Four Pass Loop – Around The Bells

snowmass mountain, buckskin pass, four pass loop

On Buckskin : Prints Available

With a backdrop of Snowmass Mountain (14,092') and Capitol Peak (14,130'), Marla digs for the top of Buckskin Pass. Buckskin is one of the four passes over 12,000 feet that circumnavigate the Maroon Bells Massif. The Four-Pass Loop is widely considered one of the top backpacking trips in North America. 

Startled by a gnawing, scratching sound, I’m awakened from a dream of home in pitch darkness on a moonless night. I sit up and listen for a moment before realizing I’m in the tent next to my wife and we’re at Crater Lake in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. With that that straight in my head, I reach for my headlamp and am pretty sure I’ll see a porcupine, we have a history. There’s a smell in the air like rotting bacon fat, very weird. As the light hits the intruder, still scratching the ground where I took a leak an hour ago, he turns his head that seems too small for his body and reluctantly retreats just a few steps. I hold the light on him until he disappears in the forest, ending the first of two run-ins we’ll have with these peaceful, salt-seeking creatures of the night. It’s the first night of a six day trip over four 12,000 foot passes (we turned it into six passes). The Elk Mountains are so spectacularly rugged and beautiful, they draw us back every year. We failed on our first attempt of the Four Pass Loop; burdened with heavy packs while cajoling our chocolate lab Toby – who carried his own pack – we simply weren’t prepared. We still carried weird loads the second time around when we completed the loop in 2004. I wrote an article for Crested Butte Magazine (in ’04) about “Colorado’s Best Alpine Hike”, and we’ve wondered ever since whether it’s as good as we thought back then. My photo essay follows:

Maroon Peak, West Maroon Pass

West Maroon Sunrise : Prints Available

Morning light on the flanks of Maroon Peak (14,156'), the mountain in the upper left of the frame. The contrast of lingering snowfields and beautiful green tundra makes early July a special time of year. We broke camp at oh-dark-thirty to reach West Maroon Pass for sunrise, a great high point in the Elk Mountains.

Starting at the Maroon Lake trailhead out of Aspen and traveling clockwise is pretty standard for the Four Pass Loop, and you can use a number of alternate trailheads. It’s well-known and very popular, but you can have the place to yourself if you start early enough – 4:30 a.m. seems like a good time. 🙂 We ran into folks that were walking from Crested Butte to see friends in Aspen, an eleven mile trip over West Maroon; and talked to people from out of state who had read about the loop in Backpacker Magazine. It’s impressive to see Oklahomans and Missourians cresting 12,400′ passes with heavy loads. You see it all – folding chairs, big kitchen pots, axes, saws, dogs, blankets, a full-on gypsy caravan managerie. It’s also a popular long run, with trail runners seeking the challenge of a super high altitude trail marathon.


Dropping into Fravert basin over Frigid Air Pass is sensory overload, especially at the peak of green tundra season.


King Falls plunges to the meandering North Fork of Crystal River.

snowmass peak, snowmass mountain, snowmass lake

Snowmass Lake Reflection : Prints Available

Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Mountain (14,092') are reflected in Snowmass Lake at sunrise. The viewpoint from Snowmass Lake is one of Colorado's classic illusions, the bump on the ridge to the right of the apparent high point is actually the fourteener - Snowmass Mountain. You almost need to climb the mountain to see how much smaller Snowmass Peak actually is. 


I knew from last year that porcupines like the soft rubber handles on my Black Diamond trekking poles – I like them too. While camped in Fravert basin, I carefully leaned the poles against a small tree next to our tent, thinking a big, fat porcupine wouldn’t climb the miniature pine. A crash in the night, followed by gnawing and pole-humping sounds, along with that nasty bacon-y stench, and I knew we had another porky incident on our hands. I hit him with my light, watched him saunter into the woods, brought the poles in, and tried to get some sleep. I vow to always stow my poles and pee on rocks!


Lichen Patterns On Red Rock

Our first attempt of Snowmass Mountain (in ’04) was thwarted by poor planning, weather, and not enough peanut butter. We went back last year via the Snowmass Creek trail to climb, and summit Snowmass Mountain. Looking up at all the snow still on Snowmass’ ramp, we were happy to admire the mountain from the lake while voracious mosquitos feasted on knuckles, ankles and anything deet free.

snowmass mountain, capitol peak

High Elks Buckskin View : Prints Available

Snowmass Mountain (14,092) and Capitol Peak (14,130') top this Elk Mountains skyline view from Buckskin Pass. If you turn around from here you'll have Pyramid Peak right in your face. The vertical relief of the Elks is evident from here and our trail from Snowmass Lake is in view. 

There were probably thirty people hanging out on Buckskin Pass, many of them day-hikers coming from Aspen. Why Not? It was 70 degrees above 12,000 feet with no wind.

indian paintbrush, maroon bells

Paintbrush and Red Rock : Prints Available

Brillian red Indian paintbrush and red rock that is typical of the Maroon Bells area. 

pyramid peak, sievers mountain

Pyramid Peak Portrait : Prints Available

Pyramid Peak (14,018') glows in evening light in this view from Sievers Mountain. Pyramid is one of Colorado's most challenging fourteeners.

