maroon Lake. We’ll expect to arrive by early afternoon. Six miles travel. Elevation gain 900 feet. Elevation loss 2,600 feet. 



Getting There

The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is accessed from the town of Aspen, Colorado. The nearest airports are nearby Aspen/Pitkin County Airport and the Denver International Airport, which is about 225 miles away and a four-hour drive. Most participants will be arriving to Denver and are encouraged to independently coordinate carpooling. The start- and end-of-trip location is the Maroon Lake trailhead overnight parking lot, located on Maroon Creek Road and beyond the Maroon Bells Welcome Station. This parking lot fills up by 7:30 a.m.; therefore participants must arrive by 7 a.m. or they will be subject to returning to the Aspen Highlands to take the shuttle. Participants may prefer to stay at the nearby campgrounds near the trailhead; Silver Bell and Silver Queen can be booked online via Reserve America.

Accommodations and Food

Hearty and healthy vegetarian-friendly (non-vegan) meals and snacks are provided beginning with lunch on day one and ending with lunch on day 7.  Participants will share the responsibility of meal preparations and clean-up. 

Trip Difficulty

The trip difficulty is rated 4 on a scale from 1 to 5 due to high elevation travel, multiple mountain passes, and some higher- mileage travel days with moderate ascents and descents. Carrying a 45-pound pack on trail at higher elevations than one is accustomed can be extremely physically challenging. Participants must be experienced backpackers in good physical condition and be prepared for the rigorous physical demands of backpacking in higher altitudes. Participants who have a known sensitivity to higher altitudes are encouraged to arrive to the area a day or two early to acclimatize. Mileage on our hiking days ranges from 2.5 to 8 miles, with a total of 31 miles for the trip (not including layover day-hikes).

Daytime temperatures in July average in the mid 70s. Nighttime and early morning temperatures could dip into the 30s. Afternoon thunderstorms and lightning are common. Hail, snow, high winds, and cold temperatures can also occur at this time of year. Snow fields may be present on the mountain passes. It is essential that participants be prepared for extremes in weather conditions, and also be flexible so that we can adapt our route to accommodate unexpected conditions or events. 

Equipment and Clothing

Participants will furnish their own personal equipment, including: backpacks, sleeping bags, pads, tents, a "basics" first-aid and blister kit, toiletries, and eating utensils. Backpacks should have a capacity of at least 4,000-4,400 cubic inches in order to accommodate commissary and personal gear.

Sturdy, broken-in, water-proofed boots with rubber lug soles are ideal for this trip. Water sandals will come in handy for river and stream crossings. For shelter, a tent with a rain fly or a lightweight waterproof tarp is the required minimum. For raingear, bring a waterproof jacket and pants instead of a poncho. Hiking poles or a hiking stick provide helpful support. A small lightweight daypack may be useful on the layover day. Be sure to bring insect repellent and sunscreen. The leader will send detailed equipment recommendations to participants well in advance of the trip.

The Sierra Club will provide the following items: food (including trail snacks), pots, cooking utensils, stoves, fuel, and bear-proof canisters. At the beginning of the trip you will be issued one bear canister loaded with food, plus a portion of the group gear, which together may weigh up to 15 pounds. Please limit your personal gear to 25 pounds or less, so that your total pack weight is less than 45 pounds, including 1-2 liters of water. Participants will be provided chlorine-based preparations for treating drinking water. You may bring your own water filter if you prefer. 



  • Maroon Bells Quadrangle 7.5 minute USGS Topographic map.
  • Snowmass Mountain Quadrangle 7.5 Minute USGS Topographic map.


  • Molvar, Erik, Hiking Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.


“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth ... the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need -- if only we had the eyes to see." - Edward Abbey

The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy and participation in the goals of the Club.

The Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness is part of America’s 110-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System, which provides protected habitat for rare and endangered plants and animals. These habitats include riparian zones near rivers and streams, mountain meadows, alpine tundra, conifer forests, and aspen groves. Warming climate, decreased annual snowpack, and reduction of surface water has significantly impacted these habitats. Mountain pine beetle infestation, decimation of lodgepole and ponderosa forests, dying aspen groves, habitat encroachment from development, and environmental concerns related to extraction of natural resources will discussed during our outing. Our trip coincides with the 50 year anniversary of the Wilderness Act. During our trip we will celebrate wilderness protection with discussion of environmental impacts locally and globally. To reduce our impact on this wilderness, our group will practice Leave No Trace principles such as camping and traveling on durable surfaces, properly disposing of bio-waste, packing out our food and paper waste, and respecting wildlife.



Laura Bonds-Johnson's long-standing hobby of backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains, and slickrock canyons of the Southwest has evolved into her quest for conservation activism and outdoor leadership. Laura has led and assisted on Sierra Club trips in the Sierra Nevada, Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Southwest. Laura is a registered nurse and wilderness first responder and resides in Evergreen, Colorado.

Assistant Leader:

Rich Clowdus recently returned to backpacking with a Sierra Club trip after a lengthy hiatus, having first experienced the northern Sierra in Boy Scouts. He’s since been on several Sierra Club trips in the Sierra, the Rocky Mountains, and the Southwest as well as many private and solo backpacking trips, and is gradually achieving his multi-year plan to “section-hike” the California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Trained as a Sierra Club leader in 2013, he enjoys sharing his perspective on the natural environment with others out in the wild. He lives in Sacramento, California.

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