North Star parking areas to be redesigned to provide better safety

Chaos reigns at the Stillwater takeout, where cars sometimes park in the highway and boaters wander across the lanes, though no parking is allowed here. (Courtesy Pitkin County Open Space)

The haphazard parking situation that accompanies access to the popular river float through the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen is set to become more organized and safe in the near future.

And while the proposed plans don’t include the often-chaotic Wildwood put-in – that land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and will require a separate plan — they do contemplate significant changes at the frequently congested Stillwater pedestrian bridge takeout and three other parking areas along the approximately 2 miles of Highway 82 paralleled by the preserve.

“It’s one of those special places we manage that has become super popular,” Gary Tennenbaum, director of Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program, said Tuesday. “There’s also some incredible habitat we’re protecting.”

Members of the program’s Open Space and Trails Board of Trustees heard details of the new parking plan at their meeting Tuesday and were generally supportive, though some were concerned with proposed tree removal in spots, the safety of bikers on the East of Aspen Trail and creating too much parking that would attract too many people to the preserve.

“I think there is a super constant, massive parking challenge out there and this is a game-changer improvement,” said board member Howie Mallory. “(But) I think we have to be mindful (of) what are we really doing with respect to the experience.”

The 175-acre bulk of the North Star Nature Preserve — along the Roaring Fork River between the eastern flank of Aspen Mountain and Highway 82 — was acquired by Pitkin County in 1978 for about $1 million. Another 70 acres, known as the James H. Smith Open Space, directly south of the preserve, was purchased by the county and city of Aspen in 2001 for about $6.7 million.

The explosion in the use of stand-up paddle-boards over the last several years has led to a spike in popularity of the approximately 3-mile float through the preserve, which is prime wildlife habitat and the only flat section of the Roaring Fork River. On warm summer days, it’s not unusual to see cars jammed into any semblance of a parking space along the highway at North Star, with boaters wandering into the highway at points.

To try and combat the problem, the Open Space Board last year approved enforcing the no-parking rule at the Stillwater takeout. The area only allows brief loading and unloading in the approximately two spots on the river side of the highway and no permanent parking spots.

The Colorado Department of Transportation also helped identify other areas along the highway last year where boaters and river recreationalists could park.

The new plan — which came about after CDOT leased the right-of-way to Pitkin County beginning in June — refines four of those parking areas along the highway that provide access to North Star. Instead of ill-defined spaces, the areas would be reconfigured with striped, defined parking spots, a concrete barrier between the parking and the highway, designated one-way entrances and exits and other amenities like bike and paddleboard racks.

At the Stillwater takeout, the plan is to provide spots for three cars to load and unload, while also correcting the grade, which drops about 4 feet to the East of Aspen Trail, using a boulder retaining wall. River access would be improved by possibly building a wide, railroad tie staircase down to the water, said Carly Klein, senior planner with the Open Space program.

A proposal to improve the design of the Stillwater takeout would add a barrier, realign the East of Aspen Trail and provide better river access. (Courtesy Pitkin County Open Space)

The grade of the East of Aspen Trail also would be flattened in the area so that bikers are not picking up speed while coming through the Stillwater area, she said. The plan still foresees a 15-foot chokepoint below the bridge for bikers and pedestrians that can’t be avoided, Klein said.

Finally, some trees and tree limbs would be removed to improve sightlines in the area, which is located on a curve in Highway 82.

About three-tenths of a mile up the road is the North Lot/Wildlife Viewing Platform, which is currently designed for six cars. The new plan would create nine striped, paved parking spaces here, along with one or two spaces for oversize vehicles along the shoulder on the west end, where vehicles now park during peak hours anyway, Klein said.

The proposed design at the North Lot includes paved parking spaces for oversize vehicles. (Courtesy Pitkin County Open Space)

Less than two-tenths of a mile beyond the North Lot is The Beach, which today is merely a glorified shoulder along the highway. Klein presented two parking options here, one with 14 head-in parking spots and one with eight parallel parking spaces. Tennenbaum said Open Space rangers and staff prefer the head-in spaces because the current parallel parking at the area is “a disaster.”

A quarter-mile further up Highway 82 at the South Gate parking area, Open Space officials are proposing 23 parking spaces.

“We want people to park here because the area can handle it,” Tennenbaum said.

The proposal for South Gate would include a realignment of the East of Aspen Trail, which currently runs directly through the middle of the parking spaces, so that it be re-routed around the parking spaces, according to the plan. Also included would be limited tree removal on both sides of the area and additional bike and paddleboard racks.

Open Space Board members plan to visit the sites in the spring to better gauge the tree removal plans — which were done in conjunction with the city of Aspen’s forester — and parking design. Meanwhile, the project will move through the development process and likely end up before the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission in the coming months.

As for Wildwood, Open Space officials have been exploring a land trade with the Forest Service so the county can take over the put-in area and bring it in to the overall North Star Management Plan. Wildwood currently has space for five cars, though between 10 and 14 can be found there during peak use hours.



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