Maroon Bells bus price to double and parking rules change for 2020 summer

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times

The fee to ride the Maroon Bells shuttle bus will double this summer and fall, while parking at Maroon Lake before and after bus hours will be allowed by a $10 online reservation only, officials said Tuesday.

Maroon Creek Road will open June 8 — three weeks later than usual — while the U.S. Forest Service will open the Maroon Bells Recreation Area the same day, said Brian Pettet, Pitkin County public works director, and Shelly Grail, Forest Service recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. Shuttle service starts June 28.

“This is a dramatic change,” Pettet told Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday during their weekly work session. “We’re still expecting to see high use this year.”

Commissioners supported the plan.

“I think it’s great,” Commissioner Greg Poschman said. “I’m all in favor of seeing it move forward and making it happen.”

Bus service to the Bells — one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colorado — was in jeopardy this year after more than four decades because of tourism and labor uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, officials from various sectors were working on a parking reservation system at the Bells to regulate traffic through the fragile environment.

Then about two weeks ago, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority CEO Dan Blankenship told his agency’s board members he could make the service work. The board agreed, though it told him to keep the subsidy for the Maroon Bells shuttle to 10% or below.

The key was the ability to quickly implement an online reservation system for the bus shuttle, Blankenship said Tuesday.

“Much of the (tourism) uncertainty around the demand could be overcome by having a reservation system,” he said.

The price, however, had to double from $8 per adult last year to $15.95 per adult this year because instead of the usual 35 passengers per bus, social distancing guidelines will keep that to 15, at least initially, Blankenship said. With chunks of the shuttle fare going to the reservation system company, the Forest Service and credit card processing fees, the increase had to happen.

“That’s the only way we could do it,” he said.

Maroon Bells shuttle bus reservations will only be able to be made online this year. Passengers will not be able to book tickets at Aspen Highlands as in past years, though buses will continue to pickup and drop off Bells passengers at the ski area. Parking at Aspen Highlands is a separate charge.

Shuttle bus service will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day and will begin June 28. Reservations will be made through the Aspen Chamber Resort Association website — — and will accepted starting June 2.

This season marks the first year that those who choose to drive to the Bells before bus service begins or before or after hours will have to make parking reservation before heading up Maroon Creek Road.

Between June 8 and June 28, visitors to the Maroon Bells will have to make a parking reservation on the same ACRA website where they would make a bus reservation, Pettet said. Parking permits will cost $10 per car. Before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m., visitors to the Bells also will have to make parking reservations, Pettet said.

“It’s a way of metering how many people can go to the Bells,” he said. “Otherwise we have no control.”

The area has roughly 60 day-use spaces, though it’s not yet clear exactly how many of those spaces will be permitted at any one time, he said.

Pettet told commissioners that backcountry users will be able to reserve the area’s 27 overnight parking spaces for $10 per car.

Parking enforcement will be the Forest Service’s job, Grail said Tuesday.

The agency’s summer staff is already working, and likely will begin manning the welcome station June 8 from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., she said. Rangers at the station will check parking reservation tickets, while others posted at the actual recreation area will check cars there.

The Forest Service will receive the parking funds — minus a fee to the reservation system company — and will use that money to fund the Bells area, Grail said.

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