Red Hill Recreation Area is popular, to say the least. Especially in a dry winter, when people are still hiking and biking instead of skiing.
"This place has been packed," said Suzanne Stephens, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT). "You’ll see trail users spread out across the road, on both sides, dogs and kids and bikes and everything in between."
AVLT recently purchased 25 acres at the base of Red Hill. The organization is partnering with the Town of Carbondale to improve safety for hikers and bikers, if they can raise the funds.
Stephens pointed out the land, which sits between Hwy 82 and the current trailhead. It was privately owned and zoned for commercial development.
“We consider Red Hill as our front door to Carbondale and I think what we’d like to avoid is the developed look right there,” said Jay Harrington, Carbondale’s town manager.
Much of the stretch of Hwy 82 between Carbondale and Glenwood has a light industrial feel, and Harrington was concerned that would spread to this intersection. He said the town heard from mini-storage and construction staging companies who were interested in buying the land.
"We see it as a major recreation area for our residents and the entire valley," Harrington said.
Because of that, Harrington and others argue that there’s a long-term benefit not just to prevent development, but also to make the area safer.
Right now, hikers and bikers park at what was originally intended as a park-and-ride lot, which Stephens said is a mess that will have to be worked out with CDOT in the future.
"On a busy day, there's absolutely no place to park and cars are scattered everywhere," she said.
After ditching the car, those looking for some time in nature have to contend with cars on a county road for about a half mile before connecting to the trail system.
Ken Riley is a blacksmith in Carbondale. He lives up the county road, near Red Hill, and he drives the road just about every day to work or to take his kids to school and activities.
“I see crazy things," Riley said. "I see people spread out across the road and of course, dogs darting here and there, and there's two blind corners going through that very short section.”
The speed limit is 20 mph, but Riley said it’s best to slow way below that, to practically crawl through the area.
“Best to just smile and wave at everybody than it is to buzz through them,” he said.
AVLT and the Town of Carbondale hope to eliminate the issue altogether. The plan is to build a singletrack trail that gets hikers and bikers off the road to the trailhead. But that part is not a done deal.
"What we're still working on, is to really turn it into a community asset and be able to put in those trails. And that won’t happen unless we can raise some more funds before Jan. 15,” Stephens said.
Stephens said the entire project will cost 1.35 million dollars. That includes buying the land, building new trails and establishing an endowment for the Town of Carbondale to be able to manage and maintain the trails in the years to come.
They are over two-thirds of the way to goal with help from local governments, a real estate transfer fee from River Valley Ranch, and individual donors, like Carbondale trustee Ben Bohmfalk. Bohmfalk donated his $900 trustee stipend to the cause. It’s close to his heart, a place where he finds time for reflection.
“I go up there quite a bit. I just really love the perspective that it gives you on Carbondale and the valley and Mt. Sopris," he said. "I end up kind of looking down and you can really just see everything from up there. I really love that.”
The rally cry for the project is “Save Red Hill,” which might not be totally accurate. The actual trail system at Red Hill is not threatened.
“Yeah, the core part of Red Hill is safe, but it’s not safe for people to be walking up that road all the time, and it’s a disaster of a parking situation at the bottom of the hill, and it truly could become something like mini-storage if it was in private development," Bohmfalk said. "I think it’s a really important thing to preserve for future generations, so that it’s not just preserved, it’s improved.”
It’s a true question of access to public lands, he said. Red Hill is a piece of property that everyone in Carbondale uses, but the town doesn’t have the funds to buy. AVLT’s deadline is Jan. 15. That will keep them on track to have new trails open in the fall.