Stuck in the Rockies: Etiquette, courtesy and personal responsibility on the trail
I rode around the bend and into a mix of oncoming traffic — e-bikers, a runner and someone walking with a dog — everyone moving at different speeds and with varying levels of awareness. I slowed, and when the time was right, I announced myself and passed by, continuing my ride.
It was a beautiful mid-summer day on the Rio Grande Trail, and I reminded myself that temporary traffic jams like that are to be expected.
As locals, we love the trail system in our valley. Thanks to the efforts of trail-building groups like the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and the team at Aspen Snowmass, along with the support of local chamber offices and various land managing organizations, our valley offers some of the best trails in the state.
It may surprise some, but in 2019, the Aspen Snowmass / Roaring Fork Valley trail system was awarded gold level status by the International Mountain Biking Association.
That’s a big deal. That designation — well-deserved, in my opinion — ranks our trail system up there with the best. Of course, we’re fortunate to be able to access it right out our door. But the top-tier status also makes it a draw for the ever-increasing number of visitors to the valley.
And the numbers are definitely increasing. According to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails (OST), from 2019 to 2020, user numbers on the OST system increased by 44%. Trail counter data recorded 382,969 users in 2019 and 551,869 the following year.
The increase can be attributed to various factors. The continued build-out of our trail system and gold level status contributes to its popularity. But the lion’s share of the increase is the result of more people moving to the valley each year, for the same reasons we’ve all decided to call it home. The COVID pandemic accelerated that trend, bringing even more visitors here.
Whatever the reasons, the fact is: There are a lot of people out there. And while much of the season we can be out on the trails with relatively few others, during peak times, it has become important to remind trail users of some basic ideas regarding etiquette, courtesy and respect, to keep it safe and enjoyable for everyone.
In the late spring of 2021, Pitkin County OST conducted an online survey to understand use patterns and collect public comments regarding what was working well and what needed improvement in the Sky Mountain Park trail system.
Survey respondents noted that trail safety and user conflicts were important and needed improvement.
Pitkin County Open Space is taking steps to address the concerns. The first of those steps is a newly launched trail etiquette campaign focused primarily on the Sky Mountain Park trails. Since July 7, trail users at Sky Mountain Park have been noticing a few new, eye-catching signs posted along the trails to offer gentle reminders about making room for everyone at the popular park.
The temporary signs, with messages and colorful illustrations of wildlife, are in place now. They’re in strategic locations through mid-August and may appear at particular locations when needed throughout the year.
There are welcome signs at trailheads designed to introduce the campaign and send positive messages, such as: all are welcome, say hi and be kind. At critical junctions, other messages will remind users about two-way or directional trails, right-of-way, yielding, etc.
What I like most about the signs is their positive messaging. Rather than scold trail users, they rely on language and tone that is more about courtesy and community than enforcing rules and regulations.
The signs are hard to miss. Hopefully, the messages resonate with everyone.
The Aspen Chamber Association has also taken action in this outdoor trail space. They launched a program asking people to Sign the Aspen Pledge, a broad list of guidelines akin to a code of conduct that applies to locals and visitors.
It covers a range of topics, from general thoughts related to being kind to others and being respectful around town to more tangible ideas about exploring responsibly and being low-impact. It contains statements such as, “I will go sightseeing while leaving sites worth seeing.”
If you sign the Aspen Pledge, ACRA will donate $18.80 (playing off the 1880 incorporation of Aspen) to either the Independence Pass Foundation or the Roaring Fork Volunteers. For additional information, or to sign the pledge, go to the Aspen Chamber website.
I would encourage everyone to read and sign the non-binding commitment. The donation goes to two well-established local charities, and reading the various items included in the pledge gets you thinking. It may be just enough of a nudge to make a slight difference in behavior.
These campaigns will hopefully translate into increased awareness, courtesy and overall safety for trail users of all types. Of course, they won’t eliminate every concern or user conflict issue, but they are a step in the right direction.
The fact is: Rules and regulations can only go so far in creating safe outdoor experiences. What matters most is for everyone to accept personal responsibility for using the trails and interacting with others.
We’re all part of the outdoor community and play a part in keeping it safe. Unfortunately, it’s become common for one group to look past their own behavior and instead point fingers at others for being dangerous or reckless.
A hiker or trail runner in Hunter Creek might consider fast mountain bikers hazardous. The bikers, on the other hand, consider runners with tunes blaring in their earbuds — oblivious to their surroundings — a problem. Dogs on long leashes (or none at all) zipping back and forth can be very dangerous to anyone trying to pass. But those same dog owners point to the passing e-bike as a safety concern.
I think it’s better for everyone to assess their own individual behavior rather than trying to blame others. If we all practiced responsible riding, hiking and running, there might not be any conflict on the trails.
Ride safely and at reasonable speeds, announce yourself before passing, keep dogs close, turn down the music to a level where you’re aware of your surroundings, don’t hike side-by-side on a narrow path, etc. Whatever your mode of travel, be responsible and think about how your behavior might affect others.
So, thank you to OST for putting the cute little reminders out there on the Sky Mountain Park trails and to the Aspen Chamber for trying to help raise awareness and ask people to subscribe to basic courtesies around town.
If we could add a little acceptance of personal responsibility while we’re out there ourselves — be it on foot, scooter, one-wheel, pedal bike, e-bike or however you get out — we’ll all have a better experience this summer. Happy Trails!
Ted Mahon has been on the City of Aspen Open Space and Trails board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @tedmahon.
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