Ending a special bond with Maroon Bells Scenic Area
Peggy Jo Trish will retire this fall after 20-plus years caring for upper Maroon Creek Valley
Peggy Jo Trish doesn’t have Aspen’s easiest job, but she does have one of the most rewarding — with her “office” located in the shadow of the Maroon Bells.
As Maroon Bells Scenic Area manager, Trish is essentially the glue that holds the U.S. Forest Service operations together at one of Aspen’s busiest tourist destinations. The site draws tens of thousands of visitors each year and matches some national parks in popularity.
After holding the position for 20 years through multiple bosses, seismic shifts in tourism trends and increasing numbers of visitors, she will step down at the end of the season.
“When they close the road on Nov. 15, I’m done. I’ll walk away,” Trish said. “It’s time to move on.”
Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said Trish has been the soul of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area for so many years.
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“Her passion for the area is infectious to those she supervises, the area’s visitors and volunteers,” Grail said. “She’s the reason we have such a great crew at the Scenic Area year after year. People want to work with Peggy Jo and carry her passion forward.”
Trish and her crew of nine seasonal workers along with volunteers from the Forest Conservancy handle everything that pops up between the national forest boundary on Maroon Creek Road to the wilderness boundary on the trail between Maroon Lake and Crater Lake. The biggest part of the job is interacting with visitors. And, yes, that inherently means dealing with a lot of silly questions.
Someone actually did ask, in all seriousness, what time the Maroon Bells ring, Trish said. She didn’t field that inquiry herself but knew the colleague who did. People always make the overused crack about the Bells ringing now, she said.
Her most jaw-dropping moment was when an off-road enthusiast stopped at the welcome station, where any private vehicle without a permit is turned around, and said he was prepared to drive to Crested Butte. His GPS, he told her, indicated the road was 5 miles up the valley. She politely explained that no motorized uses were allowed in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, no roads existed for such a journey and turned him around.
It’s not the odd encounters that will stand out the most for Trish.
“The visitor numbers are definitely the most significant change,” she said. “Since the advent of the internet and pictures flying around after summer vacations, the word is out on the Maroon Bells and we’re just overrun with visitors.
“People want to see the Bells; it’s completely understandable. I get it,” she continued.
That has created management headaches. Even though traffic has been restricted for years during the heart of the summer, fall leaf-peeping traffic overwhelms the stunningly scenic area in the upper valley. Leaf-peepers were traveling up to Maroon Lake before sunrise in prior years to ensure they scored one of the coveted parking spaces.
A change of operations during the 2020 pandemic and carried over to this summer might have provided a long-term solution to crowding. A permit and reservation system was implemented for private vehicles, as well as bus rides. Hand-in-hand with that change is extended bus operations into the fall.
“We used to have lines of cars all of the way down to the Highlands waiting to see the fall colors,” Trish said. “We had to put the brakes on that. It wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t working for anyone. It wasn’t working for the people at the back of the line and it wasn’t working for those of us up here trying to take care of the place. So we changed it.”
The reservation system is working “beautifully,” she said. It needs tweaks, like not letting a single entity such as an Aspen hotel gobble too many of the permits.
Trish has become intimately acquainted with the valley during her tenure with the Forest Service. Prior to her present post, she worked in the developed recreation program for eight years. She would collect fees from the campground hosts along the Independence Pass corridor and in Maroon Creek Valley. That totals 28 years of working summers and part of springs and falls within sight of the spectacular Bells. She is an avid hiker and wildlife lover, so she works in the right place.
One of the strangest sites she ever saw was the result of a massive mudslide on the ridge north of Maroon Lake.
“I looked at the lake one day and the mudslide had taken the bathroom at the upper parking lot of the campground and put it down into Maroon Lake,” she said. “There was so much devastation up there and mud everywhere. It was like a moonscape. You couldn’t even recognize it except the Bells were still there like they always are.”
She got the idea to put an advertisement in the local papers to urge town residents to help with cleanup. She enticed them with promise of a barbecue. Between 100 and 150 people showed up to help. It was proof, she said, that Aspenites love the Maroon Bells — and they love free food.
Trish said her desire to see the valley protected has been her motivation to come to work all these years.
“Visitors can keep coming here and enjoying what this valley has to offer — that’s exactly what keeps me going,” she said.
Preserving the area for future generations has forced the Forest Service to make some tough choices. Fencing was erected along the lake to keep hikers, sightseers and photographers on the path.
“You could see the grass coming back and people starting to respect the area more,” she said. “They realized there are boundaries here. You can’t just run around every place.”
The explosion of e-bike use on the paved Maroon Creek Road and the proliferation of backpackers tackling the 26-mile Four Pass Loop has added to her staff’s stress.
E-bike use “is the biggest problem that we have up here at the moment,” Trish said. The biggest issue is large groups riding together and preventing buses and private vehicles from safely passing.
As for the backpackers, Trish estimated roughly one-third are ill-prepared for the grueling hike and overnight camping in the wilderness.
“They say, ‘I’m going to the Four Loop Pass.’ I almost don’t want to correct them because I don’t want them to think I’m making fun of them,” Trish said.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is working on a plan to implement a permit, reservation and fee system in place for overnight visitors to the Four Pass Loop starting next summer. While it is a shame the numbers have climbed to the point where reservations are needed, the proposal will help preserve the wilderness and ease traffic and parking issues in Maroon Creek Valley, Trish said.
Her lament is that some locals feel like they are getting shut out of their backyard. The permits for private vehicles to Maroon Lake were snatched up within minutes of becoming available. She would like to see local residents get a priority time period for reservations, acknowledging that is tough on federal lands.
“I think a lot of (locals) are feeling shut out these days with the growth in visitorship. It’s certainly not meant to be that way.”
While Trish has her eyes set on retirement from the Forest Service, she plans to continue working winters for Aspen Skiing Co., where she cooks for kids and instructors at the Tree House at Snowmass. She and her husband, who drives the Maroon Bells bus route for RFTA, live at the North Forty neighborhood and have no plans to leave the valley.
Trish said she is proud she spent so many years helping care for one of Aspen’s treasures.
“It’s a fragile area,” she said. “It’s quite healthy but it’s fragile. It can deteriorate easily if we don’t care for it.”
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