Go Play: ‘Backpacker Express’ bus planned to Maroon Bells
A “Backpacker Express” bus will haul early-morning adventurers up to Maroon Lake for a fee this summer in a pilot program arranged by the U.S. Forest Service and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
Express buses will leave the Aspen Highlands parking lot for the Maroon Bells facilities three times between 8 and 9 a.m., according to representatives of both organizations. Regular bus service, which features an oral tour of natural features given by the drivers, traditionally starts at 9 a.m. The express service won’t include the oral description of the valley.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District approached RFTA this spring about the extra service after encountering a new problem in the immensely popular Maroon Bells Scenic Area and surrounding wilderness last summer. The explosion in the number of backpackers and day hikers who launch from Maroon Lake created an unprecedented demand for the 35-space overnight parking starting in July. Too many overnight visitors parked in spaces reserved for day visitors, according to Martha Moran, recreation manager for the district.
The Forest Service started turning backpackers around last year once the overnight spaces were taken. They were required to return to Aspen Highlands and take a bus. They also had the option of getting dropped off by a friend or delivered by taxi.
Several backpacking routes have surged in popularity. Some hikers access Snowmass Lake via Buckskin Pass and then return. The Four Pass Loop, typically a multi-day trip, is the darling of “must do” hike lists in various media. The hike between Aspen and Crested Butte via West Maroon Pass is popular with people on both sides of the divide.
Bus service was started to Maroon Lake in 1978. Travel by private vehicles is restricted except for disabled people, campers with a space in one of the campgrounds beyond the entrance station, families with children using a car seat and outfitters. Overnight visitors were dropped from the exemption list last year. The Forest Service staffs the entrance station from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Moran said the Forest Service wanted to add the express buses between 8 and 9 a.m. for the convenience of hikers and backpackers who want to start earlier than 9 a.m.
All bus service will start June 13. Daily service ceases on Labor Day weekend, but buses operate on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through the first weekend in October. The ticket price is $6.
The Forest Service asked RFTA to consider operating daily service until Oct. 4. The request will be put to RFTA’s board of directors, according to John Hocker, co-director of operations.
Riders can take the Castle/Maroon Valley buses from downtown Aspen to Highlands and then catch the service to Maroon Lake. Tickets are sold at Four Mountain Sports stores.
RFTA said 123,128 passengers rode the Maroon Bells buses last summer. That was an increase of nearly 23 percent from 100,319 in 2013.
“It grows every year,” Hocker said.
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