Where: White River National Forest, near Aspen, CO
Distance: 26.5 – 28.5 miles (depending on where you park and/or if you get lost like us)
Elevation gain: approx. 8,500′ – 9,000′
Parking: There is day-use parking right by the trailhead and long-term parking not far away (approx. .5 mile). You have to pay $5 for a day parking pass, and I believe $15 for a 5-day pass. Parking is free with a National Parks Pass.
Lodging: There are campsites around the area; however, they were all full when we got there (late). I believe this is something you would need to book fairly far in advance depending on season. We went on what was said to the busiest weekend of the year due to the Aspens changing colors. Aspen is the nearest town which is probably the most expensive town I have ever experienced. Lodging is outrageously expensive, even a room at an Airbnb. We ultimately slept in the car in the long-term parking area, and moved our car to the closer day-use parking for the day.
Route-finding: The trail is fairly easy to follow, though we managed to get lost in the first 4 miles. I still don’t know how that happened, but pay attention when you’re around the river, so you don’t miss the proper crossing area. Aside from that, the trail is super easy to follow assuming you know which passes you’re targeting (West Maroon Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass and Buckskin Pass). There are no signs for the loop itself; however, there are signs for the various passes. The only potentially confusing part is by Snowmass Lake where you can take an extra trail down to the lake only to return back to the main trail towards Buckskin Pass.
Terrain: There are some solid climbs, some of which are not very runnable. It gets rockier and more technical towards the tops of the passes, and things can get a bit messy with the weather up there. The first couple miles are also uncomfortably rocky, so it’s tough to get in an early rhythm. There are also a lot of really nice areas with clean downhills and/or smooth flat trails to help make up time.
Weather: It’s Colorado, so the weather in the mountains is super unpredictable. Take the weather forecasts seriously, and make sure you are thoughtful about your cold weather and rain gear. It can be dicey up on the passes.
What to Take:
Water: Water could potentially be an issue depending on the weather and/or how comfortable you are drinking directly from a mountain stream/trickle. It was cold and wet when we ran, but I still managed to empty my 1.5L Salomon bladder after only the third pass. We took a chance and refilled our water from a gentle trickle of a stream crossing the trail at one point. I wish I would’ve had some kind of purification, but thankfully no excessive poos followed. There are a handful of streams and lakes you could potentially use to refill, but again, do so at your own risk without purification.
Food: I would be sure to have all of your food for the run as well as before/after the run before you get to Aspen. If you’re heading to Aspen from Denver, you will pass a Whole Foods in Frisco, right off I-70. We managed to find a cheap pizza spot in Aspen called New York Pizza. They have a gluten free option, though I’m not sure about the vegan situation. You can buy giant slices of pizza for $4.50 – $5.00 or a whole pizza for roughly $15-$20. It is likely the best deal in town, otherwise, you’re probably stuck getting something in Leadville or even as far back as Frisco.
Gear: Depending on what time of year you go, I would make sure you have enough fuel (food/water), rain gear if there is any cold or rain possible, hat, and gloves. I don’t think it’s really any different than any other mountain race or route. It’s likely to have a mixture of hot, cold, wet, dry depending on when and where you are on the route.
I don’t believe I had a cell signal at all when we were out there, but I eventually put it on airplane mode since my battery was dropping so fast.
One thing that was a surprise was how long it took. We took our time, but we still definitely underestimated how long it would take to complete the loop.
This is one of the most beautiful runs I have ever done. Even with less than ideal weather, it was still absolutely amazing.