Aspen’s Maroon Bells to receive some TLC
ASPEN, Colorado – Aspen’s most iconic mountains are scheduled to get some tender loving care over the next four years from an organization dedicated to easing human effects on Colorado’s highest peaks.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) and U.S. Forest Service are proposing to relocate short stretches of trail on North Maroon and Maroon peaks, and rehabilitate terrain to steer hikers away from sensitive plants that have been trampled under foot for decades.
The intent to is preserve fragile plants, not create a “stairway to the summit,” said CFI Executive Director Lloyd Athearn. The plants are incredibly well adapted to surviving at a high elevation in a short growing season. “They’re incredibly poorly adapted to having people step on them,” he said.
The proposed work will be below the 11,640-foot elevation mark on North Maroon and below 11,200 feet on Maroon Peak, according to Forest Service Peak Manager Loretta McEllhiney. Climbers will still pick their way through the barren upper portion of the mountains.
“We still want people to experience the challenge of route finding,” McEllhiney said.
She said she will spend considerable time in the field this summer determining where the trails should be rerouted and working on the new trail design. The proposal is being reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act. A “meeting or two” will be held in the Aspen area to outline the proposal and let hikers and climbers weigh in, Athearn said.
Assuming the project is approved, CFI crews will undertake work on North Maroon in summer 2011 and work on Maroon Peak in 2012 and 2013. The projects depend on CFI raising the bulk of the estimated $300,000 budget. Athearn said that should be possible despite the tough economic times.
“When you think of the fourteeners in Colorado, the Bells are among the best known nationally, maybe even internationally,” he said.
CFI has worked on 22 routes on 20 peaks since its creation in the 1990s, and it has three projects prepared around the state this summer. A project similar to the Bells’ work was performed in 2006 on Pyramid Peak. Capitol Peak got attention early in the program.
McEllhiney said the proposal on North Maroon is “pretty straightforward,” while the work on Maroon Peak is more complicated. Work on the North Maroon trail will start at Minnehaha Creek, where two trails split off from the Buckskin Pass Trail. One North Maroon route will be designated, the other will be rehabilitated. Some stepping stones will be positioned in the creek so hikers don’t roam the banks looking for the most convenient place to cross.
“The riparian area at Minnehaha is getting damaged,” McEllhiney said.
The trail past the creek will be rerouted from vegetated ground to a talus slope, and some willows will be cleared to provide easier access to a bench. After the bench, the trail will again be rerouted to a talus slope, where potential for environmental damage is minimal. The work will stop at the 11,640-foot level at terrain she described as a rock glacier.
“It wouldn’t be cost-effective to put a trail on the rock glacier because it’s moving,” McEllhiney said. She staked parts of the most prominent route in previous summers and documented that slides and flows were affecting the area.
Work beyond the start of the rock glacier also isn’t practical because of the potential danger to the crew from rockfall, she said, so the trail work will total less than a mile on North Maroon.
McEllhiney, who spends most of her summers on some of Colorado’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet, said she has seen plants on North Maroon that she has never seen on any of the other big peaks, such as the holly fern and the harp dandelion. A dandelion doesn’t sound like a big deal, she said, but the harp is a dainty, native variety with a blossom only one-eighth-of-an-inch in diameter.
The Maroon Bells also provide habitat to two plants on the Forest Service’s rare and sensitive list: the moonwort – an ancient fern, and the Leadville milkvetch.
The peaks provide such good habitat because there are so many wet, shaded areas, she said.
The goal of the project on Maroon Peak is to create a sustainable trail from West Maroon Creek up to a bench at 11,200 feet. Similar to North Maroon, less than a mile of trail work is being planned on Maroon Peak.
While the linear distance of the trail isn’t great, the projects are still massive undertakings. The peaks are in Wilderness, so use of mechanized tools is banned.