My first-time hiking in the Rocky Mountains was in 2017, I knew immediately that I would somehow find a way to get Fen, my then one year old Australian Shepherd, to these mountains. Fen and I live in western New York State, and I wasn’t comfortable flying him to Colorado so I started thinking of doing a road trip. Fast forward three years to 2020 and the plans started coming together, we would do this road trip the following summer. My travel partner would be my sister Crystal. We started to compile a list of attractions and hikes across the United States with the pinnacle of the trip being the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and the Four Pass Loop Trail outside of Aspen. We planned to do this twenty-seven mile, with its 8,000’ of gain hike as a four day, three-night backpacking adventure. Crystal, Fen, and myself were very experienced at backpacking so we had little concern at the difficulty this trail presented but we were unsure how the three of us would react to the altitude we would encounter, it would be 1000’ higher than Crystal and I had ever reached and more than double what Fen had ever been to. We live at 900’ above sea level and this hike would take us up and over four passes, each being over 12,400’ above sea level.
March of 2021, I met with Fen’s vet to discuss altitude sickness in dogs and how to recognize it before it becomes a serious medical problem. Symptoms can start to occur when hikers reach an altitude of 8,000’. Fen passed his medical checkup, and the vet gave him the ok to do this hike, with the promise we would acclimate slowly to the altitude of Colorado before doing the Four Pass Loop. The trip was planned for late August that year.
Fen arrived in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado on August 28, 2021, at five years, nine months old and in top physical condition, not to mention the 700 miles of highways over the past few days, Fen was more than ready to hit the trail. Our plan was to do three days of acclimating to the new altitude we found ourselves in, by doing a couple of overnight hikes. The first one was a 14 mile out and back that would take us to a camp at just under 11,000’. We would hike out the next morning. After a short drive, we would set out for another night on a trail that would take us above 11,000’. All three of us were doing great and feeling encouraged that we were ready to tackle the Four Pass Loop Trail.
We started the Four Pass Loop at the Maroon Lake Trailhead, following the Maroon Snowmass Trail along the north shore of Maroon Lake, we were treated to an incredible view of the Maroon Bells in the background, both these mountains reach over 14,000’, the view was spectacular! We soon came to a couple groups of hikers that were heading back out, neither group could complete the loop, the first ran out of food, including food for their dog, the next group of hikers were experiencing altitude sickness with strong headaches. After six miles and 2,500’ of gain we set up camp for the night. We were hungry but feeling great. After supper, we watched a few mule deer feeding as the sun set behind the mountains. We climbed into our tent knowing the next morning we would have a steep climb up our first pass reaching our highest altitude ever at 12,400’.
On day two we would have to tackle two passes, West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass. After coffee and a light breakfast, we started up West Maroon Pass. The trail climbs steeply through switchbacks. As we reached the top of the pass I glanced at my altimeter, it read 12,465’. Our breathing was heavy but not difficult, even Fen was doing great and showed no sign of difficulty. The view was nothing less than amazing!
Fen at an altitude of 12,400' smiling the whole time
On day three we would climb two more passes, Trail Rider Pass and Buckskin Pass. We were all feeling great so we decided to increase our mileage for the day, that way day four would be a very easy day. We hiked a total of ten and half miles with 4000’ of gain on day three. That evening we found a nice camping spot with the most beautiful view from our tent. As we ate supper reflecting over the past few days, we felt incredibly proud of our accomplishment; Fen found a nice stick that he insisted I toss so he could play fetch for a while. We all slept very well that night.
Trail Rider Pass view, you can see Fenn on the trail in the lower right side
View from the campsite last night on the trail
Day four would be a very short hike out, just three miles with no gain. As we hiked out, we took plenty of time to talk to other hikers, I think for Fen this was the best part over the last four days. He made so many new friends that day.
Spectacular views the entire loop!
The Four Pass Loop is one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, with spectacular views the entire way. You do need a permit to backpack, there are plenty of water sources to filter and lots of campsite options. We never had an issue with altitude sickness, I attribute that to acclimating for a few days. I would highly recommend this hike to those who are experienced at backpacking and map navigation.
Follow Fen and his adventures on Instagram: @Fen_the_Aussie
Have you hiked the Four Pass Loop Trail? Or any other great hiking spots with your pup? Comment below!