Camping limits plan cleared at Conundrum Hot Springs, other wilderness near Aspen

Conundrum Hot Springs are a popular hiking destination near Aspen. It is a 8.5-mile hike from the trail ahead to the springs, which sit at 11,222 feet.
David Krause/The Aspen Times |

The White River National Forest will start implementing a system to limit backpackers in heavily visited hot spots of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness after the final hurdles were cleared, officials announced Wednesday.

The regional office of the U.S. Forest Service ruled Tuesday on two citizen objections to the proposed Wilderness Overnight Use Management Plan. Minor clarifications were required on three points that addressed how backpackers would be limited and at what numbers. With those clarifications, the regional office gave its blessing to implement the plan.

Officials in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District said the limits are needed to protect the ecosystem at some of the most popular spots in the wilderness area — Conundrum Hot Springs, the Four Pass Loop and Capitol Lake. There’s been an explosion of visits to those areas.

“The plan has been years in the making, beginning with decades of documentation of environmental impacts, along with countless years of data collection, and community involvement,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said. “We have finally arrived at a decision that will protect this beloved wilderness area while ensuring recreational opportunities into the future.”

The first phase will be creating a reservation system for a limited-entry overnight permit in the Conundrum Hot Springs zone.

“We are implementing this in phases to make sure we get it right,” Schroyer said. “We will be learning as we go, making adjustments as needed through the adaptive management strategy. Conundrum is absolutely our top priority for this coming 2018 season.”

Limits on lower Conundrum Valley will be implemented separately.

The next phase will be limiting backpackers at one time on the popular Four Pass Loop. The third phase will be limits for overnight visitation at Capitol Lake. A timeline hasn’t been established for the two later phases.

Wilderness Workshop, a Roaring Fork Valley-based environmental group, supported the plan, though it filed an objection to seek clarification on how it would get implemented. The objection was dropped after the Forest Service agreed to clarifying language in the plan.

Conservation director Will Roush said the organization supports the outcome.

“The Forest Service’s new plan addresses a serious problem of overuse and ecological damage in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness,” he said in a statement. “It’s been a long time coming. The adaptive nature and geographic specificity of the plan strike the right balance between stopping damage to the ecosystem and allowing visitors to continue to enjoy one of the state’s most spectacular wilderness areas.”

Permits for camping in Conundrum Valley will be required year-round. Campers will need to obtain their permits prior to their trip at Details on how to obtain a permit will be available in early 2018.

Schroyer said the reservation system at Conundrum Hot Springs should ease the overcrowding that occurs and restore more natural conditions, but there will still be plenty of opportunities to visit the area. The plan calls for utilization of 20 sites near the hot springs.

“Most of the negative impacts we’ve seen have come from too many people staying in a site that can’t accommodate them all and all the overflow camping surrounding the hot springs,” she said. “We believe the sites are appropriately located to minimize impacts and now each of those sites will have a limited capacity.”

The Forest Service still must determine how many people will be allowed per site. Schroyer said it will likely be between three and five campers. Some spots will be limited to two. Late arrivals won’t be able to crash wherever they find room, she said.

The way the plan is written, the Forest Service can make adjustments without reopening a time-consuming review process.

“If we’re not seeing a notable improvement on the ground, we have the ability to respond by moving site locations, closing sites and adjusting group size limits per site,” she said.

This plan will be the first reservation system for wilderness sites in the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest. The 181,535-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is heavily visited because of its stunning natural wonders, ranging from the Maroon Bells and surrounding peaks to the icy blue waters of Snowmass Lake on the Four Pass Loop.

Forest Service records show that 71 percent of overnight visitors to the wilderness area are from Colorado, with 53 percent coming from the Front Range. The White River will launch a comprehensive outreach campaign with partners starting early next year to inform the public about the new reservation system.

Forest Service officials said implementation of the plan and stewardship of the affected areas will require extra funds. The agency will likely seek a fee through the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act to generate the funds. A separate public review process is required for any new or increased fee under the act.