Reservation system makes last leg of journey toughest for Maroon Bells hikers

Two backpackers arrive in the Maroon Lake area after a trip in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
Aspen Times file

Hikers making the trip to Maroon Lake from Crested Butte and backpackers completing the Four Pass Loop are finding the last leg of their journey tougher than expected.

The weary travelers are discovering they cannot call a taxi to come pick them up and they aren’t assured a seat on a bus departing from Maroon Lake to Aspen.

The U.S. Forest Service along with partners Pitkin County, Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Roaring Fork Transportation Authority installed an emergency reservation system this summer in response to the coronavirus crisis. Bus seats have to be reserved in advance; a limited number of parking spaces are available by reservation for private vehicles.

RFTA is running buses at about one-third capacity. Each shuttle is limited to 15 passengers. That creates about 435 openings per day. Nearly all the passengers catching a bus up need a ride back down.

That’s where the glitch comes in. Hordes of hikers make the trip between Crested Butte and Aspen each summer over West Maroon Pass. Hiking from Crested Butte and catching a bus at Maroon Lake is a time-honored ritual. However, with the limited number of buses and limited seats on those buses, there is an overflow problem this summer. The issue came to a head the weekend of Aug. 8.

“There were about 200 additional riders,” said Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner. “(RFTA) anticipated it. They knew more people were going to ride down.”

RFTA officials saw the trend unfolding earlier in the summer. Officials were able to eventually accommodate all riders, but the scenario has led to adjustments.

“They can’t accommodate 200-plus (extra) riders,” Warner said.

The Forest Service implemented a new rule Aug. 5 to try to ease the problem. It prohibited taxis and other commercial operators to drop off or pick up passengers at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. That was designed to curb the number of people looking for a ride down without a reservation.

The Forest Service made a special allowance for people hiking from Maroon Lake to Crested Butte but not returning. Personal vehicles are allowed to drop off those hikers at Maroon Lake prior to 8 a.m. each day. There is a $10 fee for the vehicle.

“This has been a challenging year. A really challenging year,” says an alert posted at the scenic area. “The MBSA reservation system has required adaptations, changes and adjustments. We recognize how challenging and frustrating that can be.”

No drop-off or pick-up via private vehicle is being allowed for backpackers on the Four Pass Loop.

“They should be getting a (bus) reservation just like everyone else,” Warner said.

The bus seats are a hot commodity and very few reservations remain there for the picking. Warner acknowledged that creates a hardship for people who planned the backpacking trip for months but were unaware of the increased travel restrictions.

“I fully realize it’s frustrating for some people,” he said. “Our visitor information people are absolutely swamped with this.”

He advised hikers and backpackers to get to Maroon Lake as early in the day as possible, preferably in the morning when more seats are generally available on buses returning to Aspen Highlands.

Another option, he suggested, is finding an alternative scenic hike outside of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.

RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship acknowledged the glitch in an update to the organization’s board of directors on Aug. 13. He said RFTA would consider giving passengers with reservations a temporary bracelet that would give them priority on the return buses.

Hikers and backpackers are managing to hit the trails despite the transportation challenges. Hiking to Crested Butte has been as busy as ever, according to trekkers.

“We’re still seeing a lot of use on the Four Pass Loop,” Warner said.

It’s too premature to tell if the reservation system will carry over to next summer. There are too many unknowns, such as how prevalent COVID-19 will be next year, Warner said.