A valleywide trail isn’t far-fetched anymore | AspenTimes.com

A valleywide trail isn’t far-fetched anymore

The idea of riding a trail between Aspen and Glenwood Springs once seemed so far-fetched that cycling enthusiasts feared they would have to do it in wheelchairs rather than bicycles.

But momentum in Pitkin and Eagle counties, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs has trail proponents hopeful that the dream is actually achievable in the next five to 10 years.

“There’s no way it can’t happen,” said John Hoffmann, head of a trails group in Carbondale. “We’ll do it in whatever patches are necessary.”

Pitkin County has led the way with construction of about 11.5 miles of trails along the old Denver and Rio Grande Railroad over the last three years.

The county Open Space and Trails Program spent about $3 million on trail construction, including a $500,000 pedestrian overpass of Highway 82, and an additional $500,000 on purchases, according to director Dale Will.

The county already owned and administers the six-mile stretch from the Slaughterhouse bridge on the outskirts of Aspen to Woody Creek. The new construction extended the trail from Woody Creek to the old Emma school house, at the county line.

That means there are nearly 17.5 miles of completed trails running through Pitkin County.

The golden thread

Of the remaining three miles in Eagle County and 18 miles in Garfield County, trails have already been built or are being planned on about 4.5 miles of the rail corridor or viable alternative routes.

Carbondale constructed a one-mile trail through town on the rail corridor last year. “It’s an amazing amenity that gets tons of use,” said Hoffmann.

Glenwood Springs already has about 2.5 miles of trails that parallel the railroad corridor and provide an alternative. The railroad is constricted in the area near Wal-Mart so the alternative route is probably superior, according to community development director Andrew McGregor.

The alternative trail runs south from Two Rivers Park, at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers. The city is planning the eventual extension of the trail by one mile, tying it into the railroad corridor just south of the Buffalo Valley restaurant.

Another 1.16-mile stretch of trail is being planned in Eagle County. Ruth Frey, chairwoman of the MidValley Trails Group, said construction of a trail along the rail corridor from the Emma school to Hooks Lane should be completed by next spring at the latest.

Frey is an advocate for completing the valleywide trail because, she said, it will be an economic boon. She labels the potential trail “the golden thread.”

For the towns of the valley, a completed trail would be a thread that links them – an amenity for the locals. It would also provide economic benefits.

“I guess I see it as something so valuable to the valley that I’m willing to call it golden,” she said. “The economic benefits will be way beyond what many people see.”

Frey said the trail will have the power to draw people to the valley as an amenity. Riding the trail between Aspen and Glenwood Springs – with stops in Carbondale and Basalt – will become the prime reason some tourists will come, she predicted.

Aspen Velo bike shop owner Mike Wampler already knows how attractive the trail can be. He said he sends about 2,500 tourists on rental bikes down to Woody Creek each summer. An increasing number of customers head farther downvalley, toward Basalt, he said.

Fitting the puzzle

So what will it take to complete Frey’s golden thread?

It’s about 17 miles from where Glenwood’s trail will eventually tie into the railroad corridor to the Emma school house. Subtract the one mile of trail Carbondale has constructed and the 1.16-mile stretch planned in Eagle County. That leaves about 15 miles to complete.

Will said a safe route the length of the valley could be in place without building new trail along the final 15 miles of rail corridor. There are two stretches where county roads would serve as safe alternatives and another stretch where a private landowner has committed to build a trail.

Will said it’s his personal opinion that trail construction could wait where the rail corridor parallels Hook Spur Road. The road and the rail corridor are separated by just a few feet. The road is a relatively quiet route that dead-ends at Rock Bottom Ranch, a nature center and wildlife refuge owned by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

That would leave a five-mile gap between Rock Bottom and the east edge of Carbondale. Hoffmann said the Roaring Fork Transit Authority has pledged $20,000 for design work for three miles of that trail from Catherine Bridge to town. He hopes that Carbondale can secure funding to start building a trail next year.

The two-mile stretch between Catherine Bridge and Rock Bottom Ranch have the greatest potential of the entire trail and the greatest challenges.

A 1999 study that looked at the potential for a trail along the rail corridor said that stretch provides “the most extensive and scenic `backcountry’ experience of the property. The river joins the right of way presenting itself in dramatic views and providing easy river access, wildlife habitat and public land access through this roadless area.”

But the trail will also get pinched by the river on the north and a mountainside on the south, so construction of a trail through there will be costly, noted Hoffmann.

Between Carbondale and Glenwood’s proposed trail link is a stretch of about nine miles. Will said he would advocate using County Road 109 as alternative access for the near term. Trails have been constructed along some stretches by the developers of new subdivisions and golf projects.

He and McGregor said the stretch that desperately needs a trail is the two miles between Buffalo Valley and the Westbank Bridge. There are no alternatives there.

“That’s such a nasty place to ride on Highway 82,” McGregor said.

Will said he envisions the Roaring Fork Valley trail as one important branch of an extensive system that runs throughout western Colorado. Progress is steadily being made on a trail that will eventually run from Vail to Grand Junction, he said. And planning is under way for a trail from the Roaring Fork Valley to Crested Butte, via Kebler Pass.

The demand for such routes will force action to complete the valleywide branch, he said. “There’s a lot of ways to start chipping away at it,” Will said.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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