ASPEN - Pitkin County open space officials took a firsthand look Tuesday at the challenges presented by the gravel stretch of the Rio Grande Trail below Aspen.
Members of the Open Space and Trails board of trustees and staffers, along with a couple of Aspen Parks representatives, hit the trail on fat-tired bicycles - possibly the first-ever pedal-powered site visit by open space trustees - to take a closer look at options to provide a paved route for Rio Grande users. But even without pavement, the stretch poses difficulties.
The visit was timed to give board members a clearer understanding of the issues before an open house from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Colorado Mountain College art gallery room in Aspen. Open space officials are hoping the public will turn out to learn about the options for a hard-surface trail and offer input before the county goes any further in its consideration of a project that could cost millions of dollars.
A paved trail between Aspen and Glenwood Springs is a decades-old dream, noted Jeff Woods, head of the city's Parks and Recreation Department. The 42-mile Rio Grande Trail is paved except for about four miles between the Rio Grande's crossing of McLain Flats Road above Woody Creek and Stein Park, below Aspen. It's the last stretch to be addressed because it's the most difficult, Woods told the group.
"The whole region is eyeing this as a connector trail from Aspen to Glenwood," Woods said.
There are ardent advocates of paving the gravel stretch and those who are equally passionate about leaving it as it is.
Open space officials have identified an option that leaves two miles of the trail unpaved, with both hard and soft surfaces in the other two miles, and creates a separate paved connection to the Highway 82 side of the Roaring Fork River, linking into the Aspen Business Center. A roughly $2 million bridge to cross the deep river gorge would be necessary for what would be a $6 million to $7 million project in total.
The remaining unpaved piece would still require drainage improvements to take care of spots that regularly get muddy and icy, but little can be done to prevent the continual sloughing of loose shale onto the trail, according to Gary Tennenbaum, open space land steward. Rainstorms produce slides that leave thick goo on the trail; it must be scooped up and hauled away.
If the trail through the shale canyon is paved, cleanup would be easier, but railing would be necessary in some areas because bicyclists are likely to travel faster through spots where steep drop-offs exist.
"If we keep it soft surface, I feel it's safe enough to keep it without a railing," Tennenbaum told the group. "We've had people go off, and it's not a pretty sight."
Said Woods, peering over the precipice at one point: "I've ridden this trail a hundred times, and I've never looked over this edge. Jesus."
Keeping the trail platform wide enough to allow nordic grooming equipment safe passage and what surface would hold snow best are considerations in the pavement-versus-gravel debate, as well.
If the open space board and county commissioners decide to pursue some option, detailed engineering work would be done next year with the goal of construction in 2014. The board is slated to meet with county commissioners Dec. 18.
Go to www.aspenpitkin.com/Departments/Open-Space-Trails to review all of the identified options for a paved connection. They include leaving the gravel stretch intact and constructing climbing lanes for bicyclists on either end of McLain Flats Road (an alternate route) and providing soft and hard surfaces where possible on the trail and pavement where there isn't room for both. The most costly option, at an estimated $22 million, would create a dual-surface trail throughout the section where there is only gravel currently.