Conundrum numbers hint at what reservation system could do for Four Pass Loop |

Conundrum numbers hint at what reservation system could do for Four Pass Loop

Forest Service says reservation spread out rather than diminish use

Conundrum Hot Springs are a popular hiking destination near Aspen. It is a 8.5-mile hike from the trail ahead to the springs, which sit at 11,222 feet. (David Krause/The Aspen Times)

A permit and reservation system proposed on the popular Four Pass Loop near Aspen isn’t expected to reduce the overall number of backpackers, but it will spread them out to more manageable levels, according to White River National Forest officials.

The U.S. Forest Service announced earlier this month it will pursue a reservation and permit system with a fee for the Four Pass Loop, probably starting next summer. The 26-mile loop covers some of the most stunning terrain in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The proposed fee is $12 per person per night.

An explosion of social media exposure in recent years has created overcrowding at some of the most scenic places. Twenty years ago, it was possible to camp at Snowmass Lake with only a few scattered parties on a mid-summer weekend. A backpacker reported Friday five other parties were camped within a stone’s throw of his group’s tents at the lake with many more scattered in the woods.

The number of overnight visitors in the wilderness area quadrupled between 2006 and 2020, according to Forest Service records.

Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said many areas along the loop are exceeding the threshold for overnight visitors at one time. It is resulting in environmental damage as campers create new sites. It also diminishes the wilderness experience.

Warner said the goal isn’t to reduce enjoyment of the loop but to better manage the human use. The experience at Conundrum shows that use may actually go up with a reservation and permit system, he said, but it will be spread through the week rather than spiked on weekends.

The White River placed limits on the number of campers at one time near the Conundrum Creek Hot Springs in 2018 and instituted a reservation and permit system. Only 20 nightly permits are issued to individuals or groups.

Nevertheless, the number of overnight visitors climbed from 3,389 in 2017 to 5,261 the following year; 6,259 in 2019; and 5,913 last year, according to the Forest Service.

“The increased use has been distributed through an elongated backpacking season and over more weekday use rather than large spikes of use on weekends,” Warner said in an email. “The dispersed use has resulted in better recreation experiences for Conundrum overnight users and less impacts to the natural resources in this high-use area.”

White River officials expect the same results along the Four Pass Loop when a reservation and permit system is applied, Warner said.

The agency is working on plans to designate specific campsites along the Four Pass Loop ahead of the reservation and permit system. The preliminary plan is to grant a maximum of 15 nightly permits in the Snowmass Lake Zone. The Forest Service has established permit limits along the other sections of the loop as well.

The White River has tracked overnight visitation on popular routes since 2006. The number of registered overnight visitors on the top 10 trails went from 4,020 in 2006 to 9,293 in 2010 and then soared to 15,817 in 2015. While the numbers have been up and down ever since, they peaked at 18,324 last year.

The Forest Service is seeking public comment on its plan to implement a fee for overnight use of the Four Pass Loop. It already completed the process that allows it to implement reservations and permits.

More information on the fee and link to submit comments can be found at