Rio Grande Trail, Colorado

Posted 01/01/13 by Laura Stark in America's Trails

Trail of the Month: January 2013

During Colorado's silver mining boom more than a century ago, two railroads struggled for supremacy over the Roaring Forks Valley, in a competition to see which could first finish the tracks into Aspen and lay claim to the rich silver deposits there.

The strategy of the Colorado Midland Railroad was to take a shorter, but difficult route involving a large number of trestles and extensive tunneling through the Rocky Mountains. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad's method, which ultimately proved successful, was to construct a narrow-gauge railroad—which took less time and money to construct than standard gauge—over a longer, but less demanding route. The Denver & Rio Grande reached Aspen in 1887. Today, the Rio Grande Trail (named for the victor) runs through the rail corridor and, in some places, you can still see the old tracks and trestle bridges.

But that was not the last time the corridor was hotly contested. Since 2006, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), supported by pro bono counsel Richard Allen with the law firm of Zuckert, Scoutt, & Rasenberger, has been involved in defending against a claim filed by one of the trail's adjacent landowners against the government of the United States, seeking compensation for land they believe was "taken" as a result of the federal railbanking law. It is a case that deals with important legal principles for federally granted rights-of-way.

When the trail first grabbed our attention for a Trail of the Month feature more than 10 years ago, it was already a stunner at only seven miles long. Since then the rail-trail has blossomed, and now stretches 42 miles between the ski towns of Aspen and Glenwood Springs, with gorgeous views of the Roaring Fork River, the surrounding mountains and tall aspens that turn bright gold in the fall.

Gary Tennenbaum remembers our original story. It was published right around the time he began as stewardship and trails manager for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, which is responsible for the county's 18-mile stretch of the trail from Emma to Aspen. When asked about the trail's development over the past decade, the first word that comes to Tennenbaum's mind is "rapid."

"After Pitkin County started to pave sections of the trail, it started a groundswell of community support," says Tennenbaum. "People said 'let's get it paved and get it all connected.'"

Completed in 2008, the trail is managed by the Roaring Forks Transportation Authority (RFTA), working with partnering agencies like Pitkin County and the City of Aspen. The last big challenge to its development is to decide what to do with the four-mile section from Woody Creek to Aspen's Stein Park. The gravel pathway here has been used as a trail since the 1960s, and some want to keep it that way. Others see it as the only part of the trail left unpaved and want a smooth ride, end-to-end.

"We're looking at different options," Tennenbaum says. "It's a difficult area that's very narrow with steep drop-offs. We're having discussions with the community and, hopefully, will have a decision within the next three months."

The decision is an important one as Woody Creek is one of the most popular stopping points on the trail. In this town made famous by legendary journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, you'll find the quirky and lively Woody Creek Tavern. The fame of the Woody Creek Tavern, frequently mentioned in Thompson's writings, has made renting bikes in Aspen, pedaling eight miles along the scenic Rio Grande Trail and grabbing lunch at the tavern a popular summertime pursuit for both locals and tourists.

"The trail is a huge benefit for the Woody Creek Tavern," says Tennenbaum. "They have full bike racks that the big cities don't even have. In the summer, you'll see more than a hundred bikes there."

One thing you won't find on the trail yet is interpretive signage about the history of the rail corridor. But this is something Tennenbaum hopes to pursue once a decision has been made on whether to pave the Woody Creek section. Presently, its history can be explored in the Glenwood Railroad Museum, only a half-mile from the trail's western end. The museum, offering railroad artifacts, old photographs and a large-scale model railroad, is housed in the Glenwood Springs station, built in 1904 and still serving Amtrak trains today.

With its mining heydays long gone, the area is once again rich in unspoiled natural beauty. The trail closely parallels the Roaring Fork River for much of its length, and animals can often be spotted along its banks. This ready connection to wildlife is a special treat, especially for city dwellers. In the winter, the valley provides such a critical range for deer and elk that a small section of the trail between Basalt and Carbondale is closed annually from November to April and re-routed on the road.

"I think my most memorable experiences on the trail have been wildlife sightings," says Austin Weiss, trail manager for the City of Aspen, who frequently trains for marathons on the trail. "It's common to run into a black bear or deer or elk, and there are mountain lions in the area, too." Around Rock Bottom Ranch, one of his favorite trail spots, he often sees heron and bald eagles.

When the rail corridor was purchased in 1997, one of the justifications was "creating recreation connectivity in the Roaring Forks Valley." In that endeavor, the trail has been tremendously successful.

"The trail is a great way for communities to connect," says Tennenbaum, who lives in Basalt and commutes on the trail. "I bump into people all the time. Our trail counters show that thousands and thousands of people use it."


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