Snowmass town council considers trail use at Sky Mountain Park |

Snowmass town council considers trail use at Sky Mountain Park

Management plan could be adopted in December

A mountain biker makes a turn on Viewline Trail in Sky Mountain Park in Snowmass on Monday, June 14, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

After a summer’s worth of public comment on the state of Sky Mountain Park, there’s one thing open space planners know for certain: It’s a huge hit with mountain bikers, who use the Snowmass Village trail network more than any other user group by a landslide.

That’s according to an initial survey on the park organized by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, which has been developing the park’s updated management plan this year and accepted public comment through mid-fall via two surveys and other opportunities for feedback. Open Space and Trails Director Gary Tennenbaum and Senior Planner Carly Klein presented the results – and the proposed management plan — to a receptive Snowmass Village Town Council on Nov. 8.

Who owns what?

The town is a “huge partner in land” that has enabled Sky Mountain Park to cover as much territory as it does, thanks in part to the acquisition of “two key parcels of land,” said Open Space and Trails Director Gary Tennenbaum.

Those parcels are the Upper North Mesa area, which includes part of Rim Trail North and the Upper North Mesa hiking and equestrian trail, and the Hidden Valley area, which encompasses Highline, Lowline, most of Deadline and about half of the Viewline trail.

Together with the land owned by Pitkin County Open Space and Trails (Seven Star, Cozy Point South and most of the Droste land at the heart the park), plus some conservation easements and small parcels owned by the city of Aspen, the park has more than 2,400 acres of land and nearly 28 miles of mostly intermediate, smooth singletrack.

Some maintenance in the park is funded by a half-cent parks and open space sales tax, but the county does partner with Snowmass Village on funding for some projects on town-owned land, Tennenbaum said.

“The relationship between the town and the county, at least in the open space and parks world, has just been spectacular,” Tennenbaum said.

Of the 665 respondents to the initial survey, nearly 91% were mountain bikers. People traveling on foot made up most of the remainder, with 3% of respondents identifying as trail runners and 2% as hikers. Those numbers are reflective of who’s actually using the park based on data from trail counters, according to Klein.

But when the town and the county teamed up nearly a decade ago in a partnership to establish the park, that wasn’t necessarily the demographic breakdown some had in mind.

“I don’t think it was the intention that Sky Mountain Park became a mountain bike park but that seems to have been what’s happened,” Councilman Bob Sirkus said.

Tennenbaum agreed on that front.

“When we bought Sky Mountain Park, I don’t know that we really knew what kind of use we would get, and when we were doing the original management plan we tried to figure out how to encourage all non-motorized uses,” Tennenbaum said.

As for why there are so many bikers at the park, there could be a number of factors at play, according to Tennenbaum. Hikers seem to gravitate toward trailheads where they can park close; bikers can cover distances like the stretch between Buttermilk and Airline more easily than hikers can, for instance.

Also, there are plenty trails in the upper valley to disperse hikers, but there aren’t as many smooth intermediate bike trails, so those riders might be tending toward Sky Mountain Park because it fills that need for trail progression that isn’t advanced or technical in terrain.

Plus, some hikers might just head to areas where there are fewer bikers to avoid user conflicts, which is one spot where survey respondents note there’s a need for improvement. The county is working on addressing that with the new management plan, which includes initiatives like updating signage and establishing a downhill-only trail on Airline and creating a new route for hiking and uphill riding.

Really, though, planners are still trying to figure out what makes Sky Mountain Park so popular for bikers relative to hikers and trail runners. That’s going to take time, Tennenbaum said, but the new management plan does include initiatives — signage and directional trails included — that could encourage more hiking use.

“The goal is to make hikers feel more comfortable on all these trails, so how do we do that everywhere?” Tennenbaum said.

By and large, the responses to the survey from park users were “overwhelmingly positive,” Klein said. Respondents identified that need for more ways to address user safety, and some also noted a desire for more trail variety, since there aren’t many beginner or advanced trails within the park.

But diversifying trail offerings would come with impacts to the large swaths of open space in the park that wildlife use as a refuge, Klein noted; the county is monitoring some opportunities for trail connectivity, especially between Ditchline and Cozyline, but there are no plans for big trail additions throughout most of the park.

“If we think of the park in the context of the broader recreation setting, you have the downhill mountain bike park over at Snowmass, you have some easier options in other locations. … The park can’t serve all things for everybody and support the wildlife,” Klein noted.

Council indicated support for the new management plan when they reviewed it this week with kudos to the planners who developed the nearly 170-page compilation of a plan and survey responses, but it will still take a bit of time before the plan is adopted.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board gave a thumbs up on the plan on the county side last week, according to Tennenbaum; it now goes back to the Snowmass Village Parks, Open Space, Trails and Recreation (POSTR) board to recommend adoption for Snowmass town council. (The Snowmass POSTR Board, Aspen Open Space and Trails Board and the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners reviewed the plan this fall.)

Adoption could happen around December, according to Tennenbaum.

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