A portion of the "Shire Mile" on the Rio Grande Trail below Stein Park in Aspen. This section of trail is now the focus of both county and city trail planners.
A portion of the \ Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of Pitkin County and the News ran a version of this story on Feb. 22, 2013.

The ongoing discussion by Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails board about the Rio Grande Trail corridor both expanded and contracted on Thursday.

It expanded as open space board members and staff agreed more answers were needed about the costs of improving trail connections to and from the growing Burlingame, Airport Business Center and North 40 neighborhoods.

And it contracted because there is a growing consensus that the Rio Grande Trail puzzle may come down to how the “Shire Mile” is treated.

The Shire Mile is a new working nickname for the mile-and-a-quarter of unpaved Rio Grande Trail that leads down the Roaring Fork River from Stein Park, at the bottom of Cemetery Lane.

This area, also known as “the river gorge” section of trail, is prized by many for its smooth dirt trail, tall trees, gold-hued buttes and proximity to the river.

Like the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” it is seen as a verdant, peaceful and bucolic area.

Most members of the open space board, and some passionate members of the public, feel that to pave a trail through the Shire would detract from its best qualities.

Paving the “Sage Flats” and “Shale Bluffs” section of the Rio Grande Trail, however, is much less controversial.

Most everyone close to the planning effort concurs that paving the 1.5-mile-long Sage Flats section makes sense, as there also is room for an adjacent soft-surface trail.

And many agree that paving the 1.35-mile-long Shale Bluffs stretch is probably OK, depending on how much it costs, given the technical challenges posed by the section’s steep slopes and loose soil.

But the 1.25 mile — the Shire Mile — is a sticking point.

Acting on fresh direction given this week by Aspen City Council, the city’s manager of parks and recreation, Jeff Woods, came to the county open space meeting on Thursday with an offer of assistance.

Praising the open space team, and the work it has done to date, Woods said he and his staff could help the county design and construct — but not pay for — a solution to the Rio Grande Trail problem that the county has now been working on for two years.

“We really want, from the city of Aspen, a good connection to the Rio Grande Trail,” Woods said. “It is critical to make the trail a solid connection, that’s safe, and aesthetically and environmentally sensitive, from Aspen all the way to Glenwood.”

The city open space board has said in the past that it would let the county open space board tackle the Rio Grande Trail issue on its own.

“Partnering with the city is a big gain,” Tim McFlynn, a longtime county open space board member, said on Thursday. “We’re in a better place. We have a partner now.”

And while Woods said he didn’t have a specific recommendation for the trail surface through the Shire, he cited his experience building a cracked-concrete trail along the Virgin River in Zion National Park.

“We restored landscape right up to the edge so it disappears, and that may be a solution,” Woods said in an interview after the meeting.

Woods also pointed out that the Shire Mile is not a pristine landscape, but rather a former railroad right of way that now includes a number of informal trails leading down to the river, which are causing erosion problems.

“How do we make it a better resource and still have a bike path in it?” said Woods of the area. “Maybe it is a soft surface that’s totally stabilized.”

Woods said city and county open space staffers have worked successfully together to build other challenging trail sections around the community, and he had “high faith” they could do so on the Rio Grande Trail.

“City Council hasn’t told me make it asphalt, make it concrete, they didn’t say that,” Woods said. “They did say they want us to partner.”

The county open space board was sent back to the drawing board last week when the county commissioners unanimously rejected a recommendation to spend $290,000 on an engineering firm to study a proposed bridge connecting the Rio Grande Trail to the Airport Business Center side of the river.

A majority of the open space board felt the new bridge would provide a hard-surface biking trail into Aspen from Woody Creek and preserve the Shire or “river gorge” area.

But the county commissioners said the board should first focus on the Rio Grande corridor and then look at trail connections on the increasingly urban side of the river.

The open space board will take up the subject again at its next meeting on March 7.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...