2014 Rio Grand Trail Capacity and Special Events Study Credit: Gabe Preston / RPI Consulting

ASPEN – Adding special events in the summer to an already busy Rio Grande Trail can strain its capacity, but users were more concerned about lapses in etiquette than special events, a planning consultant told county officials on Tuesday.

The “results show a remarkable tolerance for special events among most users,” wrote Gabe Preston of RPI Consulting of Durango in his report. “However, the results also show that some trail users are diverted from the trail during special events, or have their outing disrupted.”

But what appears to really bother trail users on the narrow Rio Grande Trail is the behavior of other users.

“Trail safety was a much more prevalent concern among trail users responding to intercept survey than capacity/crowding or impacts of special events,” the RPI report states. “When asked to describe their concerns, respondents repeatedly cited the following safety and etiquette concerns: cyclists riding too fast, unsafe passing by cyclists, inexperienced cyclists, cyclists not announcing before passing, too many dogs, dogs off leashes, pedestrians walking abreast, cyclists riding abreast.”

Preston also took a look at special events on Maroon Creek Road and found that cyclists on the road were more concerned about cars passing in the wrong place, or going too fast, than the occasional special event.

2014 Rio Grande Trail Capacity and Special Events Study Credit: Gabe Preston / RPI Consulting

The consultant went over the findings of the study at a joint meeting of the Pitkin County commissioners and the county’s open space and trails board.

The consensus after Preston shared his findings was that no new special event policies were necessary.

“It is about staging, timing and event management,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards.

Preston began his study about a year ago after a county open space ranger described to officials the hectic conditions on the Rio Grande Trail during special events on peak summer weekends.

Last summer, Preston and members of the county’s open space department gathered data from trail counters in order to develop capacity ratings, and they conducted short “intercept” interviews with users on the Rio Grande Trail and with cyclists on Maroon Creek Road to better understand their perceptions.

2014 Rio Grande Trail Capacity and Special Events Study Credit: Gabe Preston / RPI
2014 Rio Grande Trail Capacity and Special Events Study Credit: Gabe Preston / RPI Consulting

Who is on the trail?

Trail counters were installed at four locations on the Rio Grande Trail — in Emma, Woody Creek, Stein Park, and between Stein Park and Aspen.

The uppermost section of the trail just below Aspen is the busiest, with an average of 649 users a day in July and August, when about half of all trail use occurs.

Last summer, there were 75 days with more than 600 users. Saturday is the peak day on the trail, with an average of 751 users a day on the top section of the trail.

The Stein Park section of the Rio Grande Trail, which starts below Cemetery Lane, sees 566 users on an average day during July and August.

The Woody Creek section has 293 daily users, while the quiet Emma section sees 128 users per day.

Of the trail users, 54 percent are on mountain, cruiser or hybrid bikes and only 10 percent are on road bikes.

Twenty-three percent of trail users are walking, 9 percent are running and 3 percent are walking dogs, Preston found. Another 1 percent are going boating on the Roaring Fork River, which runs next to the upper trail.

“Half the people we talked to use the trail on a daily, or almost daily basis,” Preston said. “It is part of people’s routine and really important to them.”

Twenty-nine percent of the users were found to be full-time local residents, 36 percent were part-time residents and 35 percent were visitors.

The busiest time on the upper two sections of trail is between 11 a.m. and noon, and 75 percent of the use happens between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“The Rio Grande Trail is an exceptionally busy trail,” said Preston, speaking of the top section. “The only trail that I know of as being nearly as busy is the Dillon Rec Path,” which is in Summit County.

Pitkin County Commissioner Rob Ittner, who runs a restaurant in Aspen and supports special events because of their economic value to the resort, said that “busy is a relative term,” especially to visitors.

Preston said that’s why he developed both an objective “level of service” measurement and conducted interviews.

“I wouldn’t discount the perception of people saying it is sometimes too crowded,” he said.

In the report, Preston found that “the upper stretches of the trail near Aspen are currently operating a functional level, but are entering the early stages of filling capacity during peak season/peak hours.”

From: 2014 Rio Grande Trail Capacity and Special Events Study Credit: Gabe Preston / RPI Consulting

Special event impacts

Preston also found that a special event can overwhelm the capacity of the Rio Grande Trail for an hour or more.

He said there can be conflicts if an event starts at 7:30 a.m. instead of 7 a.m., and then goes on long enough to mix with typical summer weekend use, which peaks at 11 a.m.

On average, special events using the trail have 800 participants and spectators, Preston found.

For example, there were 500 participants in the Aspen Valley Marathon, 1,000 in the annual Boogie’s run on July 4 and 1,550 participants in the Komen Run for the Cure event.

“Larger events have a pretty tangible impact on capacity and to some degree on user experience,” Preston said.

And yet, most trail users interviewed during special events last summer had few complaints.

2014 Rio Grande Trail Capacity and Special Events Study Credit: Gabe Preston / RPI Consulting

Seventy percent “felt that the trail was not crowded or was acceptable,” Preston found.

Another 26 percent “thought the trail was overcrowded at certain times,” and only 3 percent “indicated that the trail was too crowded.”

To help better manage special events, Preston recommend that events on the upper the Rio Grande Trail start by 7 a.m. and end by 10 a.m.

He also recommended that better signage and more course marshals be added along event routes, that events be more carefully scheduled and that a local event calendar be widely publicized.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated with the Aspen Daily News on this story. The News published it on Thursday, March 20, 2014.

Brent Gardner-Smith

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...