Rio Grande from rail to trail |

Rio Grande from rail to trail

Janet Urquhart
Signs from the Rio Grande corridors former life as a railroad still line the trail. This one proclaims the corridor the property of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Co., though it was purchased by valley governments in 1996. (Janet Urquhart/Aspen Times Weekly)

It has been more than a decade since a consortium of local governments forged a complex deal to jointly purchase a railroad corridor linking both ends of the Roaring Fork Valley, giving rise to the dream of a valleywide trail connecting Aspen and Glenwood Springs and, perhaps, a commuter rail line.Eleven years later, one of those visions is close to becoming a reality.With the expected paving of a trail segment above Glenwood Springs before the year is out, bicyclists will, for the first time, be able to pedal the length of the valley without venturing onto treacherous Highway 82, using the completed pieces of the Rio Grande Trail in combination with other county roads to make the trip on a paved surface.Though only the most avid bicyclists are likely to travel the full length of the valley with any frequency, various segments of the trail have already become part of the community fabric a safe place for youngsters mastering their biking skills with mom and dad, the favored destination for an evening stroll with the family dog or a morning jog, and even a summertime option for workday commutes between Carbondale and Basalt.In the winter, nordic tracks are set on trail sections in Basalt and above Carbondale, expanding a recreational element that Aspenites have enjoyed for years.In fact, Aspen and Pitkin County have known the pleasure of a backyard trail since 1969, when the rails were ripped out of the corridor between Aspen and Woody Creek and the route donated to Pitkin County. The section between Aspen and Stein Park has been paved since the late 1970s or early 1980s, as nearly as local officials can recollect.

But it wasnt until 1996 that, in a spirit of unprecedented cooperation and foresight, five valley municipalities and three counties ponied up $8.5 million to purchase the remaining 33 miles of the rail corridor, from Woody Creek to Glenwood Springs, from Southern Pacific. The sum included a $1.5 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado.By the time the trail construction and paving are complete, another $12 million-plus will have been spent on creating a pedestrian and bike trail where the weed-choked and mostly abandoned rails once tracked through the valley.With the paving of the Wingo Junction-to-Emma and Hooks Lane-to-Catherine bridge sections late in 2006, the trail connection between Aspen and Carbondale was completed. This year, a 5.2-mile segment from 23rd Street in Glenwood Springs to County Road 114 (the CMC turnoff from Highway 82) is slated for paving, at a cost of roughly $1.9 million, according to Mike Hermes, director of property and trails for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. RFTA, the valleys bus agency, also oversees the rail corridor below the Pitkin County line.The work will leave about five miles between County Road 114 and Carbondale unfinished, but bicyclists looking for a paved route can use County Road 109 to avoid the missing link, finally taking Highway 82 out of the equation. The final five miles will cost roughly $2 million to prepare and pave; 2009 is the target completion date unless an influx of outside funding allows RFTA to build the entire segment at once in 2008, Hermes said.Below 23rd Street, an existing bike trail continues into the heart of Glenwood Springs.In all, the Rio Grande Trail covers roughly 41 miles, with an elevation change of 2,120 feet between the heart of Glenwood Springs and Aspen.

Build it and they will comeCounters placed at various points along the completed sections of the Rio Grande Trail confirm the routes growing popularity, trail officials are quick to note.Even before formal trail construction began, neighboring locals ventured onto the corridor to enjoy its solitude and, in many areas, a much different view of the valley than the familiar one from Highway 82.But use spiked quickly with trail improvements. A counter has been installed on the trail just outside of Carbondale, where the trail extends upvalley toward the Catherine bridge, since Jan. 14. By July 1, 39,000 pedestrians, bicyclists and others had been tallied, according to Hermes, including about 2,000 on June 21 when participants in Ride the Rockies an annual bike tour that takes in parts of Colorado headed upvalley on the Rio Grande Trail.Thats a lot of folks riding that trail, Hermes said of the overall count. Weve got a shot at hitting 100,000 people a year crossing right there. Thats a big number.The upper Rio Grande near Aspen saw an average of 370 users a day during July and August 2001, according to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. Average daily use in July of this year was 545.Adding pavement appears to increase use substantially. The section between Wingo Junction and Emma was initially created as a soft-surface trail, then paved in fall 2006, with a soft shoulder left intact for equestrians and joggers. A trail counter in that section recorded an average of 40 users per day during July and August 2006, before the paving. This year, average daily users in July numbered 141, according to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.

Whats next?When the paving of the former rail corridor between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs is complete, the only remaining gravel section of the Rio Grande Trail will lie in Pitkin County the section between Stein Park and Woody Creek.There are already plans to pave part of it the segment between Upper River Road (just below the Woody Creek Tavern) and McLain Flats Road, possibly this summer and fall, which will give road bikers an alternative route via which to climb up onto McLain Flats or, in the opposite direction, descend into Woody Creek.We believe its important if we pave it, people who are trying to get to Aspen on skinny tires can climb up the most dangerous section of the hill on a steady grade, said Dale Will, director of county Open Space and Trails.Whats more, a user survey indicated support for paving that section.But survey respondents were split on the topic of paving the packed gravel segment between Stein Park and Woody Creek, popular with equestrians, joggers and walkers, and easily rideable on a mountain bike. For road bikers, however, the segment remains a roadblock to a bike path connection between Aspen and points downvalley. The alternative, McLain Flats Road, is a winding route with no shoulders, where both vehicles and bicyclists travel at a speedy clip.Some people think McLain Flats Road makes a perfectly acceptable connection, Will said. Some people take the opposite view.Most certainly, any push to pave that section will have both vocal supporters and detractors. Even the improvement of its surface with crusher fines a finely packed gravel surface elicited complaints from a segment of the community that enjoyed beginner-level mountain biking that the previously rougher trail provided.Some people feel we ruined the Buttermilk of mountain biking, Will said.Still, the county anticipates pressure to pave the remaining link, once the rest of the Rio Grande Trail is finished, he conceded.I can see the pros and cons, Will said. Im not sure I have a recommendation other than to see what the majority will is on it. It will be ultimately up to what the public wants to see in Aspen.Janet Urquharts e-mail address is