Aspen-area officials support Maroon Bells fall reservation system

Passengers board a bus in the Maroon Creek Valley.
RFTA/courtesy photo

Elected officials from Aspen and Pitkin County were supportive Tuesday of a plan to implement a pilot reservation system for visiting the Maroon Bells during peak leaf-peeping season this fall.

“I am certainly in favor of a reservation system,” said Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman. “I think it is well overdue.”

Statistics have shown that more and more people are flocking to the Bells during September and October to enjoy the fall colors. Visitors must ride a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area from June to October between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., which can be accessed at Aspen Highlands.

Last fall saw the most visitors ever, with record ridership of 3,480 on Sept. 28, according to a memo from city and county transportation officials to elected officials.

One of the main problems is photographers who pack the parking lots at the Maroon Bells by 5:30 a.m. in the fall to catch the sunrise over Maroon Lake, which forces U.S. Forest Service employees to turn people back, which in turn results in long lines at the shuttle stop. Those parking lots have traditionally been used by back-country hikers and climbers, Newman said.

To combat the problem, officials also will start Maroon Bells shuttles at 5:30 a.m. from Sept. 1 until about Oct. 11.

The reservation system will be based on one recently implemented in Glenwood Springs for the Hanging Lake Trail, said Ben Rasmussen, a public planner with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center. That system is based on the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce website, which allows Hanging Lake visitors to sign up and pay for a shuttle at a particular time, he said.

In Aspen, officials are working with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association to come up with a similar online system, Rasmussen said. The Maroon Bells shuttle cost will remain the same at $8, though the reservation system will charge an extra 16 cents, he said.

The highest capacity envisioned this fall would be about 3,000 people per day served by eight buses.

Brian Pettet, Pitkin County’s public works director, said the object isn’t to turn people away from visiting the Bells, but to have them come back at a less busy time.

Elected officials also talked about managing bicycle traffic to the Bells, though it was not clear whether a bike lane can be grafted onto the Maroon Creek Road.

Data from this fall’s pilot program will be analyzed next winter, when officials will determine whether to continue those efforts or look elsewhere for a solution to overcrowding at the Maroon Bells.