Newly proposed 10-year Sky Mountain plan likely to please mountain bikers
Among ideas is adding second trail on Airline section for one-way routes
Sky Mountain Park took 30 years, three local governments, hundreds of volunteers and more than $34 million to become a mountain biking mecca and a pristine example of preserved wildlife habitat.
And while a new management plan sent out for comment Thursday by Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Board of Trustees calls for a few new tweaks likely to be cheered by the park’s mainly mountain bike users, not much is set to change at the increasingly popular 2,400 acres of open space between Aspen and Snowmass Village.
“It’s one of the crown jewels of the program,” said Gary Tennenbaum, director of the county’s Open Space and Trails program. “It’s an amazing vision.”
OST Board members heard about the newly proposed 10-year plan for the first time Thursday and approved the draft as ready for comment. The plan now will make the rounds of local elected officials in Pitkin County, Snowmass Village and the city of Aspen for comment next month, while the public will be able to comment on it after that, Tennenbaum said. Comments will be incorporated into the plan then later adopted by the Open Space Board.
Sky Mountain Park is located between the Brush Creek Park and Ride Lot on Highway 82 at Brush Creek Road, and Snowmass Village, and contains numerous parcels acquired by the Town of Snowmass Village, Pitkin County’s Open Space program and the city of Aspen between 1991 and 2011.
It was nearly called “Wild Thing Open Space” or “Whisky Ridge” in a naming debate Tennenbaum called “the biggest debacle I’ve ever seen,” before the more poetically-minded in the room suggested “Sky Mountain.”
The park opened to the public in 2011 and currently features 28 miles of singletrack trails. More than 16 miles of those trails have been constructed since 2012, including the Airline, Cozyline, Butterline, Deadline and Seven Star trails, said Carly Klein, a planner with the Open Space program.
The park is closed to the public annually from Dec. 1 to May 15 to protect wildlife, and most trails do not allow dogs.
For most of the past 10 years, the number of people using Sky Mountain Park has remained steady, from a high of nearly 10,000 the year it opened to a low of 5,680 in 2015. Between 2016 and 2019, the park averaged between about 8,500 and 9,200 users a year, according to a trail counter on Viewline Trail.
But the COVID-19 pandemic caused the numbers to explode, from 8,480 users in 2019 to 17,805 in 2020, according to the proposed management plan. The plan warns that many of those users appear likely to continue to take advantage of outdoor opportunities.
“That’s the future for Sky Mountain Park and the area out there,” OST Board member Howie Mallory said. “That may be the new levels of activity that are going to happen. We should plan for that.”
In preparation for the new 10-year management plan, Open Space program employees conducted a survey of Sky Mountain Park users and received 665 responses, with more than 600 containing written comments, Klein said.
Turns out, 91% of park users are mountain bikers, she said, 38% of whom use the park trails a few times a week. Other users include trail runners and equestrians.
Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, told board members Thursday that many mountain bikers consider Sky Mountain trails — which are generally free of roots and rocks — to be easy. That, in turn, has attracted more people to the sport locally, including younger riders and women, he said.
“The trail systems that has evolved has really been transformative to the mountain biking community,” Pritchard said. “It’s kind of an introductory area (to mountain biking).”
All of that has generated user conflicts, however, which the survey brought to light, Klein said. Those range from specific design change suggestions for certain trails to the need to educate riders on proper etiquette and trail manners.
One of the main suggested changes — according to 47% of survey respondents — was the need for more one-way directional trails at Sky Mountain, she said.
Complaints on the subject mainly revolved around the Airline Trail, which is the main access point to Sky Mountain from Aspen. The trail is essentially one long climb from the Aspen Airport to the top of the ridge, and features numerous blind corners and switchbacks that can lead to conflicts between those climbing up and those zooming down.
To remedy that situation, Open Space planners want to build a new route up Airline — at a cost of about $75,000 — that would track as closely as possible to the current trail, according to the proposed management plan. The new trail will require cooperation from officials at the Aspen airport — which owns some of the land in the area — though they have shown a willingness to help in the past, Klein said. The current trail would become downhill-only.
Open Space employees also want to install signage at the Deadline Trail clarifying that the downhill-only trail is solely for mountain bikers and hikers are not allowed though they used to be permitted, she said.
Other proposed rule changes at Sky Mountain include implementing a closure of the park between dusk and dawn, limiting Snowmass Town Council-permitted special events at the park to just two a year with a maximum of 100 guests per event, undertaking a staff review of what other similar areas are doing to promote trail etiquette and resolve user conflicts and initiating a safety and etiquette campaign.
E-bikes — which are not allowed on dirt singletrack trails in Pitkin County — were not part of the survey, though 5% of respondents wrote in support of them and 9% wrote comments against them, Klein said. Tennenbaum said the issue of E-bikes — which are allowed on the Rio Grande Trail — is settled for the time being, with neither Pitkin County commissioners nor Open Space Board members currently advocating to expand E-bike presence.
OST Board Chairman Michael Kinsley, however, warned that a firm E-bike policy is needed.
“This is going to get a lot hotter over time,” he said, adding that the board can expect “huge pressure” to accept E-bikes in the future.
Mallory agreed with him, saying he expects lots of future comments about E-bike rules and accessibility.
“We need to plan for that role in the future,” he said.
Most OST Board member were supportive of the new plan, though Kinsley fired several shots at mountain bikers during his comments and said he was concerned about the number of Sky Mountain users. The valley contains several mountain bike “sacrifice areas” — he specifically said he wanted to emphasize the “pejorative” tone to his comment — like Coal Basin, the Crown and Sky Mountain that should prompt a valley-wide conversation about mountain biking, he said.
In January 2020, the Roaring Fork Valley was designated a Gold Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association. The valley was recognized for more than 300 miles of single-track trails and dozens of miles of additional routes friendly for mountain bikers between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.
It was the first gold-level designation in Colorado and just the seventh worldwide.
Mallory also wasn’t keen on mountain bikes.
“This is a mountain bike-dominant area,” he said. “That should not be our future.”
However, Kinsley also said the management of Sky Mountain appeared to prove that mountain biking and preservation of the environment can co-exist in one area, though it requires “intensive management.”
“Maybe we don’t have to destroy the environment on the space, despite the use by mountain bikes,” he said.
Dogs were another sore subject for Kinsley.
“There will always be pressure for dogs at Sky Mountain Park,” he said. “We need to manage that. Dog owners need to understand that their little Fido can really screw up the backcountry and this country (at Sky Mountain).”
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