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Bells facilities facelift unveiled

A view of the interior of the new Maroon Bells Visitor Center which is nearing completion, May 26, 2004. Aspen Times photo/ Nick Saucier.
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The U.S. Forest Service is scrambling to unveil this weekend the $1 million in improvements it made to the infamous “Flintstone” bathroom and other maligned facilities at Maroon Lake.

Agency officials are willing to bet the public will like what it sees.

“I’m very optimistic. I’ve been up there. It looks great,” said Jim Stark, assistant district ranger in Aspen.

Work performed by the Forest Service and a contractor last fall helps shield the 2,600-square-foot bathroom that has an easterly facade of fake stone. That facade made people think of a building out of the “Flintstones” cartoon.

But the bathroom is no longer the focal point of the compound where buses will dump people off near Maroon Lake. The traffic circle the bus will use was pulled about 100 feet away from the bathroom to the east.

A berm 10 feet high and about 80 feet long was built in front of the bathroom. Scores of trees and bushes were planted on the berm, and the earthen top of the bathroom building is also heavily vegetated. Many of the rocks originally placed there have been removed to let the vegetation grow and soften the look.

The western side of the bathroom has also been worked on to make it less obtrusive to hikers returning from Maroon Lake. About 18 to 24 inches of fake rock were shaved from the building.

Although the site was still closed yesterday, a reporter was allowed to tour the facilities. The bathroom building is still worthy of the “Flintstone” name. It has two faux stone columns and two apparently faux wooden columns out front. But the facility is definitely shielded better.

Two other structures blend in significantly better with the surroundings. A small bus shelter is made out of real rock. It curves around to create two alcoves with rock benches.

Just west of the bus shelter is a structure the Forest Service calls the “visitor contact station.” That structure was reduced in size and, like the bus shelter, is dug into the hillside to make it unobtrusive.

“It went from 5,000 to 500 square feet with public involvement,” noted Martha Moran, recreation manager for the Aspen Ranger District.

The front of the visitors center is glass, but neither the glass nor its glare can be seen from the lake. The interior of the building features specialty concrete that looks like aspen tree trunks. Forest Service workers were installing real aspen logs from floor to ceiling to add to the natural feel.

Both the bus shelter and visitors center have a concrete roof beam visible but they accomplish the goal of blending well.

Howie Mallory, a member of an informal citizens’ group called Free the Bells, said the facilities are a “huge improvement” over what was originally planned. “I think it’s going to work,” he said.

Members of Free the Bells wanted more of the fake rock removed from the bathroom. However, the berm works well to shield the structure and will be even more effective once the trees leaf out and the grass grows. The “in-your-face” characteristic of the “Flintstone” bathroom will disappear, Mallory said.

The visitors center and bus shelter work well because they don’t detract attention from the Maroon Bells, he said.

The original plan was approved in the mid-1990s although it slipped below the radar of most people. Special funding was secured for the project, but scrutiny by the press and public forced the Forest Service to reconsider the project after just the bathroom was completed.

The Aspen district decided to open the project up for public input and by August 2001 collected 80 comments, almost all of them critical of the bathroom and adamantly opposed to the proposed 5,000-square-foot visitors center.

Former district ranger Jim Upchurch, who inherited the project from his predecessor, ruled that he couldn’t tear down the bathroom, as some critics demanded, but he agreed that major alterations were necessary.

The Forest Service secured about $1 million for improvements such as earthwork, vegetation and cosmetic changes.

The facilities are scheduled to open Saturday, although members of a crew were working feverishly yesterday and crossing their fingers to be finished on time.

The Forest Service will start collecting a $10 fee from vehicles that drive on Maroon Creek Road starting this weekend. Bus service starts June 13.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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