Crowds won’t cut it these days, even in the great outdoors.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Director Gary Tennenbaum warned Tuesday that if people ignore social-distancing requirements and hang out in crowds while recreating outside, they will leave public land managers no choice but to take drastic actions.
The open space program was forced to do that Sunday when rangers called Pitkin County deputy sheriffs to disperse crowds congregating at the Penny Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley. The hot springs have been closed until further notice.
“They disregarded it because they didn’t feel it was as important to practice social distancing outside,” Tennenbaum said.
He doesn’t want to see the same action taken in other high-use areas such as Smuggler Mountain Road or the Prince Creek Trail system outside of Carbondale. Trails, parks and other public lands are vital amenities that will help people keep their sanity while contact is restricted during the health crisis, Tennenbaum said. So it is vital that people follow the guidelines so those facilities remain in use.
“If we do it responsibly, we can keep it going,” Tennenbaum said. “Closing public access is such a big step that we don’t want to take.”
The open space and trails program had new, special signs printed that explain the importance of spreading apart and limiting group sizes. While the sign says limit groups to no more than 10 people, that was outdated by a new health order issued Monday night by Pitkin County. Tennenbaum said people should only recreate with their immediate family or one partner rather than groups up to 10 people.
Rangers were posting the signs on open space trails and lands from Redstone to Smuggler Mountain trailhead on Tuesday. Tennenbaum said he worked on the wording with other public land management agencies for consistency.
The city of Aspen and the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service will use the same signs. The Forest Service will post the signs at the Independence Pass winter closure gate, Maroon Creek Road closure gate, Castle Creek Road closure gate, Hunter Creek trailhead, Difficult Campground gate, Sunnyside Trail access points, Avalanche Creek Road kiosk, Coal Creek Road outside of Redstone, Four Mile snowmobile parking lot and Williams Peak skier parking.
“We understand the desire for people to exercise and seek solace in the outdoors right now,” the White River National Forest posted on its Facebook page. “The White River National Forest asks the public to please recreate responsibly.”
The Forest Service stressed that law enforcement and search and rescue operations may be limited due to COVID-19 response.
“High-risk activities such as backcountry skiing that increase your chance of injury should be avoided right now,” the Forest Service posted.
A 32-year-old Aspen-area resident had to be rescued Tuesday off Richmond Ridge when his snowmobile struck a tree and he sustained head injuries. The man was transported by a Flight for Life helicopter to Aspen Valley Hospital.
That is exactly the kind of incident local authorities want to avoid while so much focus is on the coronavirus.
The Forest Service also stressed the importance of social distancing on national forest lands while coronavirus remains a threat.
“With almost 2.3 million acres to explore across the White River National Forest, we think there’s plenty of room for you to spread out responsibly while protecting yourself and your community,” the White River staff posted.
Tennenbaum said rangers have witnessed “pretty good” social distancing practices among hikers on Smuggler Mountain Road. Cross-country skiers also have kept their distance pretty well, he said.
His next big concern is the opening of the Prince Creek Trail network outside of Carbondale on April 16. The network is immensely popular with mountain bikers, trail runners and hikers. Most of the network is on property managed by the Bureau of Land Management. However, the large parking lot along Prince Creek Road is owned by Pitkin County.
Once riders get moving, they disperse pretty effectively, Tennenbaum said. He is concerned about people congregating in the parking lot, particularly post-ride.
“We really need to discourage that,” he said. “We don’t want big parties at the trailhead.”
David Boyd, public information officer for the local BLM region, said the agency plans to stick to its usual spring openings. As more public lands open, it will be easier for people to spread out for their recreation pursuits, he said.
There is no sign the BLM or Forest Service plans to close trails or property in the Roaring Fork Valley, at least not anytime soon. However, public lands aren’t immune to closure. The National Park Service closed Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Greay Smoky Mountains parks Tuesday. They join Yosemite, Rocky Mountain and many smaller parks in closure.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced Tuesday it is “diligently working to keep state parks open so the public can enjoy the health benefits associated with being outside.”
With the lifts closed at the ski areas, many Roaring Fork Valley residents are regularly skinning up the closed slopes and skiing down. Parking lots at Tiehack and Snowmass have overflowed on many days. Uphilling will remain open at the four Aspen Skiing Co. resorts as others in Colorado are shutting off access because of large crowds gathering during the state’s fight against the spread of the coronavirus.
In a statement Monday night, Skico asked uphillers to be mindful of crowding and encouraged people to practice social distancing in all areas of the mountain.
Skico vice president of media relations Jeff Hanle sent a statement urging skiers to adhere to social-distance practices of 6 feet and avoid crowds while on the mountains.
“It is vital that you exercise good judgment on the ski areas and not put yourself or others at risk,” he said in an email. “Do not gather in groups anywhere on or around the mountains. If a parking lot is full, please choose a different ascent or a different time.”
Sunlight resort near Glenwood Springs cut off uphilling as well as Vail and other Front Range resorts because of overcrowding. Hanle said Skico will follow the guidance from the state and the White River National Forest, and that skiers should treat the mountain as they would in preseason and postseason when the ski area is closed.
There are no ski areas services, and people should treat their time on the hill “with the same thoughtfulness and care as you would if you were in the backcountry,” he said.
Pitkin County, Skico and other officials have been reminding people that on-mountain incidents as well as those going into the backcountry will take away resources from the current fight against the spread of COVID-19 in the county.
Also, Hanle reminded that snowmobiles are not allowed at the four resorts, and the USFS regulation will be enforced.
“Please do not jeopardize or risk the access for everyone through your disregard for these regulations,” Hanle said in the update. “We ask the uphill community to help us in spreading the word on these regulations and to report those who continue to ignore these rules.”
The state’s ski resorts were shut down by the governor starting March 15 and the closure has been extended until at least April 6. Skico officials said last week that if the order was lifted they would consider opening Aspen Highlands for limited use, but it would depend on mountain conditions and safety. Skico will not reopen Aspen Mountain, Snowmass or Buttermilk for skiing this year, officials stated earlier this month.
Aspen Times editor David Krause contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org