Maroon Bells buses back on table for summer, fall
Coronavirus-related labor shortages and uncertainties about the number of visitors this season appeared set to doom the decades-old bus service for tourists to the Maroon Bells this summer and fall.
Until Tuesday, that is.
In an abrupt turnaround — various agencies were already planning to implement a parking reservation system for cars at the Bells this summer — a Pitkin County official brought welcome news to county commissioners during their regular weekly work session.
“We’ve kinda changed course,” said Brian Pettet, Pitkin County public works director.
Not only has the head of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority now said he could staff the Aspen Highlands-based bus service beginning June 8, but officials also will be able to implement a long-sought-after, online bus reservation system for the Bells, Pettet said.
“I’m gratified to hear this,” Commissioner Greg Poschman said Tuesday. “This is a step forward rather than a complete switch back to cars.”
Commissioner George Newman, a member of RFTA’s board, agreed, saying the plan saves the fragile environment the massive impact of a summer and fall of constant automobile traffic to and from the extremely popular tourist destination.
“It really is a silk lining,” he said. “We’ve been talking about a reservation system for years to make the experience better. It’s good news.”
In April and again as recently as last week, forest service officials were uncertain about the bus service for this summer.
A side effect of the proposal, however, is that the county won’t open Maroon Creek Road until June 8, when bus service begins, commissioners decided Tuesday. That’s a week after the U.S. Forest Service planned to open the Maroon Bells Recreation Area on June 1, and three weeks after the road’s normal opening date.
Kevin Warner, district ranger for the Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said Tuesday his office is still considering the June 8 opening, and may ask the county to open the road to car traffic earlier. The road is usually open to cars from May 15 to June 8 before bus service starts.
On one hand, the Forest Service doesn’t want to take away another week of the use of public lands, he said. On the other, however, is the coronavirus. Forest Service officials across the state have seen floods of people whenever a new area opens, which means some kind of plan must be in place for the Bells when the area opens, Warner said.
“We’re a little concerned about that,” he said. “People are just cooped up. They’ve been cooped up and they really want to get out.”
The Forest Service plans to make a decision in the next few days, he said.
The initial plan is to have four buses on hand each day, with a capacity of 15 people per bus, Pettet said. The buses would leave every 15 minutes from Aspen Highlands, he said.
The company that created the recently implemented reservation system for the popular Hanging Lake Trail near Glenwood Springs has said it can create a similar Maroon Bells bus reservation system in a short time, Pettet said. People would only be able to reserve bus seats online, he said, meaning that visitors who show up to Highlands without a ticket would have to use their phones to make a reservation.
The plan not only places parking at Highlands — where Bells visitors can pay to park in a parking garage — it also allows tourists to patronize businesses at the Highlands base area, he said.
Bus hours of operation are still up in the air, Pettet said after the meeting. As in previous years, they will definitely run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., though officials are working with RFTA to try and increase those hours to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., he said.
Prices — which ran $8 for adults and $6 for kids and seniors last year — have not yet been set for this year, Pettet said.
Cars are not allowed beyond the Forest Service welcome station during bus hours. Cars are allowed to park at the Maroon Bells Recreation Area before bus service starts and after it ends.
Prior to COVID-19, RFTA had been talking about increasing those bus hours even further in the fall, when leaf-peepers often pack the Bells parking lot in the pre-dawn hours to try and obtain the perfect fall colors sunrise photo. That option is still on the table for this fall, though RFTA isn’t sure yet whether it can staff those earlier hours, Pettet said.
Visitors will be schooled on social-distancing protocols during the bus ride, while the Forest Service has contracted with a company that will regularly clean the bathrooms at the Maroon Bells throughout the day, he said.
Bus service to the Maroon Bells began in 1977, when the impacts from auto pollution and inconsiderate drivers became too much, according to RFTA’s website.