Plan prepared to ease pressure on hot spots in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness |

Plan prepared to ease pressure on hot spots in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Backpackers from Virginia load up their gear in the Aspen Highlands' parking lot on Thursday before heading up to the Maroon Bells for an overnight permitted camping trip. The group has been traveling for a week, making their way west backpacking on various trails including Rocky Mountain National Park.
Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times |


Wilderness rangers have to deal with the problems generated by visitors who don’t practice Leave No Trace principles. Here are examples of what the rangers faced:

•Packed out 1,101 pounds of garbage from the wilderness area in 2014-15.

•Buried exposed human waste at 512 separate sites during the summers of 2014-15.

•Dismantled 964 illegal campfire rings in the wilderness between 2011 and 2015.

A permit system for backpackers could be in place at Conundrum Hot Springs by next summer in the first phase of the White River National Forest’s new plan to ease pressure on hot spots in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness surrounding Aspen.

If the camping limits and permit system is successfully implemented at the hot springs, the limits would next be placed along the popular Four Pass Loop in summer 2019, according to Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer. That would include limits and reservations for sites such as Crater Lake and Snowmass Lake.

Eventually, a permit system might be implemented in the Capitol Lake zone, she said.

The changes are needed due to humans’ impact on the ecosystem.

“We’ve been dealing with a lot of biophysical impacts and resource degradation in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness since the 1980s,” Schroyer said.

That’s a formal way of saying the most stunningly beautiful places in the 181,535-acre wilderness are getting loved to death.

No limits are being contemplated on day users of the wilderness area, Schroyer stressed. It wouldn’t affect Maroon Lake and the surrounding area, which is called the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.

The adaptive management plan would apply only to the wilderness area surrounding the Maroon Bells, which hosts an estimated 17,000 overnight visitors annually. (About 90,000 day users visit the wilderness area, including hikers to such places as American and Cathedral Lakes and Buckskin Pass.)

Four trailheads into the wilderness account for 82 percent of overnight visitors, according to an environmental assessment performed on the plan. Along with the Conundrum Creek trailhead southwest of Aspen, those facing intense pressure are Maroon Bells, Capitol Lake and Snowmass Lake.

“An inventory completed in 2010 documents 728 campsites within the entire [wilderness area] that impacted an approximate area of 559,000 square feet, approximately 35 football fields,” the study said.

Colorado’s rapid population growth is expected to increase the pressure, so the White River National Forest started working two years ago on an adaptive management plan. If approved as expected, the plan provides tools to more aggressively manage the wilderness — with the final step being limits on the number of people who can camp in some areas of the wilderness and requiring permits.

The White River National Forest released a draft decision notice Thursday that paves the way to implement what’s being called the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Overnight Visitor Use Management Plan.

The plan divides the wilderness into 30 zones. Each zone is assigned how many groups it can handle at one time. The zone Conundrum Hot Springs zone, for example, can handle 20 groups while still maintaining a wilderness feel, according to the Forest Service. Conundrum Creek Valley, leading to the hot spring, must have limits as well, or it will just get overrun by backpackers waiting for space at the hot springs, Schroyer said.

The number of groups in different zones will be monitored. When use consistently hits capacity that will trigger more intensive management. Schroyer said the Forest Service has tools it can use before implementing a permit system. For example, it could make WAG bags mandatory to use for human waste.

The Forest Service isn’t waiting to monitor use at Conundrum and the Four Pass Loop, where it already knows it has problems. Wilderness rangers encountered more groups at Conundrum than the guidelines suggested on 58 percent of the trips to the hot springs in 2015.

The report detailed how the rangers handled human-generated problems.

The details of a reservation system for Conundrum are a work in progress. would likely be used, Schroyer said. The cost hasn’t been determined. The online site charges a $10 fee per transaction. The Forest Service will charge an additional fee to cover the cost of rangers monitoring the wilderness. Groups of as many as 10 can be covered by one reservation, the Forest Service noted.

The plan cannot advance until the Forest Service allows for a 45-day objection period. Only people who have submitted comments earlier in the review process are eligible to object. More than 250 comments were submitted previously.

“I don’t think we got one comment that was against a permitting plan,” Schroyer said.

Some people commented that the Forest Service shouldn’t have taken so long to put the system in place. Others said they should be more restrictive.

The permits at Conundrum Hot Springs would be the first such system on a national forest in western Colorado, according to Forest Service officials.

The entire plan and supporting documents can be found online at

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