four pass loop - september 2005
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3 days: 26 miles
marooon bells-snowmass wilderness, colorado
september 11-13, 2005
We had just moved to Colorado in the summer of 2005 and our good friend, Fiona, had recommended a handful of backpacks in the state. The Four Pass Loop starts just outside of Aspen, Colorado and travels through the stunning high country of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The name refers to the four passes, all over 12,000 feet, that are crossed as backpackers circle the Maroon Bells. We managed to catch the aspens just as they began turning gold for autumn. Kaweah joined us on this backpack. She loved it, although I think she made Jeremy (the Kaweah handler) a little crazy. Most people do the trip in 4 days, but we decided to squeeze it into 3 days. Estimated mileage varies between 23 and 29 miles. My topo software claims 23 miles and the USFS lists the trail at 28 miles, but I think it was closer to 26.
day 1: west maroon lake trailhead to fravert basin
The first day was our toughest day, not so much because we attempted two passes in one day, but rather because we left our house at 3 am and drove 4 hours to the West Maroon Lake trailhead and began hiking at 7:30 am. The sun was already rising on the Bells as we hiked around West Maroon Lake in the cool air. The level trail wanders through beautiful aspen stands on the way to Crater Lake. After taking the south fork toward West Maroon Pass, the trail begins to climb a valley following the West Maroon Creek. We were above treeline for most of the backpack and the alpine scenery here is spectacular. The colorful mountains, deep blue skies, and lush green meadows are signature Colorado.
We took a break at 9 am to eat and water the dog. A group of day hikers passed us on their way up. They slipped out of view as they cleared the bench and rounded the bend toward the pass. The valley was littered with moraines that we climbed over, and covered in brush willow that we climbed through. The weather was perfect and the bulk of the trail is exposed, so we lucked out. As we rose on the flanks of the pass, the views of the valley behind us became more and more grand.
The final leg to the pass switchbacked up the steep talus slopes. Looking up as we neared the pass, I could spy a yellow lab standing atop an outcrop, wagging his tail at us. Powder and his owners were chilling out before heading back down. Meanwhile, Kaweah and Jeremy were snacking up and drinking in the views on the other side of the pass. Here is Jeremy on West Maroon Pass, the first one of the day.
We descended the trail into the verdent headwall of a gorgeous basin covered in green meadows full of wildflowers just past peak bloom. Flowers included: violets, larkspur, aster, paintbrush, and mountain bells. The trail skirts the upper part of the headwall, ambling northwest while providing fantastic views of the high country to the southwest.
The trail then begins to climb over a few subtle, grassy benches. We thought we were headed for the pass that leads to Hasley Basin, but then we arrived at a signed junction where we took a short break. Kaweah actually settled down instead of desperately pulling at the end of her leash like normal. We figured the trail would lead up to a saddle in view from the sign post, so we put away the map and got started.
We were fooled. The trail began to lead us toward that lovely saddle, but then veered to the northeast and climbed steeply all the way up to Frigid Air Pass. We crossed the pass obliquely and drank in the views. What I loved about this trip was how each pass bordered very different terrains - all of them gorgeous to look at.
Here is a view of the southwestern upper slopes of Fravert Basin. The northeast side of the basin was rimmed with three fourteeners including the Maroon Bells.
Because this was September, the driest month in the West before early season snow storms roll in, most of the streams were dry. We were in search of a good site to camp in as well as a source from which to pump water. Eventually, we descended to treeline and found a nice clearing to hitch the dog and pitch the tent at 4:35 pm. Jeremy walked down to a stream to pump water while I made camp. Kaweah was alert and curious and apparently, still full of energy.
