Ute Trail likely to open later this month | AspenTimes.com

Ute Trail likely to open later this month

The large, precariously balanced rock responsible for closing a popular Aspen Mountain hiking trail has been whittled down and the trail could open before the end of the month, officials said Tuesday.

Work has been completed atop the Ute Trail and Ute Rock — which split apart when it was hit by lightning during a thunderstorm this fall — is now significantly smaller, said G.R. Fielding, Pitkin County engineer.

The contractor now must bring in a helicopter again to ferry out the rock-breaking equipment that was transported to the top of the ridge in mid-December, also by helicopter, before the trail can reopen, he said. That work is scheduled to be done on Jan. 18 provided the weather cooperates, Fielding said.

The city of Aspen plans to re-open the trail the following day after the equipment is flown out, said Austin Weiss, the city's parks and open space director.

The city administers the Ute Trail trailhead because it is on city property. The county dealt with Ute Rock, however, because it owns a mining claim at the top of the trail where the rock is located. In between the two is mainly U.S. Forest Service land.

The trail has been closed since September after the lightning strike sent large boulders crashing down the steep slope where the trail is located. A geologist who examined the remaining portion of the rock said it would likely break off and fall within the next five to 10 years.

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Pitkin County commissioners decided to spend $124,000 to reduce the safety hazard on the popular hiking trail — located on Aspen Mountain's east side — rather than take a chance that it might break loose and strike a person or property below.

Crews have spent the past couple of weeks whittling down the 8-by-8-by-4-foot hunk of Ute Rock to about 2-by-2-by-21/2 feet, Fielding said. The debris was transported farther up the ridge and deposited in holes that used to be mine shafts, he said.

The day crews take the equipment off the ridge, they also will secure the remaining piece of Ute Rock with a steel cable to make sure it doesn't break loose in the future, Fielding said. Crews didn't remove the entire rock because it is connected to the rest of the ridge and might have caused further destabilization if it was fully taken out, he said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com