Maroon Bells closed to all but few hikers
Most years, one of Colorado’s most-photographed scenic spots attracts even more camera-wielding visitors than usual as the aspen change colors at the foot of the Maroon Bells outside Aspen.
This year was no different — until Tuesday. That’s when the government shutdown caused the U.S. Forest Service to close access to the restrooms, parking and other facilities at the end of the county road leading to the two 14,000-foot peaks, which prompted the county to close the upper portion of the road to motorized access as well.
That means only people willing and able to bike or hike the 5.5-mile uphill road get to view the Bells just when both the fall colors and visitation were expected to peak at the peaks.
“It’s a sad time when people can’t enjoy the colors because of the federal government impasse,” said Brian Pettet, Pitkin County’s public works director.
He said the aspen are indeed peaking, and in his opinion are putting on one of their best displays in the more than 20 years he’s been in the area, perhaps because of the high amount of rain this summer.
“It’s just a spectacularly beautiful time,” he said.
Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest, said he recognizes the inconvenience caused by shutting down motorized access during the busiest time of year at the Bells.
“I feel terrible but this is not something that I have control over,” he said.
He added that while a county road is involved, “it’s our facility.”
The Maroon Bells area has been developed and managed as a fee site by the Forest Service due to the heavy visitation, with an entrance gate along the county road.
While the shutdown continues, “We’ve got clear direction that fee sites like that are to be locked up and closed down, so we’ve done that,” Fitzwilliams said.
He compared the shutdown to those applying to sites such as Yellowstone National Park and the Statue of Liberty.
“Hopefully we won’t see a long inconvenience, but those are things that are outside our control,” he said.
He said the Forest Service has millions of dollars in infrastructure to protect at the Maroon Bells.
“We have an obligation to make sure these facilities are secure and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
The heavily visited White River National Forest, which covers much of the central Colorado Rockies, has furloughed 138 employees, with only a skeletal staff in place to provide law enforcement and other essential functions.
Forest campgrounds operated by concessionaires remain open, at least for the time being, but information centers that get heavy visitation by leaf-peepers and hunters this time of year are shuttered, Fitzwilliams said.
Pettet said the situation involving the Maroon Bells is a complicated one.
But had the county road to the Maroon Bells remained open, there would have been nowhere for people to park once they reached the visitor area and no one to give any direction to them once they get there, he said.
But he recognizes the size of the impact. Last weekend, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses ran 48 nearly full bus trips to the Maroon Bells, and this weekend the number could have been bigger, he said.
The Maroon Bells radiate their namesake color year-round, often contrasting sharply against bluebird skies, and this summer moose in the area have provided an added attraction. But it’s when the aspen turn golden that shutterbugs line up elbow to elbow along Maroon Lake at dawn, capturing the reflected glory of the mountains and aspen in prime light.
Steve Vanderleest of Glenwood Springs visited the area on Sept. 28 to take some stunning photos after a fresh snowfall. He met people there from as far away as Colorado Springs.
“It was actually the busiest I’d ever seen it in 15 years,” he said.
“… It was very popular. Rightfully so — it’s pretty beautiful.”
If there’s a bright side to the current situation, it’s that those who are able to get to the Bells by muscle power have far smaller crowds to contend with once they get there.
Pettet said that on the first day of the closure anywhere from 40 to 70 cars were parked at the closure gate, with people taking advantage of what is now a “dedicated wide bike path” to go from there up to the Bells.
“People are walking it. I think they’re trying to make the best of the situation,” he said.
But Vanderleest said the lack of vehicular access remains unfortunate.
“To have to walk or ride your bike up there now, there’s not too many people who can do that,” he said.
Fitzwilliams would be happy to restore that access and other Forest Service functions once the budget stalemate in Washington ends.
“As soon as we get notification we’re eager to come back to work and provide these services. We just can’t right now,” he said.