Record 320,500 visitors surge to Aspen’s Maroon Bells | AspenTimes.com

Record 320,500 visitors surge to Aspen’s Maroon Bells

The number of visitors at Maroon Lake and the surrounding area surged by about 12 percent from last year to a record of 320,500 this summer, the U.S. Forest Service estimates.

"It has gotten busier and busier over the last few years," said Shelly Grail, recreation staff manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

Last summer, the Maroon Bells Scenic Area saw an estimated 285,000 visitors.

The busiest month was September when leaf-peepers flocked to see the iconic view of Maroon Lake with the snow-capped Maroon Bells in the background.

September weekends were particularly taxing. Parking spaces were filled before the welcome station was staffed at 7 a.m. on lower Maroon Creek Road. Buses operated by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority were stuffed to the tune of 65,186 riders. Extra employees were called in by the Forest Service to handle the hordes.

One of the ironies is the East Maroon Trail can be nearly empty while the crowds are at the lake, though they are separated by only a few miles.

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"People have tunnel vision. They really want to see the Maroon Bells," Grail said.

The record visitation didn't cause any problems. Grail said the facilities at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area were built to handle those types of numbers.

The Maroon Bells Scenic Area is the gateway to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, which starts at Crater Lake. The Forest Service is working on a reservation system for overnight visits in parts of the wilderness. However, no caps are contemplated on visits to Maroon Lake and the terrain close the parking lots, bathrooms and other facilities, Grail said.

The Forest Service has implemented procedures to limit damage to the Maroon Lake environment. Rangers and volunteers urge people to stay on designated trails. Traffic by personal vehicle is restricted between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend in May into October. The buses ran from June 10 through Oct. 1. On the last day of service, a particularly busy Sunday, RFTA calculated that 4,763 people rode the buses, according to statistics supplied by the Forest Service.

The estimate of total bus ridership to Maroon Lake was 215,562, according to the Forest Service. Approximately 93,000 people visited by private vehicle, the agency said. Roughly 12,000 cyclists made the climb.

Although the Forest Service started eliminating weddings on Fridays and Saturdays, the amphitheater still hosted 77 nuptials on other days

"Next summer is almost entirely booked," Grail said.

The numbers don't reflect visitors between the opening of the road in spring and when the welcome center is staffed on Memorial Day weekend. The road also stays open in October after shuttle service and the welcome center services end for the season.

Grail said there also are people who sneak by between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. "We ask people to self-pay but we know not everyone does," she said.

Despite the record visits, wildlife encounters dropped this season. There were fewer trail closures to separate gawkers from moose. Moose were spotted near the lake early in the season, then they tended to hang between T-Lazy-7 Ranch and the welcome center, Grail said. It is unknown if the presence of so many people has finally forced the animals to seek solitude.

Human encounters with bears also dropped in the scenic area.

The rise in visitors brought an increase in revenue, but those figures aren't available yet.

scondon@aspentimes.com