West Maroon

Hikers make their way through the wildflowers after crossing West Maroon Pass heading toward Crested Butte in this August 2017 photo. The trailhead on the Crested Butte side is undergoing $65,000 worth of improvements.

A new Forest Service pit toilet has been installed at the trailhead on the Crested Butte side of the increasingly crowded Aspen-to-Crested Butte hike over West Maroon Pass.

The project, completed last fall, is the inaugural effort for a partnership involving the nonprofit National Forest Foundation, the Gunnison County government, the U.S. Forest Service and private businesses that contribute support. The idea is to create a community-supported fund for stewardship projects on public lands in Gunnison County that might otherwise languish.

“We wanted to do a meaningful project right from the get-go,” said Marcus Selig, vice president for field programs at the National Forest Foundation.

The toilet, as well as additional work to be completed this year to install an improved trailhead kiosk and resurface the parking area at what is known as the East Fork Trail, fit the bill because of the increasing use the corridor is seeing, thanks largely to hikers originating at the Maroon Bells trailhead near Aspen for the 11-mile walk over West Maroon Pass. Calling it the “Aspen-to-Crested Butte hike” is a bit of a misnomer, since the East Fork trailhead where the trail ends is actually about 15 miles from Crested Butte on an unimproved road. Hikers waiting for transportation at the end of the hike previously had no restroom facilities and human waste around the trail and trailhead was getting out of hand.

Crested Butte resident Sally Johnson said she had been pushing for the toilet for more than a year and a half before it got done. An avid user of the area, she had been documenting evidence of overuse to make the case to Forest Service, county and town officials that the restrooms were needed.

“I am so glad it has gotten done,” she said. “Since that trail — the West Maroon Pass trail — got published in some publication as a top hike in the U.S., it has just gotten crazy.”

The toilet, kiosk and parking improvement projects cost around $65,000, with funding coming from Gunnison County, the Gunnison County Metropolitan Recreation District (a taxing district that supports recreation projects and rural communications infrastructure), the town of Crested Butte and the National Forest Foundation, according to NFF program coordinator Emily Olsen. The Gunnison Ranger District of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest and the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest also provided in-kind support, including design and installation labor.

The East Fork trailhead is on the White River National Forest, but is a short distance from the boundary between the Aspen-Sopris and Gunnison ranger districts.

Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said that while the project officially fell under her jurisdiction, she relied on partners in Crested Butte and Gunnison County, as well as Gunnison District Ranger Matt McCombs, to push things forward. According to Selig, vice president at the NFF, officials in the Gunnison Ranger District, as well as community members in Crested Butte, made clear that this was a high priority project, even though it was technically in Aspen’s jurisdiction.

The two sides are indelibly linked by the popular hike, though Aspen’s trailhead is more developed with restrooms, trash disposal and drinking water facilities at the Maroon Bells recreation area, as well as a paved road and public buses to get people there from town.

Grail said she does not have any hard counts on the number of hikers making the connection over the pass, “but just from what I have seen with my own eyes over the last several years, it has definitely increased in popularity.”

It is one of those summer hikes, notable for its wildflowers and high-alpine scenery, that keeps people coming back year after year, she said.

Johnson helped focus officials’ attention on the importance of the project. She emphasized the need for continued education about how to use the backcountry without doing damage. Properly disposing of human waste by packing it out, moving far away from trails or streams to bury it or waiting until one reaches the East Fork trailhead and its new bathroom are part of that effort. So is staying on the trail and leaving the wildflowers in the ground.

“It is education all around,” Johnson said. “That is one of the main things that the community I belong to is trying to stress.”

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