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Maroon Bells seen November 13, 2021, near Aspen. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Starting next year, campers headed to some of the more popular spots in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness will have to reserve and pay for a permit ahead of time at recreation.gov

The U.S. Forest Service is implementing the new reservation fee system in 2023 to try to limit use and protect certain areas that have been overrun — the Four Pass Loop, Geneva Lake and Capitol Lake. Conundrum Hot Springs already has a permit and fee system

For instance, Snowmass Lake, part of the Four Pass Loop, exceeds the appropriate number of people camping in that area 100 days each year, said Katy Nelson, the wilderness and trails program coordinator at the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. “Most nights of the season it’s exceeding capacity.” 

The new system will require campers in these areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to obtain an overnight permit year-round. During the busier season from May 1 through Oct. 31 there will be a $10 per night, per person fee, plus a $6 processing fee for each permit. There is no fee for children age 16 and younger. 

Since 2006, the number of people visiting these areas has quadrupled, according to the Forest Service. Rangers are packing out a couple hundred pounds of trash each year, Nelson said. Dangerous interactions between humans and wildlife are reported often and people are damaging trees and harming the soil, she said. 

Nelson said it’s gotten to the point that visitors have stopped her on the Four Pass Loop asking if there’s anywhere else to stay because they heard Snowmass Lake was disgusting. “That was really profound to me,” Nelson said. “To have visitors say that — this is one of the most beautiful places we have and even visitors are saying this place needs help.” 

The Forest Service has been exploring the possibility of some kind of reservation system in these high-traffic areas since it adopted an overnight visitor management plan in 2017. The Conundrum Hot Springs area was the first spot to get an overnight fee and reservation system.

The permits and fees for Conundrum have helped, Nelson said. “With Conundrum it took a couple years to get in there and do some extensive rehab,” she said. “That’s a lot of work and it takes time to recover; in the near term, in that first season, visitors had an opportunity for a different experience back there.” 

Before the reservation and fee system, Nelson said rangers at the Aspen-Sopris District would draw straws to see who was going to have to patrol Conundrum. That’s no longer the case, she said.  

District ranger Kevin Warner said the Forest Service is only implementing these reservation systems in places where it is really needed, but that other wilderness areas in the state could see systems like this in the future. 

“We have been hearing loud and clear that the public wants us to keep this area a premiere backcountry destination by getting a handle on this over-use and environmental damage,” Warner said in a statement. “This overnight permit and fee program is critical to giving us the resources we need to effectively manage, restore and protect this cherished area.”

Permits for the Four Pass Loop, Geneva Lake and Capitol Lake will be available on recreation.gov beginning in February; including Conundrum Hot Springs, these areas account for about 28% of the Maroon-Bells Snowmass Wilderness, according to the Forest Service. 

The Forest Service will use the money from the fees to better maintain these areas — everything from rehab and restoration work to trail maintenance and improved trailhead information. Permits will not be required for day visitors.

Chris Outcalt

Chris Outcalt covers Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He...