Maroon Bells: What lies at the intersection of recreation and wilderness?

September 3, 2014
Photo: Maroon Bells
Hikers, artists and day trippers arrive early in the morning at Maroon Lake near Aspen.
Colorado alone has more than 40 wilderness areas, and the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness, was among the first.
The popularity of part of this wilderness just outside of Aspen has exploded, with thousands of visitors every day. It’s getting so much use, it almost seems to run counter to our notions of what a wilderness is. 
Maroon Bells shuttle busses run every day during the busy season. It’s a good thing, because the parking lot up at the lake usually fills up early. 
Most of these visitors will walk a short distance to see the iconic view of the 14,000-foot Maroon Bells peaks reflected in the lake. Only some will hike around the lake to cross into the actual wilderness area. That still adds up to quite a few people. District lead wilderness ranger Andrew Larson says that high use, has high impact.
“A lot of what we do is cleaning up the mess from irresponsible visitors," Larson says. "People having fires where they shouldn’t - picking up trash. We’re burying human waste more than we like to talk about. There’s just tissue paper and poop on the ground in a lot of our busy areas. It feels pretty frustrating and futile at times.” 
According to Larson novice hikers make up much of the traffic, people who’ve read about the area and want to cross it off their bucket list.
“We run into people who have Backpacker magazine in their hands and are following it down the trail,” Larson says.
Most newbies want to be responsible wilderness users, according to Larson. Like Vanessa Morse from Alabama. who just came down from the 12,000-foot high Four Pass Loop with her family and their friends. They’re all carrying big backpacks.
“I’ve never been camping, the other mom is afraid of heights. I recommend it to anyone. If we can do it, any family can do it,” Morse says.
People head to the wilderness for many reasons.
Guillermo Samano of Garden Grove, Calif. says, “It makes me feel a lot better when I breathe here because its a lot fresher. It just makes me want to be out here more, to see more nature.”
“It’s for you to change yourself to make sure the mountain doesn’t throw you off,” says Vinay Krishnamurti of Fort Collins, who came to the area to climb Pyramid Peak with a friend.
Hiker Tina Fang of Carbondale says she’s looking for wildflowers and adds, “I want to hopefully catch a moose sighting but not too close.”
A couple of moose have been seen near the Maroon Lake trail frequently this summer.
Forest Service volunteers have to deal with moose on the loose and lots of others situations. Like hundreds of photographers at Maroon Lake in the fall, and even wedding parties. All this action is right at the edge of the wilderness. Dick Jackson owns Aspen Expeditions. He’s been guiding wilderness tours for nearly 40 years.
"The boundaries of wilderness are very accessible in many places but the interiors might be very, very remote. Most people don’t wander far from the trailhead," he says.
Wilderness ranger Andrew Larson agrees and says this is not a typical wilderness experience, “you can have a very wild wilderness experience. We have five different areas and only Maroon Bells is the nutty busy one.”
One of the less busy places in this wilderness is just 25 miles away at Williams Lake. Unlike the easy access at Maroon Lake, just getting to this trailhead requires either driving up a four wheel drive road or walking up it.
Once past the wilderness boundary, the single track trail winds through a forest overlooking a long valley with spectacular views of Capitol Peak, another 14’er. Then it drops downhill to a fast flowing creek.
Columbines and other wildflowers bloom along the trail as it heads uphill again. Finally the forest opens up to a small lake nestled at the base of red cliffs. This is said to be the place that inspired John Denver to write Rocky Mountain High. 
The sound of birdsong carried on the breeze is punctuated by the rumble of jets coming in and out of the Aspen airport -- a reminder of the challenge of balancing wilderness and development.