With higher temperatures and rain softening up avalanche debris, Pitkin County officials said Tuesday they plan on opening Maroon Creek Road all the way to the Maroon Bells by May 24.
“We’re aiming to be done the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend,” said Scott Mattice, the county’s road and bridge director. “That’s our goal barring anything crazy happening elsewhere.”
Prior estimates indicated the road might not open until June 15.
The big snowstorms this winter wreaked havoc on Maroon Creek Road, which is currently closed above the T-Lazy-7 Ranch. A ride up the closed section reveals evidence of numerous avalanches that came down from both sides of the valley, though most originated on the east side.
Some of those east-side slides carried so much debris that the material came down into the Maroon Creek gully, then back up the embankment on the other side and across the road with enough force to knock down trees on the west side of the road.
About 3 miles up is a large section of aspen trees felled by a slide on the west side of the road. Both sides of the road are lined by large and small aspen tree trunks and branches that were cut and cleared by firefighters from Aspen and Glenwood Springs who needed practice using chain saws, Mattice said.
County officials initially thought that section of avalanche debris was going to be the most difficult to clear until they reached a massive slide a mile or two above it that covered about 1,000 feet of road with snow and pine tree debris approximately 10 feet deep, said Mattice and Pitkin County Public Works Director Brian Pettet.
That slide debris, which is mainly full of small-to-medium-sized spruce and pine trees, covers the road beginning just above the sign for the West Maroon Portal, and ends just before the sign directing cars to the day use area at Maroon Lake.
On Sunday, the debris field stretched about 1,000 feet up the road. By Tuesday morning, Pitkin County front-end loader operator Dustin Wright had made some serious progress digging a one-lane trench with 10-foot-high walls though the debris one scoop at a time. Before noon, he’d made it within 200 feet of the end of the slide.
“He should have a path through by the end of the week,” Mattice said. “I think that’s a good goal.”
The road usually opens by May 15, while shuttle service to the Maroon Bells begins June 15.
But while the road to the Bells may be open by May 24, the U.S. Forest Service infrastructure, including restrooms, at Maroon Lake won’t be, said Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
The Forest Service is not yet sure when the area will be staffed, though a statement sent out Tuesday indicated that could occur in early June. Grail said it will definitely be staffed by June 15.
“We need to access the facilities like everyone else,” she said, noting that the avalanche has blocked Forest Service access to the site.
Generally, the Forest Service starts with a “soft opening” when no services are available, then fully staff the facilities by Memorial Day Weekend, Grail said. This year, that schedule will be delayed a couple weeks, she said. The Forest Service should have firm opening dates by the end of the week, she said.
“Fortunately, the new opening date does not impact amphitheater wedding reservations as was originally anticipated,” according to the Forest Service statement.
Meanwhile, she praised county road crews for diligently clearing the road, which began May 1.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing the progress they’ve made over the last few weeks,” Grail said. “We appreciate all the work the county has done to get the road open. It was no small task.”
All opening dates are tentative at this point, with the spring weather liable to trigger other events along Maroon Creek Road or elsewhere that must be addressed, Mattice said.