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Aspen Four Pass Loop: Why it was anniversary-worthy

Second anniversary weekend on the Four Pass Loop near Aspen, Colorado. Two of Colorado’s 14’ers, Snowmass (left) and Capitol (right), both with snow at their bases, are visible from Buckskin Pass.

Second anniversary weekend on the Four Pass Loop near Aspen, Colorado. Two of Colorado’s 14’ers, Snowmass (left) and Capitol (right), both with snow at their bases, are visible from Buckskin Pass.

For our 2-year anniversary earlier this month, Amanda and I headed to Aspen, the famous Colorado ski town with the outsized reputation (pop. 6700) that neither of us had before visited. Our primary goal was the Four Pass Loop, a classic 28-mile backpacking route through the Elk Mountains.

Awesome weekend. Here are five reasons that it was, or we made it be, worthy of an anniversary:


Snowmass Lake from below Trail Rider Pass

Snowmass Lake from below Trail Rider Pass

1. High bang-for-the-buck

The Four Pass Loop is very popular (and crowded, especially its starting point at Maroon Lake Trailhead), but for good reason. The route circumnavigates the Maroon Bells, two of Colorado’s most picturesque 14,000-foot peaks, and offers vistas of three other nearby 14’ers: Pyramid, Snowmass, and Capitol. It’s an all-trail route, and the trail quality is generally good, especially considering that it’s in a Wilderness Area. Finally, there were numerous “Sound of Music”-worthy spots, with extensive sections above treeline and magnificent wildflowers.


Sound of Music, anyone? Superb wildflowers and views from below West Maroon Pass, on our way to Frigid Air. It's even better with a lightweight pack.

Sound of Music, anyone? Superb wildflowers and views from below West Maroon Pass, on our way to Frigid Air. It’s even better with a lightweight pack.

2. Comfortably light loads

Due to the popularity of the Four Pass Loop, I suspect that many fail to recognize its challenges, the biggest being its topography: four passes over 12,000 feet and 16,000 vertical feet of change in just twenty-eight miles. Most of the backpackers we saw — including some very tired and blistered ones — had large and heavy packs, which made the route unnecessarily hard. Our cumulative pack weight (equipment, food, bear canister) was about 40 pounds, most of which I carried in my 7,000 cubic inch Kifaru Bikini/Highcamp Pack. On our only full day, we ticked off three of the four passes, covering 14 miles with 9,400 vertical feet of change. It was a long day, but not destructive.


Bedtime reading via the 8-oz Kindle, just like at home

Bedtime reading via the 8-oz Kindle, just like at home

3. Creature comforts

How much happiness can a pound of unnecessary luxuries buy? If it’s very deliberate, a lot. Between her Kindle, a hot face towel before bed, and a fresh set of underwear per day, Amanda was much more willing to overlook that on her anniversary weekend she was sleeping on the ground and eating Polenta + Peppers for dinner. Minimal weight, big payoff.


Damn, she cleans up well. Post-hike calories at the iconic J-Bar. True to form, I had a burger and fries. She ordered something healthier.

Damn, she cleans up well. Post-hike calories at the iconic J-Bar. True to form, I had a burger and fries. She ordered something healthier.

4. Post-trip lodging

After two nights on the ground, we drove into town and checked into the ritzy Limelight Hotel, a splurge that we justified by cost-averaging it over three nights. From the downtown location, it was an easy walk to J-Bar, Paradise Bakery, and Justice Snow’s for post-hike calorie replenishment.


The author, chef, and pack mule, preparing dinner on Night 2. Notice the canister stove, 2-liter pot, and separate eating pots.

The author, chef, and pack mule, preparing dinner on Night 2. Notice the canister stove, 2-liter pot, and separate eating pots.

5. More backcountry camping, less ultimate hiking

Relative to my Kings Canyon High Basin Route thru-hike last month and my upcoming Wind River High Route attempt, in which every ounce matters, our Four Pass Loop hike needed not to be so austere. I made a few equipment adjustments that added weight but that increased our overall comfort:

Shelter. Rather than the tarp/bivy setup that I normally use in the Mountain West in the summer, I carried the Sierra Designs Tentsegrity 2 FL, a single-wall and fully-enclosed tent. The pitch is tricky, but the interior space was generous for its weight (2 lb 9 oz) and the ventilation was excellent for a single-wall tent.

