Aspen’s Rio Grande Trail to be ‘winterized’ for more recreation options

The Rio Grande Trail between the Aspen Post Office and Stein Park at Cemetery Lane will not be plowed this winter, and instead will be groomed and snow-packed to accommodate multi-use recreational activities.

It also will remove safety hazards, such as the freeze-thaw cycle that creates black ice when snow melts on the narrow cross-country platform that runs along the south side of the Rio Grande.

That single-track also is difficult to groom, which is done by snowmobile, but because of how narrow it is, there is a steep drop on either side, and operators have slid off toward the river and the pavement, according to Chris Petersen, the Aspen-Snowmass trail system Nordic coordinator.

There also are utility vault covers along the trail alignment that cause the surrounding snow to melt, creating a “well effect,” which poses hazards for groomers and skiers.

By widening the groomed portion of the trail, it opens it to more than one set of classic ski tracks.

That means skate skiers, fat bikers, walkers and runners will be able to use the hard-packed surface.

“I think that what we would see is a minimal impact for people,” Petersen told Aspen City Council during its Monday work session. “That packed snow surface is pretty user friendly.”

He also noted that the entire width of the Rio Grande Trail from Emma to just west of Stein Park is groomed, so skate skiers have had to turn around. This winter, they will be able to continue on.

The upper section of the Rio Grande was originally left in its natural snow-covered state during the winter until 2008 when a plan was put in place to groom half and plow half to facilitate an alternate bicycle commuter corridor, Petersen said.

But what park and open space officials have realized is that almost all commuter bike traffic in the winter utilizes the ABC trail and the Castle Creek and Marolt pedestrian bridges.

The Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Council presented the proposal to City Council this past January, and a survey of trail users was initiated in early March, but then COVID-19 hit the valley.

Initial conversations indicated a broad spectrum of opinions, from trying it to leaving it alone.

The Nordic council and the city will try the grooming of the entire trail for one season, beginning Dec. 1.

Grooming will continue as weather and snowfall permits, then crews will go back to plowing the trail, probably around April 1.

“I would anticipate with the amount of traffic that we expect to have on this section of trail that this will be one of our top priorities for grooming and we’ll be out there quite frequently,” Petersen said. “This is a test and an experiment, so we’re willing to be flexible and adapt.”

Petersen told council that there are currently four snow-covered, multi-use trails within the Nordic trail system. They are Marolt Trail, Labrador Lane at Snowmass, Bernese Boulevard on the Aspen Golf Course and the Rio Grande Trail west of Stein Park.

“These trails are arguably some of our most used trail sections, where people ski or walk on these dog-friendly trails, and can ride a fat bike on the Marolt and Rio Grande (trails),” he wrote in a memo to council.

He followed up with that thought to council.

“I think we’d be adding a section of trail that trail users would appreciate and also eliminating some of the dangerous sections that we have for grooming and skiing,” he said.

The town of Snowmass Village has shifted from plowing trails to leaving them as a groomed, packed-snow surface, helping to reduce the slip and fall factor related to ice, Petersen said.

City Council members were all in favor of the idea, and said they hope it reduces safety hazards and increases use.

“I think a compact snow surface is deeper than an icy hard surface and giving skate ski possibilities for that is a big plus to the Nordic system so I totally support this,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein said.

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