Sunday, September 30, 2018

Visiting Colorado--Loving Maroon Bells

Maroon Bells, near Aspen Colorado

Maroon Bells, three bell-shaped mountains near Aspen, Colorado, are ranked as one of the best places to see wildflowers and bright aspen leaves in the Rockies.

The place is beautiful. It is also being loved to death.

I visited Maroon Bells in the 1970s. I remember a long hike on a trail busy with other hikers, through mountain meadows.

Today, a city bus takes you up the road. That was a pleasant addition since the driver provided interesting commentary. However, it cost $8 (roundtrip) and the parking near the bus stop cost another $10 for half a day.

bus to Maroon Bells

The number of people was impressive. Waiting for the bus coming and going added time to our trip. The buses normally leave every 20 minutes, but the morning I went, a Wednesday in mid September, the city bus before us filled and then we filled a second one. Even at the usual three buses per hour, going to Maroon Bells is not solitary, but part of a crowd.  (320,500 people visited in 2017: see more link)

People on the trail, Maroon Bells
The bus dropped all of us off to walk over the hill.

entrance to restrooms at Maroon Bells
Entrance to restrooms, Maroon Bells
There were big restrooms, cleverly disguised as the National Forest tried to maximize the mountain experience. The paths near the entrance were graveled. A substantial section of the initial paths were wheel-chair accessible.
Maroon Bells trail
Where the main trail reaches the lake, a broad graveled area
Of course the lake was lovely and the mountains beyond were glorious in fall colors.
Maroon Bells in September

lake and mountains, Maroon Bells
the mountains beyond the lake
Along the path, the vegetation showed the effect of thousands of visitors.  I was looking for native wildflowers. They were few and far between. Only a few plants can withstand hordes of people stepping on them and most of those are common weeds.
fall aster, Maroon Bells
native aster,
probably the western aster, Symphyotrichium ascendens
sunflower family Asteraceae
mullein, Maroon Bells
common mullein, Verbascum thapsus,
brown stalks with seed pods, a weed from Europe
(figwort family, Scophulariaceae)
salsify, Tragopogon, Maroon Bells
salsify, Tragopogon, probably T. dubious,
yellow salsify (sunflower family, Asteraceae),
a widespread European weed,
like mullein was healthy enough to produce seeds
The Maroon Bells trails were beautiful, but not dramatically more beautiful than the rest of the Aspen area that week. We drove Castle Creek Road: it had spectacular views of mountains, yellow aspen and streams. I also took scenic photos of the hills from within the city of Aspen.

along Castle Creek Road, Aspen
Along Castle Creek Road
view in city of Aspen, September
View in city of Aspen
It was a good year for viewing the fall colors of aspen trees. I think any road into the mountains around Aspen would have provided visitas for taking more awesome photos than I could possibly use.

Thousands of visitors a week at Maroon Bells inadvertently trample the vegetation and drive wild animals away. The tired look of the place was because people love it, to the point of damaging it. The Forest Service has been trying hard to find a balance. The buses, the hidden toilets, and solar collectors for electricity, all are trying to let everyone enjoy the place and yet keep the views beautiful and protect the plants and animals. But I think the numbers are against them.

If you choose to visit Maroon Bells, go with respect. Obey the signs. Stay on established paths. Minimize your impact on the vegetation.

Maroon Bells, sign
"Please Stay on Trail" sign:
look how badly trampled the vegetation below it is
Be prepared for crowds.
Maroon Bells looking back from the end of the lake
Note all the people visible on the trail
(and I try to minimize people in my photos)
Don't be the source of a new sign.
No Drones sign in Maroon Bells
If you are looking for an outdoor experience, explore alternate places. Aspen is surrounded by scenic mountains whose aspen trees turn color in September. There are lots of choices. See for example the Aspen Trail Finder (link) and the trail list for White River National Forest (link).

near Aspen Colorado, September
Everywhere, the mountains were painted yellow and red
It is already a challenge to preserve and maintain iconic areas. Help whenever you have the opportunity.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Post script: I picked this at the Aspen Visitor's Center. I don' know who wrote it but enjoy:

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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