Climbing the seemingly endless switchbacks of Trail Rider Pass, I didn’t know if I would make it to the top or surrender to the bursting sensation that had invaded my lungs first. But, upon reaching the top, my efforts were rewarded with stunning views in all directions. From the top, I could see my next campsite: Snowmass Lake, which appeared like a reflection of sparkling blue topaz in the valley below me.
Although Trail Rider was the most painful of the four passes (partly because it was my second pass of the day), each ascent of the Four Passes Loop offered an equally strenuous climb followed by breathtaking views.
The popular trail traverses four passes in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, all of which exceed 12,000 feet in elevation: West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider, and Buckskin. The 28-mile route typically takes hikers three or four days. At the end of July, the wildflowers are at their peak of bloom – I’ve spotted flowers in nearly every color of the rainbow.
I traveled clockwise as most backpackers do (runners who do the loop in one day often go counter-clockwise in order to pass the steepest passes difficult first).
It is essential to start each day early in the morning – the weather proved to be a predictably unstable force, punctuating each afternoon with a combination of rain, hail and thunderstorms. The mountain’s signature climate gave me several hard knocks: Within minutes of setting up camp at Snowmass Lake, my tent was pelted with a relentless onslaught of grape-sized hail. The next day, as I started my final descent from Buckskin Pass, a particularly vicious thunderstorm forced me to momentarily seek shelter before I could continue to the end of the trail.
To get to the trailhead, arrive before 8 a.m. when the Maroon Creek Road gate closes for public vehicles, or make shuttle reservations or parking permits. The trail starts with a jaunt near Crater Lake, then continues well beyond the busy trail into less crowded terrain.
While I can’t deny that the steep inclines and erratic weather made me wonder what masochistic motivation had driven me to undertake this journey, the vibrant flowers springing from every inch of the pond floor and the sweeping views of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness made it worth the trip.
Anna Meyer is an editorial intern at The Aspen Times for part of the summer. She will be a sophomore at Vassar College this fall.