Ridership on the Maroon Bells bus service provided by a consortium of local public agencies has been increasing, especially in the fall, when thousands a day use the service to see the changing leaves framing the famed peaks. Riding the bus in September and October this fall will require a reservation, under a pilot program approved by elected officials on Tuesday.

Aspen and Pitkin County elected officials approved a pilot program on Tuesday that will require visitors to the Maroon Bells during the months of September and October to make a reservation for the shuttle bus that serves the scenic area.

Weekends during that mid-autumn time frame have emerged as the busiest of the season at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. The all-time daily ridership record for the bus service provided by RFTA with the support of the city, county, Forest Service and Aspen Skiing Co. was set at 3,480 one-way passengers last Sept. 28. Normally the bus runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but on those busy weekends, the service has been starting at 7 a.m.

Due to the allure of capturing a photo showing Maroon Lake, the Bells and the fall colors at sunrise, sometimes the parking lots near Maroon Lake fill up before the shuttle starts running, causing traffic headaches on Maroon Creek Road, and long lines at Highlands when the bus starts running. 

Pitkin County commissioners and Aspen City Council held a joint work session on Tuesday with officials from the city and county, RFTA, the White River National Forest and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, which works to solve people-moving challenges involving federal lands. That working group, which also includes SkiCo and Aspen Chamber Resort Association, is proposing a series of strategies this summer and fall to ease the challenges of peak use.

These include beginning bus service from Highlands to the Bells at 5:30 a.m. on peak weekend days and implementing a reservation system for all bus trips seven days a week in September and October. Officials are also proposing running the Bells buses a week later, into mid-October, instead of the current end-of-season cutoff of the first weekend of the month.

Elected officials gave direction to move forward with a test of the reservation system this fall, as well as the expanded service in the early mornings and later into October. The exact cap on how many bus riders will be served on any given day has not yet been established, but Pitkin County Public Works Director Brian Pettet said it will likely be tied to the number of cars that can be accommodated at the Aspen Highlands parking garage, which would mean the system likely will be at capacity only during a handful of days during the test period. The working group will report back to elected officials at the end of the year to evaluate how the program went and determine any changes going forward.

County Commissioner George Newman said a reservation system to visit the Maroon Bells Scenic Area is “overdue.” Fall visitation numbers have been spiking in recent years and Newman questioned whether it is appropriate to accommodate such increased demand.

“The reality is, the reservation system will address and limit the number of people who can come visit,” he said, comparing the Bells to a desirable restaurant or an airplane flight, where the expectation of needing a reservation should be the norm. 

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury noted that under the capacity scenarios being considered for the pilot reservations program, some amount of people would be turned away on busy weekend days. Pettet responded that the aim isn’t to drive people away, but rather spread out the use so that it is less clustered around peak times.

Council member Ward Hauenstein asked what is the peak number of buses that could run to the Bells per hour without degrading environmental sustainability and negatively impacting the user experience.

Kevin Warner, the district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Maroon Bells recreation and wilderness areas, noted that the Maroon Bells Scenic Area — defined as the area around Maroon Lake — is the most “hardened” site in the district. That means there is infrastructure to deal with large crowds of people, and crowd control measures similar to what one might see in a national park. In that sense, the area is equipped to deal with a high volume of people and mitigate their environmental impacts, he said. As far as user experience, Warner said that most data show that people are happy when they come visit the Bells, though he allowed that many locals may feel the experience has been degraded.

Elected officials questioned how the system would work if someone wanted to cancel their reservation, or if any “last-minute” reservations would be held over. Working group officials responded that the system will be designed to be user friendly and return any unredeemed reservations to the pool for riders on standby.

The $8-per-adult cost for the bus ride will remain the same with a reservation fee of less than a quarter added on. Benjamin Rasmussen, of the Volpe Center, which has been working on the Bells bus with the working group for three years, and helped Glenwood Springs design its Hanging Lake reservation and shuttle system, said that Glenwood has been successful connecting riders with the reservation system through the local chamber of commerce website, visitglenwood.com. He said a similar model will be designed to make the Aspen Chamber Resort Association website the portal for Bells bus reservations.

City Council member Rachel Richards said part of the messaging around the program should encourage riders to take the free city shuttle to Highlands instead of paying an additional $15 to $25 to park there.

The impact of 5:30 a.m. buses on Aspen Highlands residents, as well as campers at developed campsites along Maroon Creek Road, was identified as a potential concern to be watched during the test period.

The working group managing and funding the Bells buses is hoping that the cost of the program will not change. Even though service times are expanding, reducing peak demand and spreading it out throughout the day will likely mean fewer buses will be needed along the route — perhaps eight instead of 12 or 13 — resulting in a wash.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.