Walton family members ready to build public bike trails on their private land near Redstone

This image from an application to Pitkin County shows the Coal Basin Trail System that members of the Walton family are preparing to build. The trails will be open to the public.
Courtesy image

Members of the Walton family plan to start construction this summer on 4.5 miles of trails on their private property in Coal Basin that will be open to the public when completed in 2020.

The Waltons’ Crystal Basin Holdings LLC gained approval from the Pitkin County commissioners in October to build a compact trail network that will be designed for mountain bikers but open to use by runners and hikers.

“Winter hiking, fat-tire mountain biking and Nordic skiing may be allowed on some system trails and may be supported through traditional Nordic grooming techniques,” said an operations and management plan submitted to the county.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of directors voted 5-0 in April to recommend that the county commissioners accept an easement for the trail that will be held by the county. That’s a formality to ensure the network remains open long-term and free of charge to the public. Crystal Basin Holdings will construct and oversee the trail.

The Waltons own 221 acres about 4 miles up Coal Basin Road, west-northwest of Redstone. Sam and Ben Walton, heirs of the family that build the Walmart empire, have homes in Aspen. Their Coal Basin property is the last private land remaining from about 5,800 acres that was once owned by Mid-Continent Resources, which operated underground coal mines there from 1951 to 1991. Most of the land was transferred to the White River National Forest, so the site is surrounded by national forest.

Crystal Basin Holdings’ application is unique because it is a rare case when a private landowner is offering public use of land. Usually Pitkin County is the entity pushing for a trail easement

The application said its intent on opening the trail network is to “provide recreation and access to the surroundings of the Coal Creek and Dutch Creek forested areas on the private property for the general public.”

A goal, according to the application, is to “teach skills, associated responsibilities and ethics to the next generation of riders.”

Parts of the network will accommodate mountain bikers of all abilities, from beginners to experts. The network would include the Gateway, Dutch Creek and Ridge trails. Gateway will include features to help young and beginning riders to build skills. Dutch Creek will be singletrack along the stream. Ridge will be a beginner downhill flow trail.

The county found that the proposal was consistent with the Crystal River Master Plan despite opposition from the Crystal River Caucus.

“We recognize this development is on private land,” said a letter to the county from Delia Malone, then the chair of the Caucus. “Our opposition is not to the development of a private parcel as such but rather is due to the likely negative impacts on surrounding public lands from this proposed development.”

The fear of the Caucus is that use of the property will lead to a “flood of mechanized recreation that conflicts with historic wildlife and human uses and the values of the Crystal River Caucus,” the letter said.

The U.S. Forest Service reported to the county in an email last September that Crystal Basin Holdings approached the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District prior to seeking county approval and pledged pro-active cooperation to prevent construction of “bandit” trails off their property into the national forest.

“The Ranger District has experienced an uptick in illegal trail building on National Forest System lands across the ranger district and even in our wilderness areas,” Kevin Warner of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District wrote to the county. “The illegal trail developments anecdotally appear to be primarily associated with mountain biking trails.

“Therefore the ranger district has encouraged the landowner to work with us to ensure that a proliferation of user-created trails do not appear on the National Forest System lands adjacent to this private land project. The landowner has stated a willingness to do so through signage, education, etc.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife also expressed a concern about bandit trails that are already materializing in Coal Basin.

“Several non-system trails are already seeing considerable use and this proposal will likely only increase that usage,” John Groves, wildlife officer for the Crystal Valley, wrote in an email to a county consultant.

However, Groves found that the mountain bike network confined to the Waltons’ property wouldn’t interfere with elk production habitat in the area. Steep slopes south of Dutch Creek would prevent significant disturbance on elk calving grounds in Bear Creek from the proposed trail network, Groves wrote.

Crystal Basin Holdings’ application to the county vowed that if any bandit trails are discovered leading from its property to the national forest, it will immediately close and reclaim them. Representatives said the opening of the sanctioned trail network would provide help monitoring for bandit use, something the Forest Service is unable to do.

Ten people from the Redstone and Carbondale areas wrote to the county in support of the proposal.