Midvalley’s Rock Bottom Ranch reaches out with eco-trail system | AspenTimes.com

Midvalley’s Rock Bottom Ranch reaches out with eco-trail system

Rock Bottom Ranch's annual Harvest Party on Oct. 17 will be more like a coming-out party that will dazzle an expected 1,500 visitors.

The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, which owns Rock Bottom, will unveil new features that will help the educational center achieve its full potential as a nature preserve and sustainable farm and ranch.

The center received a $242,000 grant from Great Outdoors Colorado to add an eco-trail system along with numerous "eco-ed stations" that will teach visitors about a variety of topics. The center is chipping in additional funds to push the project cost to more than $250,000, estimated CEO Chris Lane.

A centerpiece to the eco-trail system is a connection to the popular Rio Grande Trail, where thousands of bicyclists spin by Rock Bottom's front yard on busy summer days.

"We're pulling people off that trail," said Lane, who could hardly contain his excitement over the prospects.

A 9-foot decomposed asphalt path will welcome cyclists from the Rio Grande with connections on the east and west end of Rock Bottom's farmyard area.

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Lane said his vision is that cyclists out on the Rio Grande will say, "Hey, let's stop in at Rock Bottom Ranch for 10 minutes."

The setting is so cool that he's convinced new visitors will hang around long enough to learn about Rock Bottom's operations. Work is progressing at a furious pace to install information kiosks and interpretative signs at strategic places along the paths.

A sign about the riparian ecology of the Roaring Fork River educates readers on why it's important to the ecosystem.

The new visitors also might get lured into the western birding eco-station, where they can peer through gaps in boards of a blind overlooking a wetlands area and see numerous varieties of birds and signs of muskrat and beaver.

There will be plenty to do for people who want to spend more than 10 minutes at the center. Along with the new paved path designed to attract cyclists, there is a 6-foot-wide crushed-gravel path that takes walkers through the heart of the farm and to the edge of the nature preserve. A "riparian restoration eco-station" will educate visitors about natural conditions and how invasive species of vegetation can take over.

A renewable energy eco-ed station will showcase solar panels on a roof along with interpretative signs that describe the advantages and potential of alternative energy. That station will be in the middle of a seating area where visitors can soak in the stunning natural landscape as well as the barnyard activity.

"The whole idea is to get kids and adults outside," Lane said.

Pedestrians will get a first-hand look at how ranch manager Jason Smith and his crew practice sustainable agriculture. After sheep and goats have grazed a section of pasture, they are moved along with flexible fencing, and henhouses on wheels — called "eggmobiles," or chicken tractors — are moved in. The chickens eat the bugs, weeds, seeds and scratch and peck on the ground and leave plentiful droppings behind to recondition it. Sections of pasture are taken out of use for a period to let them recover.

One recent summer morning, a dozen or so young pigs were set loose in the rotting remains of a vegetable garden. They were busily snarfing down tomatoes, greens and whatever else they could find that got dinged by an early frost and not harvested. The Large Black and Tamworth pigs spend their entire life at Rock Bottom Ranch and are humanely butchered. There currently are 45 pigs at the ranch.

Rock Bottom Ranch is producing 6,000 dozen eggs per year for sale right now. It plans to increase production in 2016 by adding a third eggmobile. The produce production soared this summer and fall. Rock Bottom was selling more produce in one weekend this summer at farmers markets in Aspen and Basalt than is sold for entire summers in previous years.

One of the new features is guaranteed to be a magnet for children. A natural playscape will feature a stream flowing through a wetlands area. Children will be able to close a gate as the stream enters a culvert and creates a dam. The backed-up water will flood the wetlands and teach children and adults about the benefits of high water during runoff. (The water won't be too deep.) The natural playscape is located near the education center at Rock Bottom Ranch. The headquarters is scheduled for some rehabilitation in coming months.

"Our goal is to be 100 percent completed at the Harvest Party," Lane said. Workers from Rocky Mountain Custom Landscaping, the contractor on the project, are scrambling to get all features installed. Fred Phillips Consulting designed the eco-trails and stations. Tom Newland of Basalt is the project manager.

Lane stressed that Rock Bottom Ranch isn't cutting into the nature preserve for the sake of education. The ranch is 113 acres. Activity is restricted to 12 acres.

The ranch is living up to the ideals of Charlie Cole, who along with former wife Sally Cole sold the property to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies rather than for private development. Their philosophy, Lane said, was, "Let's bring the wildlife to the people rather than the people to the wildlife."

scondon@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO

What: Rock Bottom Ranch Harvest Party

When: Saturday, Oct. 17, 12 to 4 p.m.

Tickets: $15 for adults, $5 for kids, free for 2 and under,

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Transit: Take a bike or walk the Rio Grande Trail to the ranch on Hooks Spur Road or shuttle will run every 15 minutes from main Basalt Park and Ride