Signs designed to inspire awe on Independence Pass

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Karin Teague, second from left, the executive director of Independence Pass Foundation, uses a new peak locator sign to orient her group Wednesday in the landscape around the summit of the pass.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Tens of thousands of visitors to the summit of Independence Pass will see something different for the rest of the summer and into the future.

It won’t replace the view of the magnificent Elk Mountains, but it will complement it.

The Independence Pass Foundation placed four interpretative signs at the summit. Three signs teach about the environment and history of the pass. They are clustered in the parking lot at the summit. The fourth sign — a “peak locator” — was placed upslope at an observation area that offers 360-degree views of the surrounding Elk Mountains.

The project was the last hurrah by Mark Fuller, who stepped down as executive director of the Aspen-based nonprofit earlier this year after nearly 20 years at the helm.

“This project has been in the works so long, I don’t know where it started,” Fuller told a small crowd assembled at the summit Wednesday for the unveiling of the signs.

There were some old, battered interpretative signs once upon a time at the summit. They were removed in the 1990s, he said.

It might be easy to write off signs as no big deal, but Fuller knows better. It was important to him to get them replaced, he said, because the throngs of people visiting the summit have “a thirst for information.” They are a quasi-captive audience for the Independence Pass Foundation, an Aspen-based organization with a mission to preserve the special environment of the pass and educate about its wonders.

On a pleasant summer Wednesday afternoon this week, the parking lot remained full as different vehicles shuffled in and out. Most people stayed to the paved paths that lead from the parking lot. A handful of the more adventurous were attracted to the steep hiking paths that crawl up slopes on the north and south sides of the pass.

The signs are packed with information, but it’s in a way that doesn’t overwhelm a reader. There are lots of pictures, maps and small boxes of text. One is titled “The Environment of Independence Pass.” It features the flora and fauna of the pass plus its many recreational pursuits. It educates readers about designated wilderness and why it is important for the preservation of unspoiled lands.

Another sign educates about the Continental Divide and water diversions.

For history buffs, there is a sign titled “Early Travel Over the Pass.” It features historical photos showing the original road, travel by horse and buggy, early cars and modern snowplowing.

Perhaps the gem of the collection is the “Peak and Attribute Locator” sign. It duplicates the prominent view to the east with a picture that shows the locations and names of major peaks as well as where Leadville, Twin Lakes and Buena Vista are located.

Fuller collected most of the material for the signs. Julie Kolar worked on the design. They collaborated with officials from the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District and Leadville Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service on the content and appearance.

Fuller said the goal is to inspire some of the tens of thousands of visitors to the pass summit to get involved in environmental protection.

The signs are attention-grabbers. A mom and daughter looked at the “The Environment of Independence Pass,” examined a picture of a yellow-bellied marmot and tried to judge if that was the animal they had recently seen. They decided what they saw was smaller.

Andrew and Brenda Barfield of Steamboat Springs had two young children in tow who weren’t quite ready to absorb the interpretative signs. But the Barfields said they liked the “Peak and Attribute Locator” sign as a way to orient themselves in the surrounding mountains.

Karin Teague, Fuller’s successor as executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, said the next project will be sprucing up the area around the winter closure gate roughly 5 miles east of Aspen. The plan was scaled back after concerns were raised about the original plan, which included a kiosk.

“We did hear from some members of the public about doing things that were too formal,” she said. “It’s not a National Park — we don’t want it to feel like that.”

Nevertheless, the area is “kind of an aesthetic mess,” Teague said. Sometime after Labor Day, a berm will be expanded to shield a dumping site for the Colorado Department of Transportation.