I’m baaaaack! It’s been a long 10 years since my last Colorado adventure. Since then I lost over 6 years of my life to a severe illness, spent 2 years recovering thanks to the Gerson Therapy, and then moved to Colorado last year. This was my first big adventure in the backcountry since moving to 9,000 ft of elevation in CO. The altitude sickness that I always struggled with in the past, being from PA, would not be an issue.

The Maroon Bells Four Pass loop is a 26 mile high altitude loop trail just southwest of Aspen, CO. It starts at 9,500 ft and takes you over four mountain passes, all just shy of 12,500 ft with a total elevation gain of almost 8,000 ft. It features alpine lakes, lush forests, exposed, rocky climbs, and the most amazing views ever. It’s also very active bear country and requires a bear canister and permit to hike. I hiked it mid August with my two dogs – CJ, a Pomeranian, and Everest, a big baby Husky.

Four Pass Loop from AllTrails app

Day 1: 8 miles
I headed out of the house with my sidekick pups at 5am for a 3 hour drive to Aspen, CO and boarded an 8:45am shuttle to the trailhead (parking at the trailhead is very hard to come by and requires a reservation made months in advance). After wading through the hundred or so tourists that had already arrived but never ventured further than the first couple miles of trail, we were on our way…uphill for hours on rocks.

It was a beautiful, sunny day with little chance of thunderstorms so we leisurely made our way up and over the 12,500 Buckskin pass, down into the next valley, and halfway up the next pass, arriving at Snowmass Lake, where we set up camp for our first night on the trail, by 5pm. There were a ton of great spots around the lake and not a whole lot of good camping before or after Snowmass lake so the place got packed. Which meant zero privacy. A number of guys caught me watering the bushes over the next 12 hours and I caught them watering trees. But in typical hiker community fashion, we were all respectful and looked away.

I got myself and the dogs fed, coordinated where we’d be stashing our bear canisters for the night with the neighbors and I turned in at hiker midnight (7pm) and read for a while before falling asleep to the chatter of the neighboring groups still audible through earplugs.

Maroon Bells - named because they're maroon and are bell-shaped

View from Buckskin Pass

View from Buckskin Pass

The trail down from Buckskin Pass

Everest chilling at the campsite

Snowmass Lake

Snowmass Lake from above

Day 2: 7 miles
Storms were in the the forecast so it was an early start. Up at the crack of dawn at 5:45am, feed the dogs, pack up, and on the trail by 7am. The goal for the day was to do the 1,000 ft climb up and over the 12,500 ft Trail Rider Pass and down into the next valley before the storms hit. I don’t screw around with lightning above treeline.

We hiked hard (1 mile per hour up the steep pass with waning oxygen in the air) and the rain held. By 1:30pm we made it over Trail Rider Pass, down into the next valley, and halfway up the next pass before rain started threatening. I set up the tent and cooked lunch in a drizzle. Then all hell broke loose and it rained, thundered, and lightninged for the next 3 hours. The dogs and I dozed in and out until the storm arrived squarely in the gulch where we were camped. There were 3 memorable lightning bolt strikes too close for comfort with simultaneous ear splitting thunder claps. It was a tense 15 minutes where I watched the fur on Everest for any hint of it standing on end – an indication that the energy is building for a lightning strike RIGHT THERE and a sign to RUN LIKE HELL! His fur stayed down and we went back to snoozing the afternoon away.

The rain let up at 6pm and I made us supper. The dogs picked at their food for the second day. I added some olive oil and butter and they still weren’t interested. They were stressed. The rain started up and it was back into the tent for reading and watching downloaded videos on my phone, then bed at 9pm.

View from the top of Trail Rider Pass

View from the top of Trail Rider Pass

View from the top of Trail Rider Pass

View from the top of Trail Rider Pass

Reaching treeline below Trail Rider Pass

Trail junction

Waterfall from the valley

A knee deep river that required taking my shoes off and carrying CJ - the only time CJ was carried

Day 3: 11 miles
Storms were forecast again. And today there were two 12,500 mountain passes to get over before they hit. The goal was 5 miles. That would take us to the first existing campsite after the second pass, although still above treeline. Little did I know what the day would hold.

We started off under cloudy skies (unusual for mornings in CO), high-tailed it up the 1,400 ft ascent over Frigid Air Pass, back down to below treeline and then back up the 700 ft ascent over the final pass, West Maroon Pass. One snag: all that rain that we got at the campsite the night before had been snow and sleet on West Maroon Pass and it was cold enough that it hadn’t melted.

Going up West Maroon Pass had a few dicey spots in the snow but they only lasted a few steps at a time. Going down, however….holy hell. I was taking in the view at the top of the pass when I watched a couple people start down the trail…sliding on their butts. This couldn’t be good. I was chilly and the dogs were antsy so I snapped a few pictures and we didn’t linger. I headed over and looked over the edge at the path and knew immediately this descent was going to be a problem. The path was steep, two feet wide at best, covered in three inches of snow and sloped toward the outer edge of the path to a 300 ft dropoff. I dropped Everest’s leash. He was on his own. I alternated between sliding on my butt and taking two inch steps. Everest was behind me occasionally getting harshly whacked across the snout with my hiking stick at the first hint of trying to surge on me. There was zero room for error from a pup still learning the ways of backpacking. In addition, we faced two more obstacles.

