ASPEN - What to do with the unpaved piece of the Rio Grande Trail outside Aspen remains the unanswered question, but now, the city of Aspen wants to help come up with the solution.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails officials find themselves regrouping after county commissioners last week took the bridge option off the table; it was to provide an alternative, paved route for bicyclists, allowing the most scenic stretch of what is now a gravel trail to retain its soft surface.
The open space board of trustees had recommended funding for engineering and design work for the bridge, with the final decision to be made later, but commissioners were cool to the idea - at least for now.
"It's not a big deal, I don't think," Commissioner Michael Owsley said, attending Thursday's meeting of the open space board of trustees. "It shouldn't set you back on your heels."
Refocusing on what to do within the existing Rio Grande Trail alignment is now the task at hand. A master plan for the greater Roaring Fork River gorge, a swath of public land extending from Jaffee Park above Woody Creek nearly to Aspen, was already on the Open Space and Trails work plan for 2013. A close look at the Rio Grande, particularly the park-like stretch below Stein Park, is likely to be part of it. That stretch serves anglers and boaters on the river, is heavily used by bicyclists, joggers and dog walkers, and passes by the Gold Butte climbing area acquired by the county, which also will be the focus of a master planning effort.
The Rio Grande Trail is paved from the edge of Aspen to Stein Park, then unpaved for about four miles as it continues down the valley before the pavement resumes above Woody Creek and continues all the way to Glenwood Springs. The former railroad corridor creates a 42-mile, valleywide link for bicyclists and others.
When the corridor was purchased by a consortium of governments up and down the valley, the expectation was that it eventually would be paved in its entirety, said Jeff Woods, city parks and recreation director. City government, on the sidelines in the discussions to date, wants to work with the county on improvements, he told the open space board.
Regardless of what eventually happens with trail connections on the opposite side of the river, the city considers the Rio Grande to be the main trail access linking Aspen and the valley, Woods said.
"The current surface is not what we want to see for the long term," he said. "What the exact surface is - I don't want to get into that. There are a lot of options."
Woods said the city Parks Department brings to the table expertise in repairing the landscape next to the gravel trail and in trail construction, as well. There are ways to build a hard-surface trail that don't have the look and feel of asphalt, for example, he said.
"The City Council hasn't told me, 'Make it asphalt, make it concrete,'" he stressed.
Commissioner Steve Child, who also sat in on the discussion, said afterward that he doesn't want the Rio Grande to become another Entrance to Aspen, in reference to the unresolved debate over what to do with the Highway 82 bottleneck at the edge of town. Nothing has been done because the community is divided on what should be done.
In the case of the trail, there are those who want to see the remainder of it paved to provide a seamless, valleywide bike path and those who are adamant that the gravel stretch be left alone. In many places in the county, the Rio Grande offers both a soft and a hard surface, but in the remaining gravel stretch, the corridor is too narrow in places to accommodate both.
Whatever is done with the Rio Grande, its connection to the opposite side of the river in the growing residential area that includes the Aspen Business Center and the city's Burlingame Ranch housing complex, remains inadequate, some in the community and on the open space board have said.
The city intends to build a trail link between Burlingame and the business center this year; it will skirt behind Deer Hill and away from the highway. Potential plans to improve the existing connection between the business center and the Rio Grande via Stein Bridge also are being discussed. That route involves dropping into the river gorge, crossing the bridge and climbing up the other side - a particularly steep endeavor on the business center side of the river.
The bridge plan called for spanning the river north of the airport to provide a paved alternative and eliminate the need to drop into the deep gorge. About two miles of the Rio Grande in what's been dubbed the "sage flats," upvalley from McLain Flats Road, would be improved to provide both a paved trail and soft-surface alternative; then the paved route would cross the bridge to the highway, or west side of the river, and the trail would remain gravel only on the east side between the bridge and Stein Park.
County commissioners advocated creating the dual surface through the sage flats this year, but Dale Will, open space director, voiced reluctance to create pavement on that piece before a plan for the entire stretch is finalized.
As for the bridge - it's still a future possibility, Owsley said. The commissioners didn't say it should never happen, though they don't want to proceed with planning for it immediately, he said.
And some have questioned its placement, suggesting a new bridge would be better located adjacent to the business center or near the intercept lot at Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road.
The idea was ahead of its time, Woods said.
"Fifty years from now, I think there will be a bridge across, connecting the Rio Grande to the Highway 82 corridor," he said.
The open space board and county commissioners are scheduled to meet jointly on March 19; how to proceed on trail improvements will be up for discussion.