The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails department expects to pave just under 2 miles of the Rio Grande Trail this summer from McLain Flats Road and across the “sage flats” to where the path is confined by steep shale cliffs.

From that point to Stein Park at the bottom of Cemetery Lane, the remaining 2 miles of trail will remain a compacted soft-surface while the county continues to study the gorge area and see how users respond to the newly paved section.

The work on the section of the Rio Grande Trail to be paved is described in the recently approved Roaring Fork Gorge Master Plan, which was created by open space and trails and approved by the board of county commissioners in December. The specific work slated for this summer also was reviewed and approved by the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission on April 1.

The work will not require a closure of the popular route that leads to the Woody Creek Tavern, but it will require a detour on the side of the trail, according to Lindsey Utter, a recreation planner with the open space and trails department.

About 600 people a day use the trail during the busy summer months.

The work is not expected to start until mid-summer, Utter said, and will take several months to complete. While the section of the old railroad right-of-way is fairly flat and wide, the project does require preparing a foundation for the asphalt.

The resulting trail will feature a strip of asphalt 10 feet wide. Next to that will be a 4-foot-wide soft surface trail, “plus single-track options where possible,” according to the plan.

“The design will consider the potential for Nordic grooming on the soft surface and provide locations for benches or picnic tables and, possibly, interpretive panels,” the plan states.

Utter said it’s possible two other related projects in the area could occur this year.

The first project is repairing Stein Bridge, which crosses the Roaring Fork River and connects the Rio Grande Trail to a trail that leads up a steep hill to the Aspen Airport Business Center.

And the second project is paving a connecting trail from the Rio Grande down the steep hill to Jaffee Park on the Roaring Fork River. The work on the connecting trail to Jaffee Park will seek, where possible, to reduce the grade that can challenge casual cyclists.

Rough cost estimates for the three projects will be sharpened after engineering drawings are completed and bids are received, Utter said.

The current estimates are $1.4 million for the trail work, $261,000 to repair Stein Bridge and $250,000 for the Jaffee Park connector trail.

Utter said it’s not clear yet if the connecting trail will be built in conjunction with the bridge repair or with the larger trail paving work.

The Stein Bridge, which appears to be sitting mainly on supports made of old railroad ties, “is in need of new abutments,” according to the plan.

The bridge will either be lifted up so new abutments can be constructed underneath it, or, if necessary, the bridge will be picked up and moved a short distance and then put back on top of completely new abutments, Utter said.

Whichever option is chosen, the abutments will be higher above the surface of the river to give boaters running the Slaughterhouse section more room to pass below the bridge at high water.

The work on the bridge is expected to take place in the fall, Utter said.

The late Henry Stein, who bought a ranch in the Red Butte area in 1946 and who also donated the land for Stein Park, put the bridge in place over the Roaring Fork River sometime before 1973.

According to the gorge management plan, he did so “when he lost his office space in Aspen (and) moved (his) shop at what is now the AABC. He wanted to ride his horse between the ranch and the new office, and also to provide fishing access on each side of the river. He found the bridge sitting around unused in Emma and had it hauled up” to the location where it is today.

In 1973, Stein conveyed the bridge to the county for $1.

Whether the last 2 miles of the Rio Grande Trail below Stein Park will be paved remains an open question for the county.

“We received many public comments on the Rio Grande Trail surface,” the management plan states, “ranging from ‘do not change anything’ to ‘pave it.’ Most people seem to be OK with a dual surface in the lower miles — through the sage flats.”

But the 2 miles above the section to be paved “seems to be the most contentious section of trail,” the plan notes. “Those in favor of paving the trail feel that it is something that needs to happen since all but this section of the Rio has a hard-surface component.

“Those in favor of keeping a soft-surface say this section of the Rio is a very special place, with many other uses and features besides the trail and that introducing the asphalt would create higher speed bike traffic, more road bike traffic and change the feel of the canyon from a wild place to an urban one,” the plan states.

Editor’s Note: Aspen Journalism collaborated on this story with the Aspen Daily News, which published the story on Monday, April 21, 2014.

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...