By the time Jeremy had cooked dinner and we settled into our tent to eat, Kaweah was fast asleep. Not even the wafting odor of ramen noodles just inches from her schnoz was enough to stir the dog into her typical drooling, begging self.
day 2: fravert basin to snowmass lake
It was cold in camp when we rose in the morning. Instead of our normal morning ritual of pumping water, we decided to pack up and hike on until we came across more water further on. Sun hit our camp by 8 am and we were on the trail by 8:30 am. We descended Fravert Basin through meadows flanking the North Fork and then rounded a prominent outcrop and dropped quickly via switchbacks after encountering a large group of backpackers coming from the other direction. Before crossing the stream, we met a couple of elk hunters at their enormous camp. After crossing the stream, we came upon another elk hunter. They were everywhere - apparently having hiked up from the nearby trailhead at the North Fork. We took the North Fork cutoff trail which climbed steeply through young aspen stands. On our way up, we came across a little bunny on the trail. He wouldn't budge, although he looked very nervous. Jeremy held Kaweah, who was predictably very interested. It turns out that something had broken the bunny's back legs and we had probably scared off the predator who would likely be back to finish the job. It was incredibly sad, but Jeremy warned me not to attempt to move the rabbit as it might hurt itself further out of fear.
After passing the turnoff for another trail, we climbed a small valley to a bench from where we could see Trail Rider Pass in the distance. The wind had picked up and more clouds were piling into the sky from out of nowhere. The temperature remained chilly while we strolled across the meadows which were turning into their autumn colors. Once past the last bench, the terrain became scree slopes and the trail rose steadily and steeply to the pass.
We were greeted with grauple falling from the sky as we arrived at Trail Rider Pass at 1:45 pm. Actually, the grauple wasn't falling, it was whizzing about thanks to the crazy winds buffeting both it and us. The winds weren't so terrible compared to the gusts. After taking pictures, we ducked into the shelter of a small outcrop for snacks and water. Jeremy braves a large gust of wind with our destination, Snowmass Lake, in the distance below.
Jeremy captured a shot of me with a view looking back to where we had just come up.
On our way down the steep switchbacks, the weather held. Clouds overhead sped across in no time, but no thunder cracked and no additional snow/grauple fell. We made camp at 3:25 pm along the shores of Snowmass Lake. There are several nice campsites. Kaweah curled into a little ball waiting for us to make camp. We took a walk along the lake and met several anglers who had also backpacked in, but from the Snowmass trailhead.
day 3: snowmass lake to west maroon lake trailhead
The cold remained throughout the night and by morning, there was fresh snowfall on the Bells. We packed camp early and hiked out of the lake basin through meadows ringed with forests. Frost covered the ground and we could see our breath in the morning chill. Elk bugled in the distance lending to the magical feeling of the wilderness. We rose up the valley and encountered snow on fresh autumn leaf litter at 11,000 feet.
After crossing a small rushing stream, the trail ascends through the beautiful partly forested flanks leading to Buckskin Pass. Above the forest, the trail switchbacks higher and higher with breathtaking views of the surrounding high peaks. Grasses swayed in the wind all around the trail. Looking back across the basin, we caught sight of Snowmass Peak and Trail Rider Pass, which we had crossed the previous day.
We reached the pass under dark skies and the way down was almost as steep as the climb up. I can't seem to find any notes on this day, so I don't know when we started or how long it took us to get to the pass. This is a picture of me and Kaweah with Trail Rider Pass behind us. We didn't linger long since it was cold and we still had a 4 hour drive home once we got to the car. On the hike down, our interest was piqued by a trail that led over Willow Pass. We knew there was a neighboring basin to the north that held Willow Lake.
Nearing treeline, we noticed enormous swaths of destruction before us. Mature trees pointed downslope like matchsticks - the work of a major avalanche funnelled down this steep-sided valley. Once we arrived at the junction past Crater Lake, we took some time to photograph the aspen forests that were more golden than two days earlier. Kaweah seemed to have regained her energy and, being on familiar ground, kept pulling forward to go. She just wanted to keep hiking.
The frequency of day-hiker encounters increased the closer we got to the trailhead. Most of the people there were admiring the fall colors which were now glowing patches of aspens among the deep green pines with the majestic snow-dusted Maroon Bells looming high. The majority of the comments we received were all about Kaweah and how much did she carry and does she like hiking and was she good and did she have fun? Not much, yes, marginally, and are you kidding? We unloaded our junk into the car and drove home, with a stop at a fast-food joint (not any of the Kentacohuts) for some calorie-laden, greasy food.
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