ASPEN - With crowds at the Maroon Bells last weekend that prevented some visitors from reaching the destination, Forest Service officials in Aspen are calling for a new way to manage access to the popular spot.
Some 3,000 to 5,000 people per day went up to Maroon Lake last Friday through Sunday, as fall colors at the Bells hit their peak, according to Ranger Scott Snelson of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
All of the available parking lots serving Maroon Lake were packed before buses began running at 9 a.m. Parking at Aspen Highlands, where visitors are to catch the Bells bus, also hit capacity, leaving the Forest Service to turn people away. Would-be visitors were advised to return to Highlands later in hopes of finding a spot to park, Snelson said.
"We're going to have to engage in a conversation about capacity at Maroon Bells," Snelson said during a meeting Wednesday with Pitkin County commissioners. "It was terrific, I think, for the local economy, but we have to figure out how to maintain a quality experience up there."
Forest Service officials in Aspen intend to engage the community in a discussion about what comes next at the Bells, where driving a private vehicle has long been prohibited during the day, throughout the summer and on fall weekends. The car ban was a response to traffic that overwhelmed the site; bus service was instituted to ease the impact of visitors.
This season's bus service ended on Sunday.
The answer may be more buses, or providing parking for bus riders elsewhere, at least at certain times of the year, Snelson said.
Commissioner George Newman suggested it may be time to cut off vehicular access altogether. Currently, one can drive to Maroon Lake early in the morning and in the evening, when buses aren't running. The road is open without restrictions in the spring and fall, and closed by snow during the winter months.
Bicyclists have unrestricted access on Maroon Creek Road, whether buses are running or not, leading to a combination of private vehicles, buses and bikes all using the road at certain times.
"I think the future may lie in auto-free - just mass transit going up there unless you're going camping," Newman said. The Forest Service operates three small campgrounds along the road.
Public access to the Bells remains the top priority for the Forest Service, according to Snelson, who also pressed for a strategy to deal with special events on Maroon Creek Road.
"We continue to have increasing requests for bike and other events at the Bells," he said after his meeting with commissioners.
Snelson said the city of Aspen inquired about use of Maroon Creek Road for next year's USA Pro Cycling Challenge; he said 'no' to the request.
The Forest Service currently has the say-so on events, leading to questions about whether Maroon Creek Road is controlled by the county or the federal agency.
A joint understanding among the city, county and Forest Service when it comes to special events is preferable to a dispute over control of the road, Snelson said.
Ownership of the road will remain an underlying issue in coming up with a strategy for managing events, Commissioner Rachel Richards predicted.
"I don't know exactly how we're going to resolve that, but I think it will be integral to whatever solution we come up with," she said.