Forest Service ponders how to move swelling number of visitors to Aspen’s Maroon Bells
The effort to get people out of private vehicles and into public buses to visit the popular Maroon Bells Scenic Area worked particularly well in 2016 when a record number of passengers were transported.
But the U.S. Forest Service is concerned about transportation problems looming both this year and in the longer run.
The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t want to limit the number of people visiting the scenic area, but it wants to find a better way of getting them there, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has already warned the Forest Service it cannot commit as many buses to the Bells service this fall as it did in 2016. When the Grand Avenue Bridge in Glenwood Springs is closed as part of construction on a new structure, RFTA will devote all available resources to providing extra buses to try to ease traffic snarls. All traffic will be using the West Glenwood exit and entrance to Interstate 70 starting in late August and stretching into October.
Longer waits this fall
RFTA plans to offer free bus service between Glenwood Springs and areas to the west, according to Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship. RFTA will still provide bus service to the Maroon Bells seven days per week after Labor Day — an extra effort that was operated the past two years. The difference, he said, is RFTA won’t be able to hold buses in reserve to meet demand when it surges.
The result will be some passengers will have to wait longer to get from the staging area at Aspen Highlands to the Maroon Bells complex 10 miles away, Blankenship said.
The bus service was started in 1978 when private vehicles were overwhelming upper Maroon Valley and causing environmental damage. The Forest Service restricts private vehicles in Maroon Valley between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. throughout the summer and into fall. RFTA operates buses between Aspen Highlands and the Maroon Lake facilities. It charges a fare and shares proceeded with the Forest Service.
The buses hauled a record 199,768 passengers last year — an increase of 25,566, or 5.78 percent, from the prior year.
Parking also was filled to capacity on Fridays and weekends last fall because people were able to drive up prior to the restrictions as long as they paid a $10 fee.
“Maroon Bells is one of those special places that people can visit relatively easily,” Schroyer said. She said she believes the bus system works exceedingly well — for now.
Capping visitors off table
“RFTA is maxed out,” Schroyer said. It would be expensive to add additional bus service. In addition, the Aspen Highlands base area is handling about all the cars and activity that it can, she said, and residents of the neighborhood are affected by all the bus traffic.
Officials from Pitkin County, the city of Aspen, RFTA, Aspen Skiing Co. and the Forest Service convened Feb. 2 to discuss long-term transit operations in the Maroon Valley.
Capping the number of visitors to Maroon Lake is off the table even though the Forest Service is working on a plan to limit the number of backpackers in parts of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area because of ecological damage and loss of the wilderness feel. Maroon Lake is the gateway to the wilderness.
But Schroyer said the restrooms, trails, bus stop and interpretative areas around Maroon Lake can handle the number of visitors — unlike the wilderness beyond.
“We don’t just want to jump to the conclusion that we will limit the number of visitors to the Maroon Bells,” Schroyer said. “Right now our bottleneck is more with getting people up there.”
Cyclist safety also a concern
Schroyer is uncertain at this point what options exist. The Forest Service as well as the city and county will apply for grants for a transportation study. Either a federal agency or private consultant will be hired, she said. City and county officials are working on the scope of the study.
Schroyer said the study also will look into safety of bicyclists using Maroon Creek Road. It attracts bikers from world-class road racers to out-of-shape tourists riding clunkers.
“We don’t want to say bikes are no longer allowed on the road,” Schroyer stressed.
Charlie Eckert, a past president of the Aspen Cycling Club and a frequent rider to the Bells since 1993, said there are safety issues because cyclists feel empowered with the restrictions on vehicles.
“Cyclists feel they have carte blanche on the right of way,” he said.
Some cyclists ride two or more abreast, paying little attention to traffic approaching from behind. Many cyclists ride with ear buds and music blasting so they aren’t aware of vehicles, though buses can still be heard.
Vehicles often are forced to make quick passes, sometimes as cyclists are swooping downhill at a high rate of speed.
Eckert said he has witnessed several incidents where tempers have flared between motorists and cyclists on Maroon Creek Road
He believes the solution is educating people riding the road that they will still encounter traffic and they must let traffic by.
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For anybody who lives here on the Western Slope, “Wireless” will likely conjure up some bad memories of winter trips westbound on Interstate 70, when Eisenhower Tunnel closures left you stranded, when you sit parked waiting for an accident to clear for hours worried you’d run out of gas, or — as is the case with Andy — when you took a bad detour or shortcut.