No happy campers in Aspen-area developed campgrounds this Memorial Day Weekend
Memorial Day Weekend usually means bustling campgrounds in the forests around Aspen, boaters hitting the Ruedi water and tourists exploring the Grottos on Independence Pass.
None of that will happen this year.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest is working on a plan to open campgrounds and other developed facilities as quickly as possible in June.
Typically the lower elevation campgrounds are open in time for the Memorial Day Weekend crowds. The biggest campgrounds include Chapman in the Upper Fryingpan Valley, Difficult east of Aspen and Bogan Flats near Marble. But they aren’t opened yet as the U.S. Forest Service works with its concessionaire, White River Recreation, on safety protocols during the COVID-19 crisis, said Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the ranger district.
Several smaller campgrounds also remain closed.
“It is our hope that those campgrounds could open by June 12,” she said Wednesday.
Camping isn’t the issue. The spaces provide proper social distancing without alterations, assuming people follow health advisories not to congregate in groups. The bigger problem is determining how to use and clean bathrooms during a pandemic.
“We’re working to make sure we can keep campgrounds safe both for campers and the concessionaire’s employees,” said David Boyd, public information officer for the White River National Forest.
Dispersed camping in sites outside of official campgrounds is allowed. In addition, the White River National Forest lifted its fire restrictions Wednesday in the Aspen-Sopris, Eagle-Holy Cross, Blanco and Rifle ranger districts. The fire restrictions remain in place in the Dillon Ranger District.
Camping in the backcountry has proven popular because of the dry spring, retreating snowpack and pent-up energy from Colorado residents who have been homebound.
“If the last two weekends are any indication, this weekend is going to be busy,” Grail said.
And while the campers may have been happy, not all of them have been law abiding. There has been more trash than usual left at dispersed sites and locks to some gates on Forest Service roads have been cut to gain vehicular access.
“It’s been extremely frustrating,” she said.
One problem area with gatecrashers was on Red Table Mountain, she said. The Forest Service also received five reports of uncovered squatters’ camps in one day, according to Grail.
In addition to squatters, anecdotal evidence indicates campers are coming from outside the Roaring Fork Valley. The state is urging people not to venture past 10 miles to recreate. That doesn’t appear to be working.
“We’re definitely seeing people from across the state,” Grail said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife started opening state parks and campgrounds May 12.
The Forest Service closures affect facilities beyond campgrounds as the unofficial start to summer rolls closer. The opening of the public boat ramp at Ruedi Reservoir was delayed until June 1. The opening will include inspections for invasive species of mussels. The popular campgrounds near the boat ramp won’t open until later in June. Smaller craft have gained access at other points.
Maroon Creek Road, which provides access to campgrounds and the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, will remain closed for Memorial Day Weekend.
“People are definitely taking advantage of the closed road,” Grail said, referring to bicyclists and hikers.
Independence Pass remains on schedule to open June 1 and that will provide access to areas such as the Grottos day-use area. The bathrooms will remain closed until protocol is determined. A timetable for opening Lincoln Creek Road, which provides access to campgrounds and dispersed camping, remains to be set.
Reservations at the Conundrum Hot Springs, a popular backcountry destination, haven’t been accepted since mid-April. However, existing permits are being honored and people are allowed to hike and camp to the hot springs, Grail said.
Work on a reservation system for the Four Pass Loop has been placed on hold.
Despite the closure of developed sites, the vast majority of national forest lands around the Roaring Fork Valley remain open. That includes numerous trails. People need to practice the Leave No Trace principles and pack out what they bring in.
They also must use common sense to avoid congregating. If a trailhead has lots of people, avoid it by waiting or finding an alternative route, Forest Service officials advised.
The Forest Service is urging campers to be extremely careful with campfires in dispersed sites. Conditions are dry because of so little precipitation since mid-April and low soil moisture. The Forest Service has seen evidence of multiple abandoned campfires at dispersed sites, Boyd said.
For people who prefer camping at developed sites, he urged patience for a while longer.
“We will work to get open what we can when we can after June 1,” Boyd said.
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