Bedding. I’m a fan of quilts and (decreasingly) closed cell foam pads, but neither item is as foolproof as a mummy bag and an air mattress. (Quilts can be drafty, and foam pads must be used on soft sleeping surfaces.) So I ensured that Amanda would sleep well, or at least have a decent shot at it, outfitting her with a 10-degree Western Mountaineering Versalite and a 2.5-inch thick Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite.

Stove. Alcohol stoves are very light and compact, and reasonably efficient. But they are slow, especially for a cook group larger than one. Instead, I packed my winter stove system: the MSR WindPro II Stove and MSR Alpinist 2-Liter Pot. The extra horsepower allowed me to quickly make breakfasts and dinners, mid-day coffee, and hot water before bed for washing and drinks.


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20 Responses to Aspen Four Pass Loop: Why it was anniversary-worthy

  1. justin August 18, 2015 at 8:09 am #

    happy anniversary!

    great article on the realities of “relationship camping”

    what pack did Amanda use for this trip?

    • Andrew Skurka August 18, 2015 at 8:44 am #

      Re her pack, nothing special, just a Salomon snowboarding pack that I had around. The volume and fit were about right for her. When she needs to carry more stuff (e.g. her own bear can) she has a ULA Circuit.

  2. Nancy August 18, 2015 at 8:13 am #

    I am looking for a warmer/lighter sleeping bag for my upcoming, end of Sept hike in the Sierra…going to try the Western Mountaineering Versalite.I have a 20-degree REI bag and I am barely warm enough with a liner. I also need a lighter tent…we have an REI Half Dome…not sure I can manage the one you used. Any other suggestions? Thanks. Sounds like your trip was great. I have been to Aspen in winter and X-Cty skiied the Maroon Bells trail….always wondered what hiking around there would be like.

    • Andrew Skurka August 18, 2015 at 8:42 am #

      All bags are not created equal. While the EN13537 tests have helped to standardize warmth ratings, they don’t account for a lot of factors in the field: your hydration and nourishment, the thermal conductivity of the ground surface, your shelter and shelter-mates, etc. Also, the tests are done on new bags, and we all know that the warmth of synthetic insulations decreases over time, down to a much lower degree.

      The newest REI Half Dome 2 has a “packaged weight” of 4 lbs 15 oz. Older versions (here and here) weighed more, 5 lbs 10 oz. Tents or shelter systems that are meaningfully lighter (at least 2 lbs less than the Half Dome) are going to run $300-$400. What is your budget? If you are looking to go cheap, it’s impossible to beat the cost of a flat tarp made of silicone-impregnated nylon and then an additional nest or bivy.

    • Amanda August 18, 2015 at 9:01 am #

      Nancy – FYI: I also slept in my puffy jacket, a long-sleeved poly top, fleece pants, and very warm socks in that sleeping bag. Had I not been wearing all of those things, I would not have been warm enough. That said, the second night I had to unzip my puffy I was actually too warm!

  3. Jim Dean August 18, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    Congratulations on your anniversary. Sounds like a great trip and love your strategy… Happy wife, Happy life!!

  4. Josephine Gibbs August 18, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

    Amanda, thank you for your feedback on the sleeping bag. I’ve had my eye on the Versalite as my dream bag because I sleep so cold, but the price causes me to want to be really certain it will do the job and every tidbit of info is helpful. Glad you had a nice trip!

    • Andrew Skurka August 18, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

      I sympathize with the high cost of premium sleeping bags. But, if I could add, this is perhaps the item most worthy of your dollars. Sleeping bags insulated with down will give you hundreds of nights of reliable performance. Recently an assistant guide of mine, Flyin’ Brian Robinson, replaced his Feathered Friends Hummingbird that he’d owned since 2001. He had put nearly 750 nights on it, and it still had life left — the down was fine and the face fabrics were still in good shape (but heavier than modern ones).

  5. Matt Twehues August 18, 2015 at 3:12 pm #

    Hey Andrew, I was pleasantly surprised to see some Kifaru love in this post! Have you ever checked out their shelters? I usually run their Supertarp with the annex and love it. Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka August 18, 2015 at 3:18 pm #

      When I got into hunting a few years ago, I obtained a Kifaru pack. It hasn’t hauled any meat yet, but I have gotten some decent use out of it with training (load it with 50 lbs of bricks and do laps on Flag and Green) and with a few backpacking trips where I needed huge volume. This trip was one of them, since I was carrying two sleeping bags, a bear canister, tent, and 2-liter pot.

