The image is iconic: two gigantic, craggy peaks converge to form fine peaks covered in stubborn masses of snow. Below them is a stunning blue-green lake surrounded by bare aspens and a carpet of periwinkle.
Welcome to the Maroon Bells, the most photographed spot in all of Colorado—and one of the many popular natural wonders in the state where visitors are now restricted.
Mike and Margaret Simmons, both in their 80s, believe officials need to step in to preserve these sites. They actually didn’t come for years because it was just too crowded.
“Look around, you see why people love it,” Mike said, sitting on a bench near a crystal clear stream. “That’s why they come.”
Margaret adeed: “The claim is that they love it to death.”
The Basalt couple now volunteers at the Forest Conservancy. They connect with visitors and walk the trails and are basically extra eyes and ears for park rangers. The couple said things are so different here now than when they first visited in the mid-1960s.
“You could just drive up here, park and go hiking,” Mike explained.
Back then there were no regulations, not even for camping.
But in the decades since, “everyone has discovered it,” Margaret continued. “And everyone wants to come. And they do.”
Kevin J. Beaty/DenveriteMaroon Bells seen from a shuttle bus exiting the White River National Forest near Aspen on May 28, 2022. Kevin J. Beaty/DenveriteA shuttle bus will be returning to Aspen from the base of the Maroon Bells on May 28, 2022. Kevin J. Beaty/DenveriteVisitors emerge fresh off a timed entry bus bound for Maroon Bells in the White River National Forest outside of Aspen on May 28, 2022.
More than 300,000 visitors do this every year – twice as many as just a few years ago. To accommodate the popularity, since 2020 there has been a reservation system that limits the number of people driving in or taking the shuttle each day.
Carbondale resident Nora Serafin found it hard to snag one of those reservations.
“And I try and try and try all day — and eventually I do,” she said with a relieved smile.
The reservation she made for the day was not for her but for her daughter Xatziri, who is being photographed there for her quinceañera, her 15th birthday, in a strapless red dress covered in glitter and embroidered flowers should.
“It’s huge. It’s big,” the girl said of her dress — not the towering peaks above it that showed off her voluminous skirt and fell in a giant circle around her. “It’s like social distancing!”
She laughed and beamed, but explained that both she and her mother were nervous that the new reservation system would make it impossible to get their dream photos in this beautiful place in this beautiful dress.
“I’m so happy because this is a place I dreamed of for this moment years ago,” Nora said.
At Bells I met another local woman who told me that she made reservations for season 40 just to make sure she didn’t miss anything. But there are many others who have chosen to defy the system entirely and simply cycle in, which does not yet require a reservation.
On this day in mid-May, the opening day, there were actually more bicycles on the road than cars.
Kevin J. Beaty/DenveriteMaroon Bells in the White River National Forest outside of Aspen on May 28, 2022. Kevin J. Beaty/DenveriteVisitors to the White River National Forest hike trails at the base of the Maroon Bells. May 28, 2022.
But even though everything looked pretty empty, the computer system that holds those reservations said otherwise. The rangers turned away car after car that did not have a reservation.
That’s what happened to Leena O’Connell’s family, so they decided to park outside the gate — and go inside. It would have been 4+ miles uphill, although I was able to take her with me for the last stretch.
“I was literally counting steps!” said O’Connell with an annoyed grin as we reached the parking lot.
O’Connell, in his early 50s, was on vacation from Atlanta, just in town for a day. She and her family were determined to see the Maroon Bells no matter what, but worried that this reservation system would make it too difficult for many visitors to get through.
“Since it’s new and a lot of people want to come, I think it might disappoint a lot of people,” she said.
That’s the kind of story Scott Fitzwilliams doesn’t like to hear. He is the warden of the White River National Forest, home of the Maroon Bells and many other well-known places.
“It’s going to be hard for this person to leave with such an amazing experience,” he said while seated in the Glenwood Springs office. “And that’s not what we’re about.”
Instead, he’s trying to balance access and conservation in the country’s most-visited national forest. It attracts more than 14 million people each year – more than Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined.
Fitzwilliams explained that the forest is still learning how best to implement restrictions at its most famous locations, including Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs and the Vail Pass Recreation Area. Public feedback is important, as are partnerships with other entities (the Maroon Bells shuttle, for example, is made possible with the help of local transit authorities). Fitzwilliams hopes money from the federal Great American Outdoors Act, which earmarks billions of dollars for projects on public lands, will continue to help drive all of this forward.
Kevin J. Beaty/DenveriteAlex Shifman and Naomi Whiteley marvel at Maroon Bells in the White River National Forest on May 28, 2022. Kevin J. Beaty/DenveriteA solar panel at the base of Maroon Bells in the White River National Forest on May 28, 2022.
He envisions a day not too far away when people will be able to check the status of these natural gems online before they arrive.
“I don’t think that’s the way to think about how to get to Mars,” he said. “I think that’s right around the corner.”
But for now, many of Colorado’s most-visited natural sites are going through growing pains as the public and land managers alike adjust to the new restrictions. There is a delicate balance to be struck: in addition to preservation, the future of these areas also depends on people experiencing them, telling others about them and raising awareness of the need to protect them.
Several hours west of the Maroon Bells, dirt bikes rumbled through a wide swath of rolling desert hills known as Rabbit Valley. Just a few miles from the Utah border, it is very popular with off-roaders and RV drivers. For years they could just drop by and park wherever they wanted. However, starting this season, they must camp in designated sites and fill out a permit form. Fees come next year.
Zack Kelley, an outdoor recreation planner with the Bureau of Land Management, thinks it’s for the best.
A little over a decade ago when he was in high school, he camped out here quite a bit, so he’s betting some people will find these changes to be crap.
“But also having a background in natural resources and taking care of the multitude of resources here is sort of the best compromise we can make,” he said.
The visitors I spoke to generally agree. On a car camping trip from Arizona, Kari Prassack was delighted to see the designated campgrounds. For her, it felt good to know that her presence wasn’t hurting the country she wanted to enjoy.
“Maybe there’s something really important near that hill. Maybe there’s an owl nesting site or some really fragile vegetation,” she said. “And you know you’re not affecting it because you’re camping where you’re told you can camp.”
Kevin J. Beaty/DenveriteForest Service volunteers Margaret and Mike Simmons stand behind an information desk at the base of the Maroon Bells on May 28, 2022.
She had her choice of spots, all with new picnic tables and rings of fire. But when Ohio resident George Brandt pulled up in his RV, all the quaint, hidden spots were taken. So he had to choose a large, gravel group site surrounded by other campers.
“It’s so wide open out here, I wish you could use more of it for camping,” he said.
But he also understood and worried that without any kind of control, these special places would be ravaged. As a veteran, he said he would hate it if this happened to his beautiful country.
“There is only the United States of America,” he said. “We have to take care of it properly.”
What that looks like for public lands throughout Colorado and beyond is still a work in progress.