Maroon Bells visits have nearly doubled in five years, face snowy start this year
MAROON BELLS BUS RIDERS
The number of passengers riding the buses to and from the Maroon Bells Scenic Area has increased each of the past five years, according to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
There has been a surge in the number of visitors to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area over the past five years. It’s uncertain if a snow-clogged Maroon Creek Road and snowbound trails to start the summer will slow the stampede this year.
Maroon Creek Valley has been buried in snow and debris from numerous avalanches this winter. Pitkin County public works officials say it is unlikely they will be able to open the road by the typical target date of May 15. U.S. Forest Service officials said they won’t be able to assess damage to facilities until there is access and some of the snow melts.
At this point it looks like the hiking season will be delayed because of a snowpack that is about 135 percent of average in the Aspen area.
While snowy conditions might discourage early visitation, the crowds don’t really start rolling in until later in the summer and into leaf-peeping season, noted Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
“I don’t think it will (have a big impact) because we see such high visitation in fall,” Grail said.
The growth in visitors to the Maroon Lake area has mirrored surges around the country at national parks and other public lands.
The Forest Service estimates there are about 320,000 annual visits to the Maroon Lake area. However, the only “exact” figures are those kept by Roaring Fork Transportation Authority on passengers riding the buses to the Bells, Grail said.
In 2014, RFTA hauled 123,128 passengers on the Maroon Bells route. (Those are for one-way trips, up and down.) Ridership surged to 174,202 the following year and climbed further to 199,768 in 2016.
In 2017, RFTA tallied 215,562 passengers. That grew another 13 percent last year to 243,165.
Over the five-year period, ridership nearly doubled. The bus numbers tell a large part but not all the story. Private vehicles are allowed before and after a welcome station is open. In addition, there are thousands of cyclists that grunt their way to the lake.
Last year exemplified Grail’s point that visitation progresses over the summer. There were about 36,000 passengers on the Bells buses in June, 54,500 in Jul,; 61,000 in August and almost 82,000 in September.
Officials with the Forest Service, Pitkin County, city of Aspen, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and other partners will meet next week to plan for the summer at the scenic area.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District has a six-person wilderness crew and six-person trails crew in place for the summer, Grail said. They just need some of the snow to melt before they can get to work. The wilderness crew probably won’t be able to work at higher elevations until later in the summer, so it will help clear lower trails at first, Grail said.
One of the highest priorities for the trails crew will be clearing standing snags on Basalt Mountain, parts of which were ravaged by the Lake Christine Fire last summer, Grail said.
It’s anticipated there will be an abundance of work clearing deadfall throughout trails in the district. The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association will hire a dedicated trail crew for a second summer to coordinate chores with the Forest Service.
Grail said the Forest Service will welcome reports from the public on trail conditions once hiking and biking season starts.
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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.