Forest Service prepping for leaf-peeping hordes at Maroon Bells
Leaf-peepers are expected to show up in droves at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area starting this weekend, even though vibrant colors aren’t expected to show up in aspen groves until at least the next weekend.
“It’s still pretty early (for fall colors) but they’re starting,” said Shelly Grail, recreation program manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
Peak colors in the high country will likely be around the weekend of Sept. 23-24, she said, but peak visitation is expected the next three weekends.
The Forest Service is teaming with Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which operates the public bus system, as well as Pitkin County and the city of Aspen to handle the hordes.
Overflow parking will be offered at Buttermilk for free Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for the month of September. A free shuttle will run between Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands where the RFTA buses to the Maroon Bells are staged. The shuttle between the ski areas will run every 30 minutes from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The first bus to Maroon Bells Scenic Area departs from Aspen Highlands at 8:05 a.m. and continues every 20 minutes throughout the day. The final bus from the Maroon Lake facilities departs at 4:30 p.m. and arrives at Aspen Highlands at about 5 p.m.
The welcome station on Maroon Creek Road operates from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and use of personal vehicles is restricted between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Vehicles that make the trip outside of those hours must pay $10.
The limited parking that is available usually fills up early in the morning with leaf-peepers capturing the first light hitting the Maroon Bells and surrounding slopes.
“The parking lot will fill before the visitors’ station is open,” Grail said.
Accommodating the masses wouldn’t be possible without RFTA. “They tend to swoop in and save the day,” she said.
The Forest Service advises visitors to consider coming later in the day on weekends. Crowds thin out in the afternoon and plenty of picnic areas are available, she said.
Another tip is to consider visiting on weekdays rather than weekends.
Whenever visiting, the best advice is to plan on taking the bus. Limited parking is available at Aspen Highlands for $5 on weekdays and $10 on weekends.
The bus fee is $8 for adults and $6 for children younger than 16 and seniors older than 65. Children 5 years of age and younger ride for free. Tickets are sold at Four Mountain Sports at Aspen Highlands and in Aspen on Durant Street.
Access to the Maroon Lake area will be unrestricted after Oct. 2. The bus service will end after Oct. 12, when the Forest Service will close the bathrooms and turn off the water. The welcome station will remain open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. further into the month. All facilities will cease operation and the gate will be lowered on Maroon Creek Road on Nov. 15. The area will remain open during the winter for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobile operations.
Grail said late in the spring that Forest Service officials anticipated there would be a record number of visitors, topping 300,000, this summer. The numbers haven’t been crunched yet but all indications are that a record was set.
“We all think it’s been a busier summer across the district,” Grail said.
Fully aware he was in the midst of the mountain bike race of his life, Aspen’s John Gaston said he “tried to not think too far ahead” to prevent the magnitude of the moment from getting to him. He eventually finished runner-up in the iconic race.
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