Open space fun ready for summer crowds

Boaters walk along Highway 82 two summers ago after floating the North Star Preserve
Aspen Times File |

With a rare powder day and the year’s first crowd of floaters on a popular stretch of the Roaring Fork River, last weekend marked the opening of Aspen’s summer outdoor season.

And while the lift-served skiing is done until next winter, other open space areas in Pitkin County are now open and ready for another summer of hiking, biking and floating, said John Armstrong, ranger for the county’s Open Space and Trails program.

“There’s a lot of people out there,” Armstrong said of the North Star Nature Preserve east of town, a popular float trip through the only flat section of water on the Roaring Fork. “They’re very respectful, which is just what we want.

“We want people to enjoy it.”

The North Star Preserve was in danger of being enjoyed too much, however, until a novel idea that was begun last year mostly straightened things out, he said. That idea involved cobbling together $25,000 from four different sources to hire a forest protection officer for the Wildwood put-in to police the out-of-control parking situation there.

Armstrong said that position will continue this year to make sure not only parking, but rules governing group size and drinking alcohol and partying on the river are observed, he said.

People have been floating the North Star for the past couple of months, though the first crowd of the season showed up last weekend, Armstrong said. The cool, mellow float attracts rafters, stand-up paddleboarders and other boaters to the section of river just east of Aspen.

Sky Mountain Park, located just west of Aspen, also is seeing a lot of mountain biker and hiker traffic since it opened in mid-May, he said. The area was closed until then to allow elk calving.

Open space officials have installed cameras in that area to ensure it remains off limits. Armstrong said the cameras caught a few hikers and mountain bikers accessing closed trails, but not many.

“There was very little poaching this year,” he said.

Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program is considered by many to be one of the area’s crown jewels. It is funded through a property tax that raised about $11 million in 2015 and includes some of the county’s most beloved recreational spots and trails, like Smuggler Mountain, the Hunter Creek Valley, North Star, Sky Mountain, the Rio Grande Trail and the East of Aspen trails.

The tax was reauthorized in November for another 20 years by a voter margin of 70 to 30 percent. The program owns 4,700 acres outright and protects another approximately 15,000 acres though conservation easements.