      No, have not used or seen in-person their shelters. If their packs are any indication, it’s all handmade, high-end, ruggedly built stuff.

  6. Gotdon August 18, 2015 at 11:25 pm #

    Andrew, what were the overnight low temps, please? A 10-degree bag and a puffy makes it seem like it was pretty durn cold, unless Amanda is just a real cold sleeper.

    • Andrew Skurka August 19, 2015 at 6:57 am #

      Overnight low temperatures were in the 40’s. I was perfectly warm. Like most women, she is a cold sleeper.

      Historical temperature and precip data is available from the Western Regional Climate Center. There is a weather station at the old Independence mining site (review the data), which sits at 10,500. This would be a better resource than the weather station in Aspen, which sits much lower than the Four Pass Loop.

  7. Gordon August 19, 2015 at 8:09 am #

    Andrew thanks much for the links to weather data; I seem to have a hard time finding these resources. My wife and I were backpacking in the Lost Creek Wilderness last week, and the best I could do was take the forecast for Bailey and subtract about 10 degrees. That turned out to be OK, though. It might have dipped below 40 degrees the night we were at Lake Park, but my wife (a very cold sleeper, too) was comfy in her 20-degree top and under quilt setup. No draft problems with a top quilt when you are in a hammock! Then again, above tree line is out of the question.

  8. Sumer Tiwari August 19, 2015 at 8:56 am #

    Hi Andrew,
    Sounds like you guys had great fun up there.
    I am doing it the coming labor day weekend with a few more friends.
    It took you two days to do it, correct? Did you do it clockwise or anticlockwise? I have heard the anticlockwise route is better because you finish most of the tough terrain in the beginning. I am planning to go ultralight but I am afraid my camera gear would make it ‘not-so-ultralight’. What are your thoughts on that? I eat cold so I will have one less thing to carry: stove.
    Any suggestions would be much appreciated 🙂

    Thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka August 19, 2015 at 9:00 am #

      We started on a Friday evening at about 5:30pm and finished on Sunday around noon. One quarter-day, one full day, one half-day; two nights. YMMV.

      There are pros and cons of both directions. Ultimately, you do the same amount of vertical and distance. The worst stretch of trail is between Maroon Lake and Crater Lake, super rocky and eroded, and you have to do it twice. If you go counter-clockwise, it’s a steep climb from Crater Lake to the first pass; if you go clockwise, it’s a long grind to the first pass. I would let your logistics dictate the direction. Since we started late in the day, it made more sense for us to go clockwise because we knew that we didn’t have enough time to get over a pass.

  9. kilowati August 19, 2015 at 9:07 am #

    Ha! My wife and I just celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary by hiking the Four Pass Loop. We loved it. And yes, a meal at the Jerome was required for me to pull this off as well.

  10. Jay Kerr August 25, 2015 at 11:56 am #

    We did the 4-passes loop two years ago, over 4 lazy days. We had problems with the elevation the first day, coming off the couch from sea-level. But it was simply a beautiful hike, with so much open country above timberline. On day two at our half-way point we met a trail runner doing the loop in the opposite direction. He was trying to beat his personal best time for the loop of 17 hours. That was a great motivator to pick up the pace and get over Trail Rider pass before the end of the day!

  11. Gabriel Rivera January 25, 2016 at 8:32 pm #

    Andrew,

    I’m planning a four pass loop trip but I’m trying to lock down dates where the wildflowers will be in prime bloom, and it looks like you nailed it. what dates were you there if you don’t mind? thanks a lot!

    • Andrew Skurka January 25, 2016 at 8:37 pm #

      The timing of the wildflowers is partly a function of the winter snowpack and the summer rains — if it’s a wet winter and a wet summer, it’ll be wildflowers galore almost until the first frost. On average though, July is your best bet. It was a wet winter so last year they were still good in early-August, but they were on the way out.

      • Gabriel Rivera January 25, 2016 at 8:54 pm #

        Awesome, thats what I’m aiming for. Thanks for getting back on that!

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