Public safety issues plague Stillwater Bridge area east of Aspen |

Public safety issues plague Stillwater Bridge area east of Aspen

Jay Morin straps stand-up paddleboards to the top of his SUV alongside Highway 82 Sunday near the Stillwater Bridge take-out for the North Star Nature Preserve.
Anna Stonehouse/Special to The Aspen Times

As the float through the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen has become more and more popular, parking and pedestrian issues at the Stillwater Bridge take-out alongside Highway 82 have become more and more chaotic.

“I was up there the other day to visit a friend and I called the Sheriff’s Office,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “People were everywhere. They were, like, dazed and glazed and walking in the middle of the road.

“I was like, ‘What are you guys doing? Are you crazy?’”

And while Clapper, officials with Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program and the Colorado Department of Transportation all agree the situation at Stillwater is problematic and dangerous, there’s no plan to remedy it and practically nothing is currently in place to warn drivers or protect pedestrians.

“We’ve seen that use explode as paddleboards have taken off,” said Andrew Knapp, a Glenwood Springs-based engineer with CDOT. “We’re generally not well positioned to address those rapidly changing uses.”

The North Star Nature Preserve is owned by the county’s Open Space program, and is the only flat stretch of the Roaring Fork River in the valley. Floating on stand-up paddleboards and other floatation devices from the Wildwood put-in to the Stillwater Bridge take-out has become exponentially more popular in the past few years as both locals and tourists have discovered the preserve’s beauty.

The first major parking problems associated with North Star occurred a few years ago at the Wildwood put-in, when people repeatedly parked in the fire lane and along the road to Wildwood School. After a ranger was posted at the site in 2016, those issues have mostly dissipated, though parking and unloading at Wildwood can still be challenging.

The problem at Stillwater Bridge is that it’s bracketed by blind, sharp curves below and above the bridge, which means drivers on the highway have limited sightlines and limited time to react to pedestrians and obstacles in the road, said Pryce Hadley, ranger supervisor for Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program.

Further, there’s not much space on either side of the highway to park at Stillwater, which compounds the safety problems, he said. Finally, floaters on the river are allowed to drink alcohol, which leads to a certain amount of inebriation at the take-out area as well.

“There’s real traffic danger there,” Hadley said. “I think there’s considerable concern. There’s little we can do to keep people from crossing the road.”

Clapper said people were everywhere when she went through the Stillwater area in the early afternoon on Saturday, July 20.

“I was concerned someone was going to get hit,” she said. “I’m concerned about public safety.”

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said while his office hasn’t received many complaints about the situation, he knows about the congestion and agrees with Clapper.

“I’ve always thought it was dangerous,” he said. “I just don’t know what to do about it.”

A sign warning of pedestrian activity is posted along the highway just below the bridge as drivers head out of Aspen toward Independence Pass, Hadley said. However, the sign is rotated during the winter so drivers can’t see it and has not been rotated back this summer because CDOT changed the sign base so it won’t rotate anymore, he said.

Hadley said he asked CDOT to find a way to rotate the sign a month ago, but hasn’t heard anything back.

There are no signs directly above Stillwater Bridge warning drivers coming in to Aspen from Independence Pass of the upcoming pedestrian activity.

Knapp said Tuesday was the first he’d heard about the sign that wouldn’t rotate. He said he dispatched a maintenance crew to fix the problem.

Hadley said that if he was able to make immediate changes to the area, he’d install more signs warning of the congested area, possibly trim some trees on the blind curves to improve sightlines and perhaps install a crosswalk at the bridge itself. Improving river-users’ “situational awareness” on the area and the fact that it’s a state highway also is key, he said.

The problem is the county can’t simply make changes along Highway 82, Clapper said. It’s CDOT’s road, so therefore that agency must be the one to install more signs or lower the speed limit, she said.

The process for installing more signs is relatively simple and quick, Knapp said. CDOT’s regional traffic unit in Grand Junction will take a look at the area based on Knapp’s request Tuesday and if they agree more signs are necessary, they could be installed in a few weeks, he said.

Lowering the speed limit is more involved and generally requires a traffic study, which in some cases might even increase the speed limit in an area, Knapp said.

Hadley urged people to park at the wildlife observation deck parking area less than a quarter mile up the road from Stillwater. The East of Aspen bike/pedestrian trail connects the two areas, so there’s no need to walk along the highway, he said.

Lindsey Utter, the Open Space program’s planning and outreach manager, said the parking and safety issues at Stillwater will undoubtedly come up next year when North Star’s management plan is set to be readdressed. That’s when tricky questions like whether there’s not enough parking or whether too many people are using the river at any give time will be discussed on a more in-depth basis, she said.

“I don’t think the current situation is ideal and we’re trying to work on solutions,” Utter said. “We don’t want anyone hurt.”