Rather than just finishing the loop and succumbing to the temptation of cold beverages and hot showers in Aspen, we added a side trip over Willow Pass to Willow Lake. Amazingly, we had an entire mountain basin to ourselves on the 4th of July! Sievers Mountain is the backdrop for Willow Lake and a great spot for a commanding view of Pyramid Peak.


Dinner at Willow Lake. Marla cooks something amazing, I watch…and eat. Not a bad arrangement.

sievers mountain, willow lake

Sievers Night : Prints Available

Sievers Mountain (12,773') is the jagged backdrop for our glowing tent in this twilight scene near Willow Lake. 

north maroon peak, willow pass

North Maroon Snow Patterns : Prints Available

Lingering snow patterns on green alpine tundra point to North Maroon Peak (14,014') from Willow Pass. The sun broke through storm clouds to light the base of North Maroon just after sunrise. 

columbine, north maroon peak

North Maroon Columbine : Prints Available

Columbine wildflowers and North Maroon Peak (14,014') below Willow Pass. The Colorado blue columbine is Colorado's state wildflower. 


Aspen signpost near Maroon Lake, the beginning and end of our trip.

Is the Four Pass Loop one of North America’s best? I suppose it depends on your taste in wilderness adventure. There’s plenty of jaw-dropping scenery and it’s a burly physical test, but it’s a busy track and I think we’ll be seeking more solitude elsewhere in the wilderness on future trips. Willow Lake was a highlight, not because it’s any prettier than the rest, but for the peace and pure wilderness experience. It was cool to add Willow Pass twice, making it a six pass lollipop loop.

25 thoughts on “Four Pass Loop – Around The Bells

  1. What a grand trip it was with you! Porky’s and all! Great pics Walt, thanks for capturing it so beautifully!

  2. I gotta say, this is one of the best photo series you’ve ever posted, and that’s saying something! Well done!

  3. And btw, who’s this “Walt” guy your wife is referring to? Is that who snapped the two of you on the rock? What a nice guy!

  4. Wonderful Wonderful Read every word of your piece. Almost like being there. (Without the backpack, Porcupines & mosquitos.)

    1. Thanks for the kind feedback John and Eva. Bugs come with beauty, or something like that. Porcupines really smell from 2 feet away, but at least they don’t fire quills when you hit ’em with a light.

  5. Some call him Dave, others Sho and still others Walt (sho-WALT-er I guess). Marla has her own set of nicknames too. But no matter what, great pics and a great tale. Let’s hope that nobody finds a way to ruin these places in search of their own riches.

    1. Oh, there’s more than that. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Frank. In fact, there’s legislation in the house right now to allows states to decide if they want to drill in national parks, wilderness areas, and national wildlife refuges. You can’t make this stuff up. I wrote to our CO state rep. Ed Perlmutter yesterday and asked him to block HR 2728. Now’s a great time for a phone call, email, or ol’ fashioned letter.

  6. Dave, thanks for publishing these great photos. I love the colors and contrasts you get into your photos. I walked that tour myself in 1970 long before the crowds and your blog helped me remember how beautiful it was. Your book Prairie Thunder sits next to John Fielder’s “Along the Colorado Trail” on our coffee table. I think they are comparable in quality. You just don’t make quite as much money as he does……….maybe some day.

  7. Todd was right—this may be the best series of photos you have posted. Six days away from humanity and views like that! It had to be tough to come home.

    1. Gee thanks. I don’t know, these things are subjective and everyone likes the big mountain views. There’s so much to be photographed and it keeps me in the moment, wherever we happen to be…

  8. What a beautifull trip you guys had. And sharing it with us was very special.All of the things that the two of you do together continue to amaze and thrill us.Your talent to capture the wonder of the region coupled with your eloquent description of your adventure was so very well done. So thanks again and try to remember on on your next adventure to take your whizz away from your tent.

    1. Thanks as always for the kind thoughts and the love of Colorado mountains that started on a trip when I was six, I believe! All of those road trips in a Rambler pulling a Skamper camper really stoked a fire.

  9. Great set, Dave, and there’s some spectacular shots in there that I don’t think I’ve seen in other photo essays on the loop. That’s a trip I definitely wish I’d done while I lived in the Four Corners. I’ll have to come back for it someday!

  10. All I can say is Wow, Dave!(Not disclosing my nickname for you :))
    Your photographic skill never ceases to awe and amaze me. Thanks for making me feel like I was with you, Marla and the Porkys.

  11. Mr. Showalter,those are some fantastic photos and what a great trip. Going back to those photos, Annie and I were just admiring them while re-reading the blog post and are still blown away. Thanks, you helped us take a few minutes to slow down and see something worth looking at.

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