Visting Maroon Bells will require advance planning |

Visting Maroon Bells will require advance planning

Reservation system will return in summer 2021

One of RFTA’s hybrid buses pulls into the Maroon Bells Scenic Area last summer. A reservation system will be implemented again in 2021.
RFTA/courtesy photo

A reservation system for parking and shuttles at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area will return this summer with tweaks affecting backpackers and hikers.

Those looking for a shuttle ride down from Maroon Lake to Aspen Highlands after their long hikes will be required to make a reservation this year, the U.S. Forest Service, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and partners announced Monday. The one-way ticket will be $10 and an advanced purchase will be necessary.

The system was inundated last summer with people showing up at Maroon Lake and looking for a shuttle ride down. Backpackers who were completing the Four Pass Loop or some other route plus day hikers making the pilgrimage over from Crested Butte swelled the number of people trying to catch rides down.

The $10 fee will help RFTA cover its costs. Bus drivers won’t be able to sell tickets and no cellphone service is available up the high valley, so arrangements must be made in advance.

The downhill reservations don’t have to be time specific, according to Kevin Warner, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.

“They will be made for a specific day, but not for a specific time of day, to accommodate the unpredictable nature of a long day hike like the Aspen-to-Crested Butte hike,” Warner said in an email.

Another change in the system will affect how some backcountry travelers start their journey. Private vehicles will be allowed this summer to drop off hikers and backpackers in the Maroon Lake area between 6 and 8 a.m. Commercial vehicles will not be allowed to drop people off.

Commercial traffic typically creates a lot of congestion at the upper parking lots.

“We were getting a lot of people getting a ride up and looking for that ride down,” Warner said.

Last year, private drop-off vehicles were banned, as well. The policy change will allow early birds to get a jump on their hike without waiting for the early shuttle. People who get dropped off should realize they must make a reservation for a shuttle ride down.

The reservation system was adopted last year to salvage travel during the COVID-19 pandemic to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Aspen area.

A working group consisting of the Forest Service, RFTA, city of Aspen, Pitkin County, Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Aspen Skiing Co. came up with the reservation system. A company named H2O was hired to operate the reservations. The working group determined that because of ongoing social distancing requirements, the system should return this summer.

Reservations can be made at starting April 12. Parking reservations will be required for the entire season starting when Maroon Creek Road opens, usually in mid-May. Parking reservations can be made for a half- or full-day or overnight. The price is $10.

The shuttle service will start June 7 and continue to Oct. 17 or 24, depending on weather, leaf-peeping conditions and demand. The price of a shuttle ticket is $16. RFTA’s board of directors will consider discounted fares of $10 for children younger than 12 and seniors 65-older at its April meeting. Tickets will be available when people don’t show up for their reservations, but standby prices will be higher so people are encouraged to book in advance.

RFTA added numerous shuttles last summer to offset capacity limits on individual vehicles. It is uncertain what capacity limits will be in place this summer because of the ever-evolving state and federal rules.

“Seats on the shuttle may be limited and masks may be required depending on any COVID-related guidelines put in place by the Colorado and Pitkin County Boards of Health,” said a news release from the working group.

Some visitors to the Maroon Bells area thought the implementation of reservations brought a refreshing decrease in the congestion at Maroon Lake and points beyond. Warner said he anticipates numbers of visitors to be lower than pre-2020 levels again in 2021 due to ongoing concerns about the pandemic and precautions.

One likely result of limited parking and shuttle seats was an increase in cyclists.

“There was a significant increase in cyclists over years past,” Warner said.

The working group is going to encourage bike rental companies to increase their education about road etiquette. There were problems last year with cyclists riding too many abreast and even straying into the downhill lane. Some longtime local riders said the situation was unsafe and exacerbated by the jump in e-bike use.

Warner said the Forest Service encourages cycling to the scenic area, but wants to make sure it is safe. No bike ranger program is anticipated yet; the emphasis will be on education.

In the bigger picture, the working group’s goal has been to work on solutions to mitigate traffic, parking and environmental impacts.

“The reservation system put into place for the 2020 season worked to mitigate overcrowding and manage demand, while also providing safety for the public and the bus operators,” Shelly Grail, Aspen-Sopris Ranger District recreation manager said in a prepared statement.

For more information on the reservation system, contact RFTA communications manager Jamie Tatsuno at 970-384-4864 or the Maroon Bells Information Line at 970-945-3319.

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