Virus threat raises questions about summer at Maroon Bells, other forest facilities |

Virus threat raises questions about summer at Maroon Bells, other forest facilities

Hikers make their way toward the Maroon Bells during the summer.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

The coronavirus crisis is creating uncertainty over if and when developed facilities in the national forest such as those at Maroon Lake will open this summer.

The Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service issued a temporary closure order Tuesday for developed recreation sites throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas. The order is in effect until May 31 and can be rescinded earlier. However, it could also be extended depending on the status of the pandemic.

“Developed recreation sites are temporarily closed while dispersed camping, hiking and river uses are allowed, although discouraged,” said a news release from the Rocky Mountain Region. “Closed developed recreation sites include campgrounds, day-use areas, picnic areas, and any other constructed facility amenities — such as potable water stations, fire rings/grills, picnic tables, restroom facilities with flush or vaulted toilets, and trashcans and trash collection services.”

Trails, trailheads and parking facilities remain open.

“Developed recreation sites are temporarily closed while dispersed camping, hiking and river uses are allowed, although discouraged.” Forest Service order

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Wednesday his staff is running through multiple scenarios of how the coronavirus crisis could affect facilities. They are examining “when, if and how” they can open, he said.

A lot will depend on national and statewide guidelines on social distancing and gatherings.

“We have to react to that,” Fitzwilliams said.

The “million dollar question” is when prohibitions on gatherings will be eased or lifted, he added.

The answer could have million-dollar impacts on the Aspen-area economy. There is a little bit of leeway in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District because many facilities don’t open until late May or June anyway because of snow.

The big draws in the national forest surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley are Maroon Lake southwest of Aspen and Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon. People can currently ski or hike to Maroon Lake, but in the summertime most visitors must take a bus or ride a bicycle. Visits by private vehicles are heavily restricted.

Pitkin County public works officials plan to delay the opening of Maroon Creek Road to vehicles from May 15 to as late as May 30, Brian Pettet, public works director, said Wednesday. The delayed closure coincides with the Forest Service’s decision.

If Forest Service officials open the area earlier than May 30, they will alert county officials, who will maintain the road and open it when the Forest Service is ready, Pettet said.

In the meantime, Maroon Creek Road will remain open to foot, bike and other non-motorized traffic.

It’s too soon to speculate on how guidelines will affect the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, Fitzwilliams said.

The Forest Service temporarily quit issuing the necessary permits to visit Hanging Lake last month due to the health crisis.

The regional, temporary closure order will affect facilities such as the Grottos day-use area east of Aspen Most high-altitude campgrounds aren’t scheduled to open until June.

Currently on the reservation website used for national forest facilities, reservations are not accepted for campsites at the popular Conundrum Hot Springs or for the amphitheater at Maroon Lake, which is a popular site for weddings.

“This location is not accepting new permit reservations until further notice,” the website says. “Local managers are committed to the health and safety of recreational visitors and our staff. We are following guidelines from our agency and the CDC regarding COVID-19, closely monitoring the situation and responding to current conditions. Please continue to monitor this page for status updates.”

It is still possible to reserve campsites after June 1 at popular campgrounds in the region such as Chapman, Difficult and Bogan Flats. Refunds will be issued if camping is not allowed, according to the website. Dispersed camping in areas outside of established campgrounds are not affected by the order.

Fitzwilliams said forest visitors will have to be patient and see how conditions evolve. The big challenge for the agency is determining how many seasonal workers it can hire. Social distancing isn’t a problem for seasonal wilderness rangers and trails crew workers. They generally like isolation, Fitzwilliams said.

The challenge is housing them when they aren’t in the field. The Forest Service provides housing for many of its seasonal workers at a bunkhouse in Aspen. That housing wouldn’t meet social distancing requirements, he noted.

Seasonal workers typically start work at the end of May.

Also on Tuesday, Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien signed an order to implement fire restrictions within the region. While the high country still has ample snowpack, the Forest Service wanted to act now to eliminate the risk of fires later in the season, Fitzwilliams said. Most fire on national forest are human caused. Establishing large fire camps for firefighters could be hazardous in the middle of a pandemic.

“Let’s eliminate fires now,” he said.

This is the second straight year that unforeseen, natural conditions hampered the opening of forest facilities at the start of summer. Last year, some roads and trails opened late because of the volume of avalanche debris from an unprecedented amount and magnitude of slides in March.

Aspen Times reporter Jason Auslander contributed to this report.