Pitkin County Open Space and Trails officials might find themselves torn over how best to address the final unpaved stretch of the Rio Grande Trail. So are we.
Even if the county lines up grants and other funding partners to help pay for a solution, we're wondering if a roughly $6.2 million project (the estimated cost of two alternatives that have received a lot of discussion) to address four miles of hard-packed gravel is a worthwhile expenditure.
At issue is about four miles of what is an otherwise paved bike trail linking Aspen and Glenwood Springs. The Rio Grande is a prize, no matter how you feel about the stretch in question - the gravel piece between McLain Flats Road above Woody Creek and below Stein Park outside Aspen.
There is room to provide both pavement and a soft-surface trail on the lower two miles of that segment. Do it. That leaves the upper two miles at the center of the debate. It's an undeniably scenic stretch, clinging to a shelf high above the Roaring Fork River on the lower end and closely paralleling the river near Stein Park.
In keeping with the long-held vision of a paved trail running the length of the valley, we were in the "just pave it already" camp for that final two miles - but we've had a change of heart.
Joggers and others prefer the soft surface, but more importantly, it gives the Rio Grande a laid-back, less urban feel in a stretch where there's no need to rush.
Paving, open-space officials point out, would increase speeds by road bicyclists using the trail and compromise safety for everyone on the narrow, two-mile stretch, given its heavy use and steep drop-offs. A railing of some sort would be in order in places, and we don't want safety railings to mar the aesthetics.
Another option under consideration requires the construction of a bridge spanning the deep Roaring Fork River gorge, linking the Rio Grande and the Highway 82 side of the river. A paved trail between the bridge and the Aspen Business Center, along the highway, would complete the connection. The upper two miles of the gravel stretch on the Rio Grande would remain unpaved under this scenario, while the bridge route would provide a paved alternative.
We've tried, but we can't get behind the bridge idea. It's a bit much, visually and financially.
Drainage improvements and better maintenance on the two remaining miles of gravel will go a long way to making it more road-bike friendly. It's really not difficult to ride on skinny tires now, though one does have to slow down. Those who don't want to ride that stretch on a bike can bypass it by riding McLain Flats Road (where we'd actually prefer to see a paved bike trail). Many road bikers do this already.
Incidentally, if we get a snowy winter, gravel on the Rio Grande will hold the snow for cross-country skiing better than asphalt will.
Finally, the existing connection between the Aspen Business Center and the Rio Grande Trail, using Stein Bridge to cross the river at the bottom of the gorge, can be improved upon. In fact, improvements that will make this link more user friendly are already in the planning stages.
Is this approach perfect? Probably not. But in our view, it's an appealing compromise.