Restoration and riding in unique experiment in historic Crystal Valley

Coal Basin Ranch opens trail network for public use

Trina Ortega rides down Bear Ridge Trail in the Coal Basin Ranch community trail system in Redstone on Thursday, July 29, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

A private landowner is welcoming mountain bikers with open arms in a unique experiment in the Crystal Valley.

Coal Basin Ranch opened a 5-mile trail network in mid-July that is open to the public at no cost. Riders, trail runners and hikers are welcome seven days a week.

“The whole model of private property being open to the public is unique in Colorado and the West,” said Trina Ortega, manager of the ranch and trail system.

Coal Basin Ranch is owned by the Catena Foundation, which was established by the Walton family, owners of the Walmart empire. Several family members own homes in the Roaring Fork and Crystal valleys.

The Waltons’ Crystal Basin Holdings LLC obtained approval from Pitkin County in October 2018 to build the compact trail network on their 221-acre ranch. An easement on the trails was granted to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails to ensure the system remains public.

The ranch is about 4 miles up Coal Basin Road from Highway 133. While only 5 miles, variety is the spice of the trail network.

“When I think about the trail system as it is, I think about all riders,” Ortega said.

The system has appeal for riders of all levels of ability and is especially accommodating for families. The youngest riders can hone their skills on strider and entry-level bikes on a series of pump track loops and jump line trails that encircle two ponds on the lower ranch.

The Dutch Creek and Bear Ridge trails combine to provide about 4 miles of riding with a nice climb and fast descent with just enough technical spots, short grunts and drops to keep riders on their toes.

Ortega said the setup is ideal for families because one parent can hang with young kids at the easiest trails around the ponds while the other parent can ride the longer loop solo or with kids possessing more advanced skills.

The setting is superb because soaring ridges carved with deep gorges form a horseshoe around the Coal Basin, where there were active coalmines until 1991. The trails wind through aspen and conifer forests and pop into open meadows. A sharp eye can spot waterfalls in distant gullies.

There are a couple of stream crossings and ponds just off the route. The elevation gain on the Dutch Creek Trail is nearly 900 feet over slightly more than 2 miles. The Bear Ridge Trail shoots riders back to the valley floor over an expertly contoured series of switchbacks.

Signs of the old mining operations abound along the trails. The most prominent are the old lamp house, where miners would report to work, pick up their gear and leave personal belongs in lockers before descending underground. On a hillside directly behind the lamp house is an erect water tower.

An information board at the parking lot said Mid-Continent operated five mines at the site from 1956 to 1991.

At one point, the trail switchbacks up a hillside created where waste rock from the coalmines was dumped. The ranch has undertaken extensive rehabilitation of its 221 acres.

“With its mountain bike-centric trails, Coal Basin Ranch was designed as a demonstration site to show how recreation and restoration can come together to promote healthy landscapes and healthy lifestyles,” says the information board at the parking lot. “Our goal is to work with the community to continue restoring the land and provide a place where community members can recreate and experience the outdoors, ultimately discovering how they, too, fit into Coal Basin’s unique story of transformation.”

Ortega said barren patches and hillsides have been seeded with native vegetation as part of the rehab effort. She plans to organize a community volunteer day for the next round of seeding. Longer term she envisions planting willows in riparian areas and creating wetlands.

“I think the restoration resonates with people,” she said.

The riding resonates, as well. Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association has helped with some restoration work and has eagerly promoted the trail network.

If You Go

What: Coal Basin Ranch is private property with a 5-mile trail network open to the public for mountain biking, hiking and trail running. The variety of trails are family friendly.

Where: 4 miles west of Redstone

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

Mike Pritchard, RFMBA executive director, said it is great to see young riders show up to work on skills on the pump track and jump line trails at the lower section of the ranch. Young riders also are doing the climb and quick descent on the bigger loop.

“It sure seems that our next generation of local riders will be much more adept at bike handling than previous generations,” he said.

The trail network also provides access to legal routes in the White River National Forest. At the point where the Dutch Creek Trail tops out and the Bear Ridge descent begins, there’s a connection to the Coal Basin Trail. A rider can add 4 miles out and 4 miles back to get back on the Coal Basin Ranch network.

“The Coal Basin Trail is an old, wide mining road that has an obvious singletrack path down the middle,” he said.

More ambitious riders can take the Coal Basin Trail onto a route called Coal Basin North, “a singletrack where the adventure really ramps up since the old roads are left behind,” Pritchard said.

Ortega said ranch visitation has been spotty so far. Traffic is best Saturdays and Sundays. Warm temperatures have deferred riders during middays and mudslides on Highway 133 have likely deterred the curious.

Some people have visited from outside the area and combined a trip to the ranch’s trail network with other activities. Locals also have taken note of the opportunity.

“There are definitely some Redstone locals that are happy to have singletrack in their backyards,” she said.

Ortega sees her mission this year as working out kinks, testing the model and assessing changes for the future. While expansion of the trail network is a possibility in the future, the goal is to remain small scale.

“We don’t want to flood Coal Basin with tons and tons of people,” Ortega said.