RFTA board: Are too many people visiting Maroon Bells?

Visitors to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area prepare to board a RFTA bus with “Maroon Bells” displayed in the bus destination marquee. Riding the bus supports sustainable transportation to the Maroon Bells and can help visitors avoid road closures due to overcrowding.
White River National Forest/courtesy photo

A trial reservation system for buses to the Maroon Bells was heartily endorsed by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board of directors Thursday as a way to ease industrial tourism affecting the scenic area.

RFTA and partners are devising a system that will require visitors to reserve a seat on a bus during September and October, when numbers swell for leaf-peeping season. The goal is to redirect some of the visitation from peak times on weekends to less busier times on weekdays.

“I think this is the greatest thing you could possibly propose,” RFTA board member and Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said. “If you’re going to go to Europe and you want to see the Mona Lisa, you just don’t show up at the damn door.”

RFTA, Pitkin County, city of Aspen, the U.S. Forest Service and Aspen Chamber Resort Association are working with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center to developing a bus reservation system for the Maroon Bells Scenic Area that would be patterned after a successful system implemented last summer for Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon.

Only a trial for September and October is being eyed for 2020. If it works this year, it could be expanded to cover the entire summer in future years, according to Brian Pettet, Pitkin County’s public workers director.

A maximum of eight buses per hour would serve the Maroon Bells on weekends and a maximum of five per hour on weekdays during September and October. However, the number of buses could be even lower as the committee fleshes out the plan.

RFTA board member and Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman urged the committee to set the frequency below the maximums.

“We can’t continue to accommodate all the people that want to see the Bells on any particular day,” Newman said.

He noted that the trail between Maroon Lake and Crater Lake is traveled by up to 1,300 people per day at peak times. The trail crosses into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, but numbers like that don’t provide a wilderness experience, Newman said.

While the goal is to spread the visitation and not necessarily prevent visitation, it could result in fewer overall visitors. Currently during leaf-peeping time, people drive up Maroon Creek Road and park early in the morning before they are required to take the buses starting at 8 a.m.

The revamped system would start bus service at 5:30 a.m. on peak days, so that would reduce the number of people arriving in private vehicles.

In addition, RFTA regularly operated nine and 10 buses on weekends last September and October. The maximum number of buses was 12 per hour on Sept. 28, when a record 3,480 passengers were hauled one-way.

Under the proposed reservation system, the maximum number of passengers per day would be 3,000 on weekends and 1,500 per weekday. Those numbers could be lower depending on the committee’s decision on bus frequency.

At the least, that will result in few visitors at one time. It could possibly reduce the overall visitation, even if that isn’t a specific goal.

“Hopefully we wouldn’t be turning away too many people,” said Ben Rasmussen, a public planner with the Volpe Center.

Several RFTA board members welcomed the notion of reducing the overall number of visitors. Newman said the visitation level raises concerns about the quality of the experience and raises safety concerns. He said the introduction of e-bicycles has increased bike traffic on Maroon Creek Road.

“It’s beyond maxed up there,” agreed RFTA board member and Aspen Councilman Ward Hauenstein.

He said a limit on visitors might be needed in addition to the reservation system.

RFTA board member and Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler said she volunteers at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area and has witnessed the hordes hitting the trails at Maroon Lake at peak times.

“It’s disgusting,” she said. She later added, “They’re stepping over one another. They’re stepping on that priceless, priceless ecosystem.”

Rasmussen said the U.S. Forest Service has taken the position that the facilities at Maroon Bells Scenic Area have been constructed to handle the current levels of visitors.

The designated scenic area is one of the few places where the Forest Service can charge visitors a fee, which is administered through the $8 bus ticket. A portion of the proceeds are shared the White River National Forest. White River officials have said those revenues are vital to staffing, operating and maintaining facilities at Maroon Lake.

Given that the White River’s regular budget keeps shrinking, the agency has little incentive to cap visitors, thus revenues, at Maroon Bells Scenic Area.

The RFTA board endorsed the trial reservation system for this fall, with a strong suggestion that it be expanded to the entire summer in future years.

Pettet said the online reservation system through the ACRA could be in place by May or June.


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