Aspen, county work together on trail projects

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

The open space and parks departments of Aspen and Pitkin County basked in the success of new trails at Sky Mountain Park this year, but officials vow it’s just the start of a long, fruitful partnership.

The two entities are working on a plan that will determine what existing trails need to be reworked and what missing links should be added. That plan should be ready by fall 2015 and then used as a guide for trail work for the next 10 years.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails teamed with the Aspen Parks Department and town of Snowmass Village to invest between $200,000 and $250,000 to construct mountain-biking and hiking trails at Sky Mountain Park, a mound hemmed in by Highway 82 on the east, Brush Creek Road on the north, Owl Creek Road on the south and Highline Road to the west. Three new trails — Cozyline, Airline and Deadline — drew raves from mountain bikers when they opened in the spring.

“I could not have predicted what the response would be,” said Gary Tennenbaum, assistant director of the county’s open space program. When the program buys land or undertakes a trail project, a handful of congratulatory letters, emails and telephone calls typically trickle in. A mountain of accolades kept coming with the trail network on Sky Mountain Park, he said.

“It’s been a game changer in this valley, specifically for mountain biking.”
Austin Weiss, Aspen open space manager

The cooperation between the city and county to get projects done had a precedent. They teamed in the mid-2000s to buy Smuggler Mountain property and later converted old bandit roads and game trails into legitimate trails and incorporate them into a broader network. It provides hikers and mountain bikers with numerous new options in Aspen’s favorite backcountry playground.

“It’s been a game changer in this valley, specifically for mountain biking,” said Austin Weiss, open space manager for Aspen Parks and Open Space.

Since the explosion in the popularity of mountain biking in the mid-1980s until well into the 2000s, Aspen boasted an “old school” trail network that featured physically demanding ascents and often technically challenging traverses and descents, Weiss noted. The trail work undertaken by the city and county has added more accommodating options.

Tennenbaum said the Sky Mountain Park trails were constructed with a 6 percent grade for sustainability. He didn’t want steeper trails that would require water bars and regular maintenance. As it turns out, the challenging but very accommodating trails were a hit with mountain bikers.

The Airline Trail, which climbs Sky Mountain Park from the Owl Creek side, averaged 70 travelers per day throughout spring, summer and fall, predominantly mountain bikers, according to the open space program’s numbers. But that’s deceptive because weekend numbers exceed 90 users per day. Deadline, Cozyline and the older Viewline have similar usage numbers.

Weiss and Tennenbaum said automatic trailside counters and anecdotal evidence indicate that use of routes such as Rim Trail, Government Trail and the Smuggler Mountain-Hunter Creek Valley network dropped this year, at least among mountain bikers.

Now the two governments, along with Snowmass Village, are looking at the entire existing trail network to determine what needs to be reworked and what needs to be added as missing links or to address an unfilled need. In some cases, older, barely sustainable trails will be replaced. An example is the lower Sunnyside Plunge, a steep, rocky and eroded section between the Hunter Creek Valley floor and Hummingbird Road.

In other cases, new trails will be created, such as the Hummingbird Traverse. That trail’s western end will be at the intersection of Hummingbird Road and lower Sunnyside Plunge. The trail will travel along a south-facing slope above the Hunter Creek Valley floor and eventually connect to a trail in the floor upvalley from the upper Hunter Creek Bridge. It will provide a new loop opportunity and a way for cyclists to more quickly access the trail network around Four Corners, Tennenbaum said.

The county open space program was in an acquisition phase for a considerable time. Now, it’s shifted to trail building.

“You kind of go with the momentum, and now the momentum is trail building,” Tennenbaum said.

Weiss stressed that the new trails won’t just be for mountain bikers. Options are being explored for hikers and equestrians, as well.

The Upper Roaring Fork Valley Trails Plan draft will go to the city and county open space boards this winter. Public input will also be gathered on the draft. The goal is to adopt a plan in the summer or fall.

One particular area the city will focus on for planning is Cozy Point Ranch — a working ranch and equestrian stronghold downvalley from the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82. Weiss said the city wants to expand the property’s appeal. He wants to see Cozy Point attain the stature of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and Rock Bottom Ranch in the Emma area as a major part of the experience of a child growing up in the valley.

The opportunity isn’t confined to Cozy Point Ranch. Other nearby open space parcels include Cozy Point South and Sky Mountain Park on the south side of Highway 82 and the Mills Open Space and Aspen Mass Open Space on the north side of the road. Trails already exist, but there’s clear opportunity for expansion.

“You get the feeling we could create something special here,” Weiss said.