Maroon Bells revenues up | AspenTimes.com
Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, Co Colorado

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Maroon Bells revenues up

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Revenues from entrance fees to the Maroon Bells near Aspen were up 15 percent this year, thanks in large part to visitors who paid up voluntarily, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The popular and scenic attraction, located southwest of town, is operated as a national recreation fee area throughout the summer and fall. The Forest Service charges $10 per vehicle at certain times when buses aren’t running to the Bells; visitors must pay to ride the bus when it is operating. The revenues go to maintenance and staffing at the Maroon Bells Recreation Area.

The agency did not reveal the total amount of money taken in at the Bells.

New this year was a self-pay station where visitors could pay the fee during hours when the Forest Service-manned entrance station wasn’t staffed – particularly during the month of October. The month saw a spate of warm weather that continued to draw visitors to Maroon Lake and the Bells after the entrance station had closed for the season and the buses had quit running. Plenty of individuals paid the fee, said Aurora Palmer, Maroon Bells program manager and snow ranger with the Aspen Ranger District.

“It was amazing how many people paid,” she said.

The self-pay station was erected with the intention of collecting additional revenue, according to Palmer. The station signs dictated a $10 fee for a five-day pass for cars, a $5 motorcycle fee, a $15 per night camping fee and a $5 vehicle fee for motorists who were camping. Senior citizens were charged $7.50 per night to camp, but no car fee.

Motorists continued to drive to the Bells – and pay the fee – until mid-November, when the road was closed. The road is not maintained during the winter months; snow was piled at the closure point to block vehicles on Nov. 16, though pedestrians and bicyclists have continued to use the road beyond that point. If the dry weather of late continues, the Forest Service will likely re-evaluate the closure next week, Palmer said. The road could be reopened if it is clear to the lake, until winter weather forces its closure again.

The road remains open during the winter to snowmobilers, pedestrians and skiers, though it crosses numerous avalanche paths. Users proceed at their own risk.

The road typically reopens in the spring before the entrance station reopens. The self-pay station could generate more revenues then, as well, Palmer said.

The Forest Service has no way of calculating the number of individuals who visited the Maroon Bells during the busy summer and fall seasons. But overnight wilderness permits indicate a 29 percent increase in the number of people accessing the backcountry from either the East Maroon or Maroon Lake trails this year, according to Palmer. In 2009, 3,715 backpackers entered the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area from the East Maroon Portal or Maroon Lake, she said.

In particular, the Four Pass Loop – a 28-mile hike over four mountain passes in the wilderness area – has become increasingly popular, thanks to exposure in outdoor magazines and online blogs, she said.

“There are so many more people doing the Four Pass Loop,” Palmer said. “It’s pretty neat to see.”

Most of them appear to be visitors from outside the Roaring Fork Valley. On a Four Pass Loop outing last summer, Palmer said she encountered about 70 people, and only two were area residents.

“You rarely meet a local,” she said.

Walk-in camping at the three campgrounds located along Maroon Creek Road, on the way to Maroon Lake, was down 19 percent in 2009, but there was a 20 percent increase in online reservations for the campgrounds, according to Palmer.

In addition, she noted a boost in the number of senior citizens camping. Campsites occupied by seniors jumped from 58 in 2008 to 106 this year. The growing number of baby boomers who are eligible for the $10 lifetime Senior Pass, good at all national forests and national parks (and half off the cost of camping), may be a factor, Palmer said.

janet@aspentimes.com