More cars for Maroon Creek?

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Leigh Vogel/The Aspen Times

A proposed management change by the U.S. Forest Service has the potential to increase traffic and decrease safety for cyclists this summer on popular Maroon Creek Road, according to Aspen cycling enthusiasts.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District announced this week that it would ease restrictions on vehicles traveling to a wide spot in the road called the Stein Meadow Overlook. In past years, every vehicle that passed the entrance gate was charged the fee. Drivers to the Stein Meadow Overlook won’t be charged the fee, increasing the likelihood of traffic.

Private vehicles are restricted between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. from June 15 to the end of August. Motorists are turned around at the Forest Service entrance station 5.5 miles up Maroon Creek Road and directed back to Aspen Highlands, where bus service is available. The management change has the potential to increase traffic in the first half of June, in September and throughout the summer before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District says the change is necessary to comply with the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. Congress passed the act to allow the Forest Service to charge a fee for access to special recreation areas. Specific conditions must be met, such as providing picnic areas, camping, bathrooms or interpretative centers.

Most of the Forest Service’s developed areas fit those criteria in the Maroon Creek Valley. The Stein Meadow Overlook is the exception. There is only a small parking area there with a 15-minute restriction.

The Forest Service is facing increased pressure from groups opposed to fees to use public lands. Litigation has forced changes at four of 96 High Impact Recreational Areas in the country, where a fee is charged, according to the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, of Durango. The Forest Service is tightening its application of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act throughout the West as a result.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District unveiled the Stein Meadow exception Tuesday. A statement said drivers would be asked where they are going. Those who say they are headed to the Stein Meadow Overlook won’t be charged the $10. However, Forest Service officials acknowledge that enforcement will be costly and difficult. The agency will have to devote staff to check if the passengers in vehicles destined for the Stein Meadow Overlook continued to Maroon Lake for a picnic or hike. As a result, the change could result in more traffic along the entire length of the 10-mile road when private vehicles aren’t banned.

When informed about the changes, road cyclists in Aspen said the Forest Service should reconsider its direction. Charlie Tarver, owner of the Hub of Aspen bicycle shop, said adding traffic to Maroon Creek Road will have a detrimental effect on the environment as well as make conditions less safe for cyclists.

The Forest Service, Pitkin County and the predecessor to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority teamed to restrict travel by private vehicles in the Maroon Creek Valley 35 years ago. Bus service began because unregulated travel was resulting in too many visitors and too much damage to the environment.

“It was ruining it,” Tarver said of the exhaust from vehicles. “You could smell it.”

The combination of a $10 fee for private vehicles and bus service every 20 minutes during days in the heart of the summer has drastically reduced traffic on the road. As a result, Maroon Creek Road is a popular destination for serious road bikers from Aspen and visitors out for a mellow ride.

“It doesn’t matter to Johnny Racer to have a car whizzing by 4 feet away at 40 miles per hour,” Tarver said. But for most casual cyclists, riding with traffic is unnerving. That’s why Maroon Creek Road holds so much appeal.

“It’s the one place people could ride their bikes and not worry about traffic,” Tarver said.

The Forest Service entrance station is located 5.5 miles southwest of the Highway 82 roundabout on Maroon Creek Road. The Stein Meadow Overlook is about seven miles up the road. The Maroon Lake parking lot is 10 miles up the road.

Allowing drivers to skip the fee and drive seven miles up the road will increase the traffic significantly once motorists become familiar with the loophole, said one observer familiar with the management of the area.

“Tons of people will go all the way up,” the source said.

Safety is another concern. The small area where vehicles can pull over at Stein Meadow Overlook is on a righthand corner when traveling up the valley. Old-timers recall it as the location of a cattle guard, which was removed in the 1990s. It is a memorable location for cyclists because it’s where they get their first glimpse of the Maroon Bells while riding the road.

The small parking area is on the stream side of the road, or the southerly side. Tarver said that location is already tricky.

“I’m just remembering many wrecks up there over the years,” he said.

Adding turning traffic to the mix will add to the problems, especially for cyclists cruising downhill, he said.

Aspen cyclist Tom Hayles concurred.

“That corner, when you come into it, you’ve got to be alert,” he said.

Hayles said he would urge the Forest Service to consult with cyclists to learn more from their perspective about conditions on Maroon Creek Road, especially the corner where the Stein Meadow Overlook is located.

Adding more vehicles raises the chances of more accidents, Hayles said. He’s already wary of conditions on Maroon Creek Road. Bus drivers historically have been aggressive with cyclists, he said. Some bus drivers take offense at riders not riding to the far right of the road, he said, though he credited bus drivers with having a better attitude the past one or two years.

Maroon Creek Road always seems to have traffic despite the restrictions on private vehicles, Hayles said. There are also inexperienced cyclists who make unexpected moves without checking to see if cyclists are approaching from behind, he noted. It all adds up to a potentially dangerous mix and requires “chess moves” at speeds exceeding 35 mph. Hayles said that even though he feels comfortable on the road, he has seen and heard about a lot of crashes and close calls.

“You get chills down your spine when you see what’s happening,” Hayles said.

The Forest Service is inviting comments about the management change that will allow more traffic to visit the Stein Meadow Overlook. People with comments can contract Martha Moran at 970-963-2266, according to the Forest Service’s statement.

Tarver said Aspen environmentalists and cyclists prevailed to get restrictions put in place. It’s up to them to defend the restrictions. He said he would rally cyclists to urge the Forest Service not to allow more traffic on Maroon Creek Road.