The "Shale Bluffs" section of the Rio Grande Trail. The trail, covered in snow in this photo, has steep and loose slopes both above and below it. A proposed bridge would have crossed the river downstream of the shale cliffs.Smith/Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

When it comes to the 4.1 miles of the Rio Grande Trail that are not paved between Cemetery Lane and McLain Flats Road, Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday recommended putting a proposed new bridge aside, paving the lower 1.5 miles of the section this spring, and leaving the rest of the 2.6 miles of trail improved, but still unpaved.

All five of the county commissioners agreed during a work session discussion that a proposed bike and pedestrian bridge — spanning a deep section of the Roaring Fork River canyon from the Rio Grande Trail to open land downstream of the Aspen Airport Business Center — was not something they would support at this time.

“I’d like to see that put off, quite frankly — the bridge itself,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley.

Instead Owsley expressed support for paving the lower “Sage Flats” section of the trail this spring and building a “very solid soft surface” on the upper sections of trail, now often referred to as the “Shale Bluffs” section and the “River Gorge” section.

A view of the Roaring Fork River valley gorge below the confluence with Maroon Creek. The "Shale Bluffs" section of the trail is visible, as is the river valley a proposed bridge would cross below the Aspen Airport Business Center. The section of the trail known as "Sage Flats" is also visible as a thin ribbon of white.Smith/Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Commissioner Rachel Richards agreed with Owsley’s suggestion, adding that it would be a dual-surface trail through the Sage Flats section, as there was room to build both. A dual-surface trail has both paved and unpaved components.

She also recommended to open space and trails staff that they “keep narrowing the scope of the project.”

Commissioners Steve Child, George Newman and Rob Ittner concurred with Richards and Owsley.

The board also agreed that it made sense to then see what the public thought of those initial trail improvements before making further any improvements.

The county’s Open Space and Trails Board and staff had recommended exploring the bridge option further by spending $290,000 on an engineering feasibility study.

The bridge option would create a hard-surface trail into Aspen and connect the Rio Grande Trail with existing bike trails along Highway 82 between downtown Aspen and the Airport Business Center.

And it would avoid the necessity of paving the Shale Bluffs and River Gorge sections of the Rio Grande Trail above Sage Flats.

The Sage Flats section is 1.5 miles long and ends where the shale bluffs — a mini version of those along Highway 82 — start.

This section is wide, flat and sometimes sandy.

The Shale Bluffs section is 1.35 miles long and ends at the small trailside waterfall. This section has steep slopes above and below the trail, is poorly drained, has consistent rockfall and would be an expensive place to build a paved trail.

It’s 1.25 miles from the waterfall to Stein Park through the “River Gorge,” which includes the Slaughterhouse Falls rapid on the Roaring Fork River.

This section is valued by a majority of the open space board and some citizens for its remote feeling and smooth dirt trail.

The "River Gorge" section of the Rio Grande Trail. Pitkin County has recently added the gold buttes above the trail to its portfolio of open space properties.Smith/Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The Rio Grande Trail
is paved for its 42-mile length between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, except for the 4.1-mile stretch between Stein Park and the W/J hill.

County open space and trails director Dale Will said a preliminary cost estimate for the option supported by the commissioners on Tuesday is $2.6 million.

The bridge option is estimated to cost $6.2 million and paving the trail in a manner consistent with the rest of the Rio Grande Trail would cost $6.1 million.

A Cadillac version of paving the 4.1-mile trail section came in at $22 million, primarily because of the challenging Shale Bluffs section.

The Rio Grande Trail planning process, which has been underway since 2011, now goes back to the Open Space and Trails Board, which has two more meetings set before a joint meeting on the topic with the commissioners on March 19.

The waterfall along the Rio Grande Trail, looking downvalley.Smith/Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Editor’s note: This story was published in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News.