Bus service doubtful this summer to Maroon Bells; reservations eyed for vehicles
Bus service to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area is unlikely this summer due to the coronavirus threat, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Thursday.
Instead, the U.S. Forest Service and its partners are looking into allowing a limited number of private vehicles to drive up to the popular destination southwest of Aspen, he said. They are investigating if a reservation system could be implemented for blocks of time or all day.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Fitzwilliams said. “The shuttle system is not an option, at least not at this time.”
The same scenario is unfolding for Hanging Lake, a popular destination in Glenwood Canyon. The Forest Service implemented a shuttle system and required visitors to make reservations starting last year.
For the Maroon Bells, the Forest Service has a bus service agreement with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. Private vehicles traditionally have been severely restricted during summer days and into fall.
Fitzwilliams said parking at Maroon Lake will dictate the number of vehicles allowed to drive up Maroon Creek Road. There are roughly 60 day-use spots, 27 spaces for overnight visitors and 30 overflow spaces.
“We will have to work with those and figure out the right configuration,” Fitzwilliams said.
He stressed that the Forest Service isn’t dictating terms of opening the Maroon Lake area this summer. It’s working cooperatively with RFTA, Pitkin County and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. Maroon Lake attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually.
The changes will require flexibility on the part of visitors. For example, they might have to shoot for a trip in mid-week rather than on weekends.
“They’ll have to plan more like they had to last year with Hanging Lake,” Fitzwilliams said.
The goal is to accommodate visitors without overwhelming Maroon Creek Road or compromising safety, he said.
One problem with trying to run the buses to Maroon Lake is that social-distancing requirements would prohibit packing in passengers. RFTA’s current policy is to limit passengers to nine to 15 per bus.
“It can be done safely but I don’t think it can be done economically,” Fitzwilliams said of the special Maroon Bells service.
Another challenge for RFTA would be devoting resources to the special service.
“Normally, RFTA would be able to ramp up fairly rapidly to provide the Maroon Bells service,” said Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s CEO, in an email. “However, with 30 to 40 bus operators out currently because they are in the ‘high-risk’ category for more severe health consequences if they contract COVID-19, or out on vacations or for other reasons, we are a bit more limited in our ability to add service without potentially recruiting more bus operators for summer.”
Developed facilities on the national forest, such as the bathrooms at Maroon Bells, are currently closed by order of the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service until June 1. Fitzwilliams said individual forests are being given leeway to open facilities sooner as long as it can be done with social distancing.
“Ninety-eight percent of the forest is still as open as it ever was,” Fitzwilliams said.
People are jumping at the chance to use lower-level trails and terrain during the stay-at-home order and limits on travel for recreation. Upper elevation trails and facilities such as campgrounds would be closed at this time of year anyway because of snow cover, he noted. Some campgrounds traditionally open around Memorial Day Weekend, which is May 25 this year. Fitzwilliams said the timing of openings is yet to be determined this year.
While campgrounds will likely be able to open at full capacity, since spaces are more than 6 feet apart, the Forest Service is debating how it wants to handle access to restrooms. It must weigh allowing heavy use and possible spread of germs against the danger of spreading human waste in the environment.
Details will be released in coming weeks.
“A lot of this is in motion,” Fitzwilliams said of the planning.
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Nearly 100 locally-owned businesses negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have been awarded grants from a pool of $1.2 million in relief funds from Pitkin County.