COVID-forced reservation system mellows out experience at Maroon Bells
National forest trails in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District aren’t the only ones that are packed this summer. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is reporting soaring numbers from their automated counters.
Here’s a sample of statistics provided by the open space program.
May 2019: 3,715 visits
May 2020: 6,241 visits
•Glassier bike trail
June 2019: 2,663
June 2020: 5,784
June 2019: 1,074
June 2020: 2,196
May 2019: 9,001
May 2020: 10,787
•Prince Creek Trail
May 2019: 4,485
May 2020: 10,113
Trails in the Maroon Lake system might be the only ones in the Aspen area that aren’t feeling the crunch this year as people flock to the great outdoors during the coronavirus crisis.
Maroon Lake typically attracts about 300,000 annual visitors, mostly on packed buses that operate during the summer months and into fall. But this year there is a maximum capacity of 15 passengers per bus due to the threat of the virus. Buses run every 15 minutes between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. between Aspen Highlands and Maroon Lake. That creates about 435 openings per day, according to Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, the shuttle operator.
The seats are a hot ticket. Most buses sell out.
“Halfway into the season we are saying ‘so far, so good,’” RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said in a recent assessment.
In a two-hour visit early Wednesday afternoon, Maroon Lake didn’t have the frenetic feel it usually does on a bluebird July day. The crowds were moderate at times but there weren’t the swarms evident when a packed bus dumped out passengers in years past.
“We have less visitation by design,” said Katy Nelson, usually the wilderness and trails program manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. She is serving as the recreation program manager on a temporary detail. “We want to provide the opportunity to visit but in a safe way.”
In addition to the bus reservations, there are 104 vehicle permit reservations available per day. No private vehicles are allowed upvalley between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., with the exception of people with campsite reservations.
Reservations for September and October open Aug. 1 at https://aspenchamber.org/plan-trip/trip-highlights/maroon-bells/reservations.
In a sample of eight vehicles in the Maroon Lake parking lot Wednesday, there were two from Texas, two from Colorado, two rentals, one each from New Jersey, Virginia and Arizona. The Bells are still pulling in people from all over even if it is fewer of them.
The vehicle reservation system was implemented June 8 while the bus system started June 28. Season-to-date as of July 28, there had been 7,564 visits by private vehicles and 13,353 bus riders, according to data supplied to the U.S. Forest Service.
Jennifer Schuller, deputy district ranger, credited Pitkin County, Aspen Chamber Resort Association, city of Aspen, RFTA, the Forest Service and H2O Ventures for creating an effective system in trying times. H2O Ventures helped create the reservation system and also operates the reservations for Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon.
The Forest Service’s staff size at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area is comparable with prior years. However, a nonprofit partner called the Forest Conservancy isn’t supplying volunteers to help answer visitors’ questions or patrol trails this year because of the threat of the coronavirus.
The amphitheater, always a popular gathering place for weddings and other events because of the views of the Bells, is still being rented out, but all events must adhere to Pitkin County’s social distancing requirements.
The advantage of the outdoors, David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest, is people don’t tend to congregate.
“You’re outside. People are generally hiking,” he said.
Forest Service officials aren’t able to say yet if fewer visitors this season will help reduce wear and tear on the natural surroundings in the Maroon Lake-Crater Lake area or have a beneficial effect on wildlife.
“We do have less visitation, so could there potentially be less impact? Maybe,” Nelson said.
And while Maroon Lake is less visited, that isn’t the case elsewhere in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District or the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest as a whole. Visitors are flocking to the mountains and getting outside to find something to do during the pandemic.
Once the snow melted this spring, people were hitting the hiking, biking and jeeping trails.
“Staff was coming back and saying it’s really busy out there,” Nelson said.
People need to be patient and prepared to go to their second choice for a hike or bike ride if they find a packed trailhead, Boyd said.
People have posted pictures on Facebook of vehicles spilling out of the parking areas for popular hikes such as Cathedral Lake and American Lake in Castle Creek Valley. The common perception is that places that are typically busy in the summer months are even busier this year.
Nelson said the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is running into problems with trash and illegal, unattended fires. Current rules restrict fires except in established campgrounds, where there are fire rings. There is a lot of dispersed camping, where people are building fires illegally in rock fire rings.
Creating new camping sites also is an issue. Forest Service officials stress to people not to create new sites when camping in the backcountry, Boyd said.
Another rule that gets overlooked is securing all attractants in bear country. Backpackers must use bear canisters in many parts of the forest and food/trash lockers in campgrounds. Campers at dispersed sites must secure attractants in locked vehicles with the windows up.
Forest Service officials are wondering if the increased exposure to the great outdoors will continue to lure people out in greater numbers beyond this summer, assuming life returns to “normal” by 2021.
“It creates challenges, but we want people out enjoying the national forest,” Boyd said.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District still intends to implement a reservation and permit system for the Four Pass Loop, a popular backpacking route. That was in the works prior to COVID-19 but has been put on temporary hold. The same system was put in place for Conundrum Hot Springs, southwest of Aspen. This is the third summer of the system. People still get to enjoy the unique valley but the damage to the environment has decreased.
“We talk about it a lot. It feels like a real success story,” said Nelson, who was part of the team that prepared and implemented the system. “Locals are saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t use to go (to Conundrum). Now I want to go back.”