Pitkin County commissioners and Aspen councilmembers are scheduled to discuss Maroon Bells transportation issues — including the possible creation of a reservation system during peak visitation periods in September and October — during a work session this week.
They are expected to meet in the county’s administration building, 530 E. Main St., at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday. A stakeholder group has been meeting regularly since 2017 to “develop, implement and monitor” transportation management strategies at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, according to a joint memorandum from county and city officials.
“Visitation to the [Maroon Bells] peaks in the fall and reached a new record in 2019,” the memo says. “During this time, particularly on weekends, traffic can become significant along Maroon Creek Road as visitors queue to enter the Aspen Highlands parking garage.” Many visitors park in the garage before boarding a RFTA shuttle at Aspen Highlands, for a fee, that takes them to the Maroon Bells.
Additionally, increasing visitation in the early morning hours before 8 a.m. — by people driving themselves and others to the attraction — has created additional, significant traffic congestion at the Maroon Bells, “with visitors arriving well before 5 a.m. to view the sunrise over Maroon Lake,” the memo states.
The stakeholder group consists of representatives from the city of Aspen, Aspen Skiing Co., Pitkin County, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and U.S. Forest Service. The Aspen Chamber Resort Association is a recent addition to the group, the memo says.
On certain peak days, RFTA shuttle buses start operating as early as 7 a.m. to accommodate the increased demand, the memo states. “On these days, visitors may wait as long as one hour to board a shuttle to [Maroon Bells],” it says.
Additionally, the memo points out notable increases in visits during September and October, the period when fall colors enhance the area’s scenery.
RFTA recorded record ridership of its Maroon Bells shuttles last year on Sept. 28, when 3,480 passengers were served. Also, there was an 85 percent increase in Highlands parking garage usage from October 2018 to October 2019, with 1,750 more cars using the facility.
The memo notes that visitors are required to use the RFTA shuttle between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. from June to October. Before 8 a.m., visitors may drive their own vehicles and park at the Maroon Bells parking lot. In recent years, forest service staff have noticed “increasing volumes” of visitors arriving before shuttle operations begin — sometimes well before 5 a.m.
Last year, the forest service stationed staff at the Maroon Bells parking lot to manage the increase in traffic. However, the parking area’s size is insufficient to accommodate demand during the early morning hours, the memo says.
Local elected officials are expected to discuss various management strategies, including starting shuttles at 5:30 a.m. on peak days to serve the “sunrise crowd,” running shuttles later in the season and implementing a pilot reservation system this fall.