Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Four Pass Loop

It's prime time for running in the high country and an attempt at the Four Pass Loop in Aspen was on tap this weekend.  This classic and bucket list loop around the Maroon Bells consists of 27 miles, 8000' of climbing, and going up and over four 12,000+ passes.  It's most commonly known for being a 3+ day backpacking trip, but for adventurous trail runners, the challenge is to try to run it in a day.

My watch died just below W. Maroon Pass, so I drew in the remaining route.

I ran the Buchanan-Pawnee Pass (only 2 passes) a few weeks ago and declared it to be the most beautiful run I've ever done.  Well, that one has quickly been knocked down to #2 on that list.  There just aren't enough words to describe what you see during the Four Pass Loop.  My partners in crime were Patrick, Kieran, Scott, and Jaime.  A few nice folks from Aspen/Carbondale also met up with us, but they were fast from the start and weren't seen again until we finished.  Yes, we finished it!  I arrived back at the parking lot with Jaime right at 7 hours and 9 minutes.

Almost ready for our 6:20am departure.

And we're off.  There were about 15 photographers waiting for the sunrise on the lake's edge.  They all turned around and stared trying to figure out why nine people would be running towards the Bells. 

The smooth trail around the lake quickly turned into this.

Biggest climb of the day - heading up to Buckskin Pass.

PG running the only downhill stretch before the pass.

You're going to see A LOT of flower pictures.  And none of them will do any justice to how vibrant they were.

The 14er neighbor to the Maroon Bells - Pyramid Peak.

From atop Buckskin Pass (12,462')  .  Looking north towards Snowmass Peak, Mtn, and Lake.  Pass #2 - Trail Rider Pass sits just below Snowmass Peak.

Jaime bombing the downhill from Buckskin.

Scott rounding the corner with Snowmass Peak and Hagerman Peak right off his shoulder.

Snowmass Lake!  The most beautiful mountain lake I've seen in Colorado.

During this stretch, there was no running while looking at the lake.  

Snowmass Peak.

I think I came across every color of Indian Paintbrush.
Our last view of Snowmass Lake from Trail Rider Pass (12,420').  I can't wait to go back and camp there someday.

From atop Trail Rider Pass looking down the Lead King basin..

After a gnarly steep descent from Trail Rider (left center), Kieran's enjoying a stretch of smooth singletrack.

Shortly after this shot, we stopped to filter some water from a creek.  All was well until a scene from a horror movie unfolded.  It was death by horsefly bites.  We were swarmed.

The only creek crossing where you couldn't avoid getting wet.  Well, Patrick  managed to get only half a shoe wet?  How?

Not sure where Frigid Air Pass was.  Had to go up and to the left of the mountain straight ahead.

An unnamed waterfall was impressive to stumble upon.

The trail continue to climb up to the right of the falls.

Entering the Fravert Basin.

Patrick is carrying a full bag of trash.  Some backpackers dropped it in the middle of the trail.    The only negative of the day - taking turns hauling trash for 12 miles!

Just a few flowers in the basin.

Look at this.  Now look at the picture below.

The Fravert Basin.  It's ALL wildflowers!

The backside of South Maroon Peak.

Frigid Air Pass (12,415') and our new, shirtless friend Rocky.  If you get the chance, ask one of the runners about our encounter.

One more dip and climb to go.  I mentioned to a few at this point that I would've been okay if this was only a three pass loop.

Where we came from and where we're going.

The flowers were still pretty, but our pace was not.

A close, but distant W. Maroon Pass.

A few hundred feet away from the "quadruple bypass."

From atop W Maroon Pass (12,500').  The home stretch straight ahead and to the left.
Trying to catch a sprinting Jaime.  Somebody needed to remind him that he'd already run 23 miles!  The last sunny shot before the rain and bb-sized hail started to fly.

Last looks at the Bells.
This run was satisfying on so many levels.  It was fun to share the experience with some great people.  I underestimated how difficult the drops and climbs would be, not to mention the challenge of spending most of the day above 11,000'.  I'm sure I'll run it again someday.  Hopefully before that day comes, I'll be back to do it slower - with a backpack.  Running it was great, but hiking & camping it is now my desire.  Guess I need to put that on another bucket list.

Post-run found us at Boogie's Diner in Aspen for a burger and beer.  After inhaling our food, we all looked like we needed a nap.  Instead, we faced the next endurance event - the three hour drive back to Denver.


