Will Vail close parking at the Booth Lake trailhead?
Trail saw 50% jump in use from 2019 to 2020
Trail use is exploding on the Booth Lake trail. The town of Vail may have the quickest solution to limit that use.
The Vail Town Council at its Feb. 2 meeting heard a presentation from town staff members about use on the trail, and possible options to limit use on the town’s most popular trail into the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger told councilmembers that use on the trail may have jumped by roughly 50% in 2020. That puts more people on a wilderness trail than the U.S. Forest Service wants to see.
A town-commissioned study notes that Forest Service guidelines call for no more than 12 parties encountered per day on a trail. The study notes the Booth Lake trail has exceeded those guidelines in five of the past six years. The average number of high season encounters has jumped from 36 per day in 2019 to 55 per day in 2020.
The study notes that Booth Lake trail users are primarily visitors. Those visitors are primarily directed to the trail via either hotel concierges or websites including AllTrails.com.
The U.S. Forest Service has established permit systems at Maroon Bells, Hanging Lake and other places nationwide. But creating those systems can take years. It took seven years to create the permit system at Hanging Lake.
2024 at the earliest?
Henninger said the current workload for local Forest Service officials means such a system for Booth Lake couldn’t be approved until 2023 at the earliest, with implementation no sooner than 2024.
Vail senior landscape architect Gregg Barrie told councilmembers something the town can control is vehicle access to the Booth Lake trailhead.
The town is currently looking at new technology, currently in use in Jefferson County, that tracks parking availability at trailheads. That information can then be posted to an app or a variable message sign.
Other solutions can include “traffic calming” techniques including striping the road to create narrower travel lanes. That can cut down vehicle speeds.
The town has also worked to provide trail education, including stressing the “leave no trace” ethos.
Shut down the parking?
“Why don’t we just shut down the parking lot?” councilmember Jenn Bruno asked. Leaving access open only to those who take shuttles or town buses to the trailhead might discourage some of the trail’s current overuse.
Henninger said that’s possible, but hasn’t yet been done in order to maintain a customer-friendly stance toward guests.
Vail Environmental Sustainability Director Kristen Bertuglia suggested the town could start early in the season with education.
“It’s possible to help people understand (overuse) instead of just shutting (parking) down,” Bertuglia said.
Bruno said it would be worth the extra cost to the town to add extra bus service to the trailhead.
Henninger noted that many people want to hike with their dogs, and dogs aren’t allowed on town buses. But, he added, the town already runs twice-hourly service to the trailhead.
“I’m not against closing the parking,” Mayor Dave Chapin said.
The move may sound draconian, he added, but Booth Lake sees many times the traffic of the other trailheads in East Vail. And, he said, much of the waste on the trail is from dogs.
Chapin said the town and Forest Service need to start the National Environmental Protection Act process that could lead to user limits on the trail. But he asked for a report within the next month on the town’s options.
Besides the trail itself, Chapin noted that the “neighborhood is subjected to an inordinate amount of use.”
50,082: Total Booth Lake users in 2020.
35,476: Booth Lake 2020 trail users, June — September.
15,528: Total Gore Creek trail users in 2020.
6,592: Total Bighorn trail users in 2020.
Source: Town of Vail/Volpe Systems.