Explosion in overnight use creates parking problem at Maroon Lake

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Backpackers descend from Linkins Lake off the Lost Man Loop. It is one of the alternatives close to Aspen for adventurers who want to avoid the crowds of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

An explosion in the number of overnight hikers and backpackers launching from the Maroon Lake area has forced the Forest Service to warn overnight visitors that they shouldn’t expect to find parking through the remainder of summer.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is telling visitors who are hiking to Crested Butte via West Maroon Pass or backpacking the numerous trails of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area that they should park at Aspen Highlands and take a bus after service starts at 9 a.m. They also can have a friend drop them off or hire a taxi.

A 35-vehicle parking lot dedicated to overnight parking has been filling beyond capacity this month. An overflow lot and the West Maroon Portal have been used once the main lot fills, but that hasn’t quenched demand, according to Martha Moran, recreation staff supervisor for the district. Too many overnight visitors are parking in the 75-vehicle lot reserved for day users, she said.

“We have seen unprecedented use in overnight parking,” Moran said. “I think the trigger is there’s a lot more people recreating.”

The number of hikers on the trail between Maroon and Crater lakes regularly exceeds 500 people per day and spikes to 800 per day during July and August.

While hiking to Crested Butte has been popular for years, it’s probably attracting more people this year because of the superb wildflower season. Backpacking the Four Pass Loop continues to draw national attention in outdoor publications and social media. Moran said an improving economy seems to be drawing more people to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.

Moran suspects another factor is drawing more young adults that are outdoor-oriented.

“This whole marijuana thing has made Colorado so popular,” she said.

Whatever the reasons for the increase in visitors, it’s adding to another situation in the White River National Forest, where intense use affects the wilderness experience. Rangers said earlier this summer that some visitors to the popular Conundrum Hot Springs have been leaving behind incredible amounts of trash and doing a poor job of taking care of human waste. Elsewhere, demand for parking for the Hanging Lake Trail in Glenwood Canyon regularly exceeds supply.

Moran said there is no discussion at this time of increasing the amount of parking for overnight visitors at Maroon Lake.

“I’m not sure we’re going to pave paradise and put up more parking lots,” Moran said. “That’s why we have a transportation system.”

Bus service was started to Maroon Lake in 1978. Buses now operate between the facilities and Aspen Highlands from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The welcome station, also known as the guardhouse, on Maroon Creek Road is staffed by the Forest Service from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The road is restricted to private vehicles from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for disabled people, campers, families with young children in car seats, outfitters and — until now — overnight visitors. The Forest Service used to give an exemption to backpackers, but that was dropped starting last weekend.

The restriction for overnight visitors likely will continue until mid- to late-August, when crowds thin a bit as schools resume, Moran said.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service is urging visitors to explore other parts of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest. Options include hikes accessed off Lincoln Creek Road east of Aspen — New York and Brooklyn creeks and Grizzly Lake; Hay Park and Thomas Lakes from the Dinkle Lake Trailhead at the foot of Mount Sopris; the Raspberry Loop near Marble; and the multiple hikes in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness.