Pitkin County officials are working on a trail that will eventually connect Carbondale to Crested Butte. They’ve released possible routes for Pitkin County’s section, which runs to the top of McClure Pass. Elizabeth Stewart-Severy took a tour of the area, exploring both the history and the future of the corridor.
There’s a long history of people traveling through the Crystal River Valley - on foot, in wagons, by rail and now in cars.
Last year, Gov. John Hickenlooper named the area one of 16 priority corridors in the state for a new trail, and Pitkin County Open Space and Trails (OST) staff has released possible alignments for how it could wind through the Crystal Valley.
Dale Will, special projects director for OST, walks along an old railbed that is one possible route.
“We just walked by one of our wildlife cameras -- we should've smiled,” he laughed.
The county already manages several parcels in the Crystal Valley, including Red Wind Point and Filoha Meadows. Will said the old rail platform that runs up much of the valley is a promising option for sections of the trail.
“Laying a trail on top of a railroad grade is actually about the easiest possible thing you can do, the least expensive and the least impactive,” he said. “The grade we’re walking along right now had 20-ton locomotives rolling up and down it for 50 years. It’s already stable, it’s compacted, it’s flat.”
It’s tucked along the east side of the river; on the other side is Hwy 133.
A consultant for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has divided the proposed trail into 20 segments, each with two choices: one alongside Hwy 133 and an off-highway alternative.
While converting the rail bed is relatively simple, a trail along the highway at Red Wind Point and other spots would be more complicated. Highway 133 runs along a steep band of cliffs, and there’s a sheer drop from asphalt to river.
“To squeeze a trail between a highway and a river in a narrow canyon is going to require some pretty fancy engineering in a lot of locations," Will said.
The Narrows, as the name suggests, is one area where there’s a tight squeeze between cliff, road and river. A trail along the two-lane highway would need to be cantilevered out over the river, like a linear bridge.
The stretch is less than a mile, and it comes with an estimated $11 million price-tag.
“By contrast, opposite the river from us, there's not one but two grades, an old wagon road and a rail platform," Will explained.
Converting one of those to a multi-user trail would be less than half a million dollars, a fraction of the cost, but cost and engineering aren’t the only concerns.
Just above the Narrows, near the popular Penny Hot Springs, sits Filoha Meadows, which is designated open space.
"The Filoha Meadows nature preserve is one of the crowning achievements of the open space program to date," Will said.
The meadow extends from the river bank, fed by the mineral hot springs.
“Because of the geothermal activity, we have a lot of rare plants and insects that are down along the river. We’ve got fireflies and orchids,” Will explained. “Further upslope, we’ve got elk and there are rocky mountain bighorn sheep.”
This is one area where protecting wildlife habitat has long been a concern. Many segments in the off-highway alternative pass through migration corridors and high-quality habitat for elk and bighorn sheep. A trail could have negative environmental impacts in these areas, much like homes that were developed nearby.
“There are wildlife sensitivities in the valley, and that's something we've known,” Will said. “In fact, that's the reason we've invested millions and millions of dollars to prevent these little subdivisions from consolidating in one linear strip of housing all the way up and down the river."
Both of the Pitkin County properties in the Crystal River Valley have eight-month seasonal closures to protect wildlife. Will said this approach is working and could be used to address many of the environmental impacts of the proposed trail. Still, developing this trail is a tricky balance.
“It's going to take some creativity to figure out how to thread the needle if we're going to be able to achieve this trail,” he said.
So the county is looking for the public’s help. Staff has created a GIS map of the valley, showing the options for each segment. You can take a virtual tour of the alternatives, see environmental impacts, engineering concerns, costs and how each stretch might feel for someone on foot, bike or horseback.
“We all want to protect wildlife, we all want to be careful with public funding, and we want to end up with a trail that's pleasant to be on,” Will said.
Public feedback on how to make that happen is due by the end of October.