What did Aspen residents and visitors do during the pandemic summer? Hit the trails en masse
Forest Service, open space enforcement actions also increased
Anybody who ventured outside last summer suspected that Roaring Fork Valley residents and visitors were hitting the great outdoors in record numbers. New data support the theory.
The Smuggler Mountain Road platform overlooking Aspen had nearly 26,000 more visitors in 2020 than in 2019 for an increase of 26%, according to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.
Use of the Viewline Trail in Sky Mountain Park nearly doubled. The Glassier Trail in the midvalley saw a 64% spike.
Meanwhile, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest reported 915 “incidents” with people or their impacts in designated wilderness in the national forest last year — 314 more than in 2019.
“The summer field season is always busy and hectic to some degree. However, 2020 was particularly challenging, ” said the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District’s 2020 Wilderness Program Report, which used a subhead of, “A Chaotic Year.”
The COVID-19 pandemic likely was the cause for increased visitation, the report said. However, snow melted off terrain and trails much earlier in spring 2020 than the prior snow-choked year, so people were able to hit the trails earlier in 2020.
Anecdotally, more people were visiting trails that typically experience a mellower summer, said Shelly Grail, recreation program manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. Limited access to two of the most popular destinations in the forest factored into the increased use.
In an effort to socially distance visitors to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, a reservation system was required for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority shuttles, and vehicle use was strictly regulated. Fewer visitors at Maroon Lake meant more people using other trails.
The closure of the immensely popular Hanging Lake in August because of the Grizzly Creek Fire also forced forest users to seek options.
While the number of wilderness rangers in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District decreased to four last year from five in 2019, the number of contacts with people increased to 6,145 from 4,391.
In fairness, wilderness rangers spent a good deal of summer 2019 clearing trees and debris from a prolific avalanche cycle the prior winter. Therefore, they had less opportunity to make contact with people. Nevertheless, the number of contacts in 2020 was above the 12-year average of 5,963, the wilderness program report said.
More people meant more impacts to deal with. The number of tickets or warnings for dogs off leash soared to 146 last summer from 55 the year before. There were 94 violations of food storage rules compared with 46 the summer before. The rules are meant to keep backpackers safe by requiring food and trash to be kept in a bear-proof container. There were 389 cases of people not properly acquiring a required registration in 2020, for an overnight trip, for example. That was up from 18 cases in 2019.
Some areas showed improvement. Wilderness rangers encountered 82 cases of human waste that needed proper burial in 2020, down from 111 the year before. (Placing rocks on top of waste and toilet paper doesn’t quality as proper treatment, the report noted.) The number of illegal fire rings fell to 160 from 216.
The rangers also hauled out less trash from wilderness, but that was attributed to a new data collection system rather than people cleaning up their acts.
The trend for increased visitation appears to be continuing this winter.
“All the places that are quote-unquote busy places are even more so this winter,” Grail said.
Use of the Pitkin County Open Space program trails soared during Aspen’s pandemic-plagued 2020. Here are some numbers:
Smuggler platform: 98,520 in 2019 compared with 124,481 in 2020
Viewline (Sky Mtn Park): 8,481 in 2019 compared with 17,805 in 2020
Glassier Trail (midvalley): 11,004 in 2019, compared with 18,012 in 2020
Source: Pitkin County Open Space and Trails
The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program uses trail counters and cameras to gauge activity at certain sites. One of the popular trails at Sky Mountain Park, Viewline, saw an increase from 8,481 users during the months it was open in 2019 to 17,805 users over the same period in 2020. That is an increase of 9,324 or 109%.
The use of the Glassier Trail soared from 11,004 to 18,012, an increase of 7,008 users or 64%.
Both Viewline and Glassier were open from May 16 through Nov. 30 both years.
Counters show the Smuggler platform went from immensely popular to overwhelmingly popular. There were 124,481 users in 2020 compared with 98,520 for 2019. That’s a gain of 25,961 or 26%.
Increased use meant a busy year for open space rangers. The number of written warnings for violations of open space rules increased to 119 from 19 and verbal warnings increased to 210 from 147. Meanwhile, “penalty assessments” increased to 73 from 32.
Ranger supervisor Rick Norman said the top enforcement contacts were likely dogs in a closed area and pulling onto a beach in a float-through-only area at North Star Nature Preserve; dogs off leash at Hunter Creek; and dogs off leash on the upper Rio Grande Trail.
Increased use inevitably means more wear and tear on dirt surfaces on open space and national forest.
“The trails need some love,” said Gary Tennenbaum, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. The program plans to increase maintenance in 2021 to address braided trails, where people strayed off the designated route, and to “try to make singletrack single again,” he said.
The boost in maintenance will be partially addressed through a volunteer stewardship program. Pitkin County teamed with Basalt-based Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers to secure a $90,825 grant in November from Great Outdoors Colorado to address trail maintenance and habitat restoration.
“Through a collaborative effort, Pitkin County will use GOCO funds to help expand an RFOV program to address backlogged stewardship projects and the impacts of increased land use since the onset of COVID-19,” GOCO said in a news release.
RFOV will use funds to hire additional staff — a seasonal field coordinator and a part-time crew leader. Projects on open space lands will get priority among new projects in 2021.
Grail said the Forest Service doesn’t have much flexibility to shift funding to respond to increased visitation in some places. It hasn’t been determined yet how many rangers will be hired for the wilderness program. With luck, the agency will be able to utilize volunteers again to patrol trails, answer visitor questions and provide helping hands at high-use areas such as Maroon Lake. The program was suspended last summer because of COVID-19 restrictions.
While vaccinations might broaden travel plans and open up more options for people next summer, it’s probably a safe bet that trail use on the national forest and county open space will continue at a blistering pace.
“All signs are indicating we’ll have a busy summer in 2021,” Grail said.
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