The typical Colorado Front Range trailrunner seems to operate off a fairly standard summer bucket list: High Lonesome, Pawnee Buchanan, Four Pass and a smattering of peaks that usually stem from these routes. There’s nothing wrong with these routes – they’re absolutely classics for many reasons: banger views, well-trodden trails and accessible enough that you could even knock them out before or after work.
There’s certainly immense value in returning to the same peak or route routinely, as your daily bread or as a certain test piece. But I’m here to propose we branch off these beaten paths a bit more frequently. Every time I do so, I never regret it.
So when I suggested to Cordis, “Hey, let’s do Four Pass Loop on Sunday?”
He responded, “I have an even better idea, let’s not do Four Pass Loop on Sunday.”
Cordis is notorious for route scheming. We could be driving down 70 and I could shout out, “give me a string of 13ers we could do…starting at that exit!” And he’d rattle off a fantastic route.
What Cordis proposed as an alternative is actually often done as a backpacking loop. Beginning and ending at the Maroon-Snowmass Trailhead, the route circumnavigates Capitol and Snowmass, stringing together five passes and three icy blue alpine lakes into a slightly aggressive training day free of crowds and parking woes.
After a nice dinner in Aspen, we rolled up to the trailhead in the truck around 10pm. (It was my first trip to Aspen and I couldn’t get over the fact that I was car camping just a handful of miles from a Gucci store?!) Easy for us, the only other cars along the road to the trailhead were left by overnight backpackers, which made it the ideal truck camping locale.
We woke around 5:00 for a dawn (but leisurely) start (this translates to: we woke up at 5:00, but drank coffee and ate things until about 6:30). We ran into our friend Dylan in the parking lot and ran the first couple of miles with him. Climbing steadily up the Haystack-Daly Pass and already snacking on some of our calorie allotment, we caught views of Clark Peak as the sun began to warm things up.
Descending in the Capitol Creek basin and making the first significant turn in our loop, we already felt well underway, chatting away the easy miles at 10,000 feet, one of the lowest points on our journey. Capitol Lake was the first POI along our route, and I was already excited for the views and newly discovered Sandwich Cremes. (You may know cookies like this called “Oreos” but we committed to calling them by their proper 365-brand name throughout our journey.)
Already 10 miles in, we’d only seen 2-4 people so far, which meant we were free to be our unimpeded trail selves. (Tell me we’re not the only ones who make up elaborate, multi-versed songs about pigs roaming the alpine?)
Capitol Lake was pure delight. Having previously lived in California, this basin felt as close to the Sierras as I’ve ever felt in Colorado. We could see a number of tents in the area, and I can understand why! We ate some more Sandwich Cremes, took photos, and thought about jumping in, but it felt a touch chilly to commit to the plunge so early in the day.
(If you come this far for the lake, you might as well keep going to see the next section of trail. This route keeps changing and pulling you along the entire time.)
Lesson #1 of the day: Capitol is a truly massive peak. (The Northwest corner even had some decent looking lines to climb, but the skirt of scree surrounding it is enough to make you think twice about roping up for one of the faces.)
Next, we descended into Avalanche/Silver Creek, but before we knew it, we were climbing back up to a long, lovely stretch of high country gushing with wildflowers and braided creeks.
Today was the maiden voyage of our new Katadyn filters (we just bought the bottle tops and screwed them onto UD bottles!) so we were able to be worry-free about clean water for the day, being that the route is adjacent to water about 75% of the day.
At this point in the day, we realized we were probably making pretty good progress. We’d mapped it on several different platforms ahead of time (Movescount, CalTopo and Strava) and all of them said the route would be between 32-34 miles. When we chatted with a couple of hikers who said, “Oh, the 40 miler, nice!”, we assumed they’d done their math wrong. (But in the back of my head, I began to fear they could be right…Lesson #2: when has a mountain day ever been shorter than expected?)
Shuffling up Silver Pass, Capitol loomed like a fang in the background. Our progress since leaving Capitol Lake now felt quite sizable. The overgrown trail had petered out from single track to cairns, which left us weaving through the grasses as we aimed for the lowest point on the ridge.
As afternoon storm clouds began to brew, we were grateful for the timing as we’d soon be descending into Lead King Basin.
Sure enough, the faster we descended, the harder it began to rain, and we soon reached a dirt road below treeline full of ATVers, always a slightly jarring vibe after many hours of remote terrain.
At this point, my all-too-familiar lung issues flared up like clockwork around the 8-hour mark (I’ve since learned that I have asthma), and as a result our pace was quite heavily influenced. In the end, this probably added at least 4 hours to our time, as even quite runnable sections left me dizzy and stumbling. But I kept eating and hydrating, and Cordis reassured me that with one pass to go, we were fine on time and daylight.
By the time we reached Geneva Lake, the reward of our peanut butter & honey sandwiches was tantalizing simply for the break of sitting and eating them.
Trail Rider pass was the remaining obstacle, but the thought of heading back up to 12,000 feet sounded nearly impossible with the state of my lungs. (Being that I’m running Leadville next weekend, I knew the art of grinding up passes in my least motivated state was a great thing to practice.)
We soon caught the junction where we met up with the Four Pass Loop and lovely views of the Maroon Bells. The light was getting more golden in color as the sun crept lower in the sky.
The terrain of Trail Rider was rough and almost lunar, and as we continued our slow turn counter-clockwise, I was beginning to sense the vastness of what we’d circled.
With Cordis a hundred yards ahead, I marched up, counting my steps and proud that we were actually going to complete this loop on our own two feet in a day. At the top, we looked to the basin ahead of us which was already completely shadowed by Snowmass.
I could just start to make out the basin where I thought we’d started, and being that my watch said 34 miles, I figured we were well into the homestretch with just a couple miles to go, tops. I was already plotting where we’d make our celebratory beer pitstop. Maybe even dinner at that nice spot we went to last night! (Admittedly, I need my adventures to be bookmarked by my creature comforts.)
Cordis pulled out an app that plotted our location, and goes, “8 miles.”
“Well, how do you know that’s right? I mean, every other map up until now has been wrong!”
In my near-crawling state, 8 miles felt serious. Try as I might to wish it away, I soon faced the fact that our adventure was not yet complete. (And really in these scenarios, there’s no other choice, aside from stopping and creating a new life in the woods to hang out with the nice fox I’d just seen, which was starting to sound more and more appealing.)
We made our way around Snowmass Lake, towering above it, and heard the distant laughter from a group of campers. The peaks were now becoming undeniably pink, but I sensed we weren’t really caring anymore that it was going to take us so much longer.
The 4,000 foot descent felt like one, endless tumble, but all the while we kept finding ourselves in surreal moments of beauty on the empty trails, like tiptoeing across beaver dams and trotting through dense field of glowing pink flowers.
We were giggly about the fact that this had somehow turned into a 42-mile adventure, and as competitive, objective-driven runners it felt good to dismiss the clock and listen to what this route asked of us, taking the trail as it came.
A new route demands your full attention, or you’ll miss a turn, a water refill, a flower you’ve never seen. It asks you to surrender your plans and laugh at your GPX file, because you have nothing to compare it to. It reminds us that these mountains and passes and rivers won’t move for us or bail us out, we can only adapt to them.
Our eyes kept adjusting to the dimming daylight until it was completely black and we had to pull our phone lights out. Arriving back at the car around 9:30, we were delirious with fatigue and hunger. With our work weeks beginning back in Boulder in less than 12 hours, we finished off a box of Sandwich Cremes and called it dinner.