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Trail proposed to connect Carbondale and the Butte

A 73-mile bicycle trail that would go through one of the prettiest valleys in Colorado and over one of the most spectacular, aspen-filled mountain passes is being studied for feasibility.

The West Elk Loop Scenic Byway Commission has hired a consultant to study how a trail could be built between Carbondale and Crested Butte and how much it would cost.

After the preliminary work, consultant Tom Newland of Basalt is convinced that the link between the towns could provide the next classic touring trail, along the lines of the Kokopelli or the White Rim trails, popular routes for multiday tours in the desert.



“It’s not a cheap endeavor but it’s got a lot of interest from people on both sides of the hill,” said Newland. “We do have an alignment that works.”

The idea is far from a slam-dunk, however.




Newland is no stranger to sticky politics, working previously as an assistant manager in Pitkin County and on railroad feasibility plans. Therefore, he stressed that nothing has been approved and that citizens will get ample say on what is now just a proposal.

However, he is ecstatic about the possibilities.

Backcountry treat

As envisioned, the trail would meander alongside the Crystal River between Carbondale and Redstone. Riders will be able to soak in the scenery that boasts steep red-rock cliffs pinching the valley and magnificent views of Mount Sopris.

Another highlight would be snaking up the switchback of the old road on McClure Pass. When riders aren’t sucking wind on the uphill or taking the white-knuckle descent, the pass provides great views of majestic Chair Mountain, Sopris and the Crystal Valley below.

The trail would parallel Highway 133 from the summit of McClure Pass, traverse the pastures and bucolic natural terrain on the far side of the pass, then shoot through the narrow passageway between a cliff and Paonia Reservoir. From there it would peel away from the highway where the gravel Kebler Pass Road begins.

Anyone who has driven Kebler during leaf-peeping season understands how astounding it could be to ride through the thick, endless aspen trees that lay a carpet of yellow on the forest floor.

The bike trail is proposed to be located 50 to 300 feet off the gravel road to accommodate a mellower experience.

Newland said the study envisions a three-season trail that could be biked anytime but winters. The assumption is that an 8-foot-wide trail would be paved from Carbondale to Redstone. It would have a soft surface from Carbondale to Crested Butte.

Check those specs

The proposed trail has impressive specifications. Newland said he would recommend riding it from Crested Butte toward Carbondale to take advantage of the Butte’s elevation. Obviously the trail would be popular both ways.

Crested Butte, one of the most beautiful mountain towns in Colorado, is at 8,909 feet. Kebler Pass tops out at 10,200 feet seven miles from the Butte.

From the top of the pass to Paonia Reservoir Dam, it is about 26 miles along a stretch that is largely undeveloped and filled with aspens and cow pastures. There is an elevation loss of nearly 4,000 feet.

The distance from the dam to the top of McClure Pass is about 17 miles. The home stretch from the pass to Carbondale, via Redstone, is almost 24 miles.

Newland said he believes the trail could be a destination unto itself for avid cyclists. He imagines many bikers would divide the trail into segments, make it a multiday tour and stay in the small towns along the way or nearby, resulting in an economic boon to the towns.

Prospects for pursuit

The West Elk Loop Scenic Byway is a circular road route with a tail. It starts in Carbondale and goes by Redstone, over McClure Pass to the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss before connecting to Highway 92 and the town of Crawford before skirting the north rim of the Black Canyon and connecting to Highway 50. Highway 50 goes to Gunnison, then Highway 135 winds to Crested Butte and Kebler Pass brings the loop back to Highway 133.

A commission, which includes the county and municipal governments as well as the federal agencies that manage land along the route, looks for ways to promote tourism along the way. They have put up interpretative signs at places like the coke ovens outside of Redstone and highlighted natural features.

The commission put out a request for proposals in June for a study of the alignment of a trail along the West Elk Loop. Newland placed the winning bid and is now studying the environmental constraints and connections to other trails.

There are multiple places in the Crystal River Valley where natural terrain all but eliminates the possibility of a trail separated from Highway 133. The trail and highway would have to share the right of way in spots. Paonia Reservoir and Erickson Spring on the Kebler Pass Road also present problems, according to Newland.

He presented his preliminary findings Friday to some members of the commission who gathered in Paonia. A second presentation, which is open to the public, will be made at the Redstone Inn at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

Folks in Crested Butte, one of the mountain biking capitals of Colorado, aren’t waiting to get started. They’ve harnessed volunteer efforts to start work on a six-mile stretch from town to Irwin Lake.

Newland said that, assuming the trail gets approved, work could begin in 2004 or 2005 on a four-mile stretch from Carbondale to property owned by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program, where Thompson Creek joins the Crystal River.

Despite a potentially strong start, the cost of the overall project will be huge. Newland said current costs are $50 to $60 per foot for paved paths and $15 to $20 per foot for unpaved sections.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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