First up was a 5 ft section with about 6 inches of snow that was sloped hard to the dropoff. It would have been precarious in the best of conditions. The woman in front of me was stuck in a spider man position facing the inside of the trail for about 10 minutes. Fortunately, a guy with traction on his shoes showed up from the opposite direction and helped peel her off. Freaking out that I was next, I took my pack off and asked the guy to sling it across the scary section. Between my hiking poles and digging the front of my shoes into the bank of snow and testing every ounce of pressure I put on a foot or pole before making my next move, I made it across and put my pack back on.

The next hurdle came when an asshat with an agressive, medium-sized dog coming from the opposite direction decided to ascend into the snow section of trail and sit against a rock on the bank on the inside of the trail. He announced to me as I approached that his dog wasn’t friendly. I proposed that he descended 10 ft to where the snow stopped so we could pass in better footing. He refused. He did not have his dog under control AT ALL. At 10 ft away, the dog was lunging and carrying on. I told him in a not so friendly voice to grab his damn dog by the scruff and get it under control. This was no time to be polite to the owner or the dog. Everest was friendly and I knew wouldn’t pose a problem as long as he didn’t have to defend himself. I didn’t worry about CJ. He was a freaking mountain goat this whole time, climbing up the bank on the inside of the trail whining because we weren’t going fast enough for him. He’s also an ace at diffusing aggressive dogs.

The guy decided to position his girlfriend(?) on the bank between the dogs as we passed. Apparently she was supposed to follow Everest and CJ and keep herself between them and his dog but she didn’t. As I reached the safety of the snow free trail 10 ft later, I heard him reaming her out for it. Did I mention the guy was an asshat?

What I wouldn’t have given for my microspikes. It took 45 minutes to go about 200 ft. It was definitely the most intense 45 minutes of my thousands of miles of backpacking.

Operating on the adrenaline, I continued descending to just above treeline. We’d made it the 5 miles to the first campsite…by 11:30am. With everything being wet from the previous day’s rain and no sun to dry things out, I decided to continue on with the remaining 6 miles and finish a day early. We made it to the shuttle by 3:30 where CJ curled up on my lap and Everest sprawled on his side in the aisle for the 20 minute ride to the car.

Heading up to Frigid Air Pass

A cute little pika

View from Frigid Air Pass

View from Frigid Air Pass

Snowy West Maroon Pass in the background

The trail getting snowy

From the top of West Maroon Pass

From the top of West Maroon Pass

Survived West Maroon Pass and heading down to treeline

Clouds rolling in on the final miles

Heard the loud chirps of marmots throughout the trip and finally got a picture of them in the last mile


  1. Having to use a bear canister sucks. It’s heavy, hard to open (many f-bombs were dropped in the process), is difficult to get in and out of the pack, and means no midnight snacks.
  2. Training a new dog in the ways of the trail is hard. Everest was awesome and learned quickly but I REALLY missed my Cassie girl who has it all down pat. At 14 years old, she was better off in the kennel for this trip.
  3. An iPhone 11 battery lasts 3 days in airplane mode.
  4. The hiking community and culture are alive and well and still awesome. Over the 3 days, we leap frogged with several groups doing the trail in the same direction and got to know their dogs’ names if not the humans’. We also met several groups going in the opposite direction with whom we swapped knowledge of campsites and distance to the next water.
  5. CJ was a hit on the trail. I don’t know how many “awww!” comments we got as people passed. And his fame was passed through the trail grapvine. Several people approached and said, “Oh, that must be CJ! I heard about the little guy!”
  6. This was a strenuous route with a ton of elevation gain and loss. In addition, I’d barely run, walked, hiked or done anything physical for over 3 weeks before the trip. I was also carrying a heavier pack than usual. In the past, I’d have come home sore and hobbling for days. This time? My legs were a little tired but not sore and I ran the next day. The difference? I removed all the processed, sugary, inflammatory foods I used to get my calories from and relied on fats for calories. (Thank you, Dr. Donofrio, for patiently teaching me.). I still ate lots of dehydrated potatoes, oatmeal, rice, packets of tuna/salmon, soups with lots of dried veggies, and dehydrated smoothie mixes, but I skipped the snickers and cliff bars and candies and breads, and replaced the calories with olive oil, mayo, butter, and eggs. The result was less inflammation and soreness. I don’t know why I continue to be surprised by this but diet matters.
  7. And lastly, I can’t even express how amazing it was to be back on the trail and in my happy place. It’s been almost 10 long years since my last trip. And as I’ve been struggling with burnout in other areas of my life from the relentless pushing of getting through the illness, the intense schedule that the Gerson Therapy requires while working full time, and the move to CO, I really wasn’t sure if I was going to mentally be up to the rigors of backpacking. Not only was I up for it, but it recharged my charge resistant batteries some. I regularly had tears in my eyes throughout the trip at the joy of being able to experience it once again.