  1. You've been making better use of your summer than me so far. Nice job. Spectacular.

    Just out of curiosity, what was your time for Pawnee/Buchanan and then for this loop? Trying to gauge how long it would take based on my Pawnee time...

  2. Thanks for all the great postings, it sounds like you've been making the most of summer in Colorado. You've given me several great routes I hadn't thought of before, and the great pictures are a real motivator to get out there! And good luck at Leadville next month! Is this your first 100 miler?

  3. Awesome stuff this past weekend! Love the pics!

  4. Mtnrunner2 - My time was about the same for both, but I ran slower during the P/B loop. I do think the four pass loop is more challenging (an extra mile & maybe 500-600' more climbing, more time spent at higher elevation), so I would add about 1-1.5 hrs to your P/B time for a comparison. With that said, the climb from Pawnee Lake to Pawnee Pass is more difficult than any of four pass passes. The P/B loop also has that climb up & down the side of Audobon, so it's more than just conquering the two passes.

    Ben - Thanks for the feedback! I've learned so much info from other blogs that nothing I post is all that original. I'm glad to share and hope you can try some of these runs out. Let me know how they go! Leadville will be my second 100 miler. I ran it last year and have forgotten just how painful it was that I'm back for more! Nah, I had a great time and hope to again this year.

  5. So, if you ran it again, would you run it counter-clockwise again, or do clockwise? I ran it a couple years ago and ran the same way you did. I think I'd go clockwise next time. I remember hating all the babyhead-sized rocks punishing my sore feet on the descent down from West Maroon Pass.

  6. I don't think I have a preference at this point. I'd definitely be up for trying a clockwise run. One of the things I liked about the CCW direction was the climb up W Maroon Pass was the shortest of the day. With dead legs, I really appreciated the fact that the climb up the final pass was over and done with quickly.

    Babyhead-sized rocks?? Haha, I won't be able to get the image out of my head of little baby faces staring at me when I run rocky trails! I agree, that part stunk and those rocks got very slippery when the rain began. Just ask Jaime, who saved me from an epic fall by acting as a barricade.

  7. My mountain biking brother-in-law from Fruita calls them doll heads (common MTB term? I dunno). That's also stuck in my mind.

  8. I believe I saw you guys running this as I was backpacking this at the same time (Three guys with a Red Heeler/Australian Cattle Dog). It was an amazing experience and I want to try and run it this summer.

  9. Ah yes, I remember! I've been slowly accumulating backpacking gear over the last year. Runs like this have been the primary motivator since at some point, you just have to slow down and enjoy the deep backcountry for a longer period of time. I hope you can get back there again this summer. It's those kind of thoughts that help me cope with winter!

    1. I'll be running it July 13th :)

    2. Jason was your run? I will be doing it on July 27. I have did both CW and CCW...prefer CCW.

    3. Hope it was a good run Jason. Did you have stormy weather? The mountains sure got their fair share of rain last weekend.

  10. Planning this run for a few weeks from now. Mind a couple questions?
    Did you look into entering on the 4wd drive road instead of the main parking lot?
    Did you find good water sources to be able to limit how much you carried? What worked for you?


    1. Hey Keith - glad to hear you're getting out soon. Our group didn't consider any other entry point than the main parking lot. I wouldn't even know what to tell you about your options there. Regarding water, you shouldn't have anything to worry about if you want to carry less and pick some up along the way. The only stretch that I can't remember seeing any water was between Frigid Air Pass & W Maroon Pass. We carried a filter and everyone in the group filled up a mile or two after descending Trail Rider pass (running CCW direction). That was about the halfway point in the loop. After entering the Fravert Basin, there's a creek crossing where you'll get your feet wet. I believe that was the last water option until you descend W Maroon Pass.

      Have a great run!

  11. Going to do the run in June in 1 day. Where is the best place to start from? Thanks!

  12. I've only started from the Maroon Lake TH. Be sure to research the parking/shuttle situation for the trailhead as that could impact your start time. There's another trailhead in Snowmass, but I believe that would add a bunch of miles onto the 27 mi loop.

    Be sure to pay attention to the amount of snow we get here in the Rockies during March and April. That could truly impact a June running of the loop. If you have any flexibility, go as late in the month as possible. I've found good info on current conditions for the Loop on in their forums. August is always an amazing time to run it due to the peak of wildflower season.

  13. Great recap of your adventure! I see you posted in July, when did this run happen? Also July? Thank you!