Study Looks at Capacity and Use of Rio Grande Trail

Mar 19, 2014

Is the Rio Grande Trail too busy? Pitkin County's Open Space and Trails department commissioned a survey to find out.
Credit Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

An increasing number of groups want to use the Rio Grande Trail to host events like running and cycling races. So, Pitkin County commissioned a survey. The results show how many people use the trail during peak times and whether there’s a tolerance from the public for additional events. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Over a decade ago, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Director Dale Will says it was common to see local, non-profit races on the Rio Grande like the Buddy Program’s annual 5-mile race. But in recent years, interest in holding such races has shot up.

"Since that time we’ve seen an increased interest to the point where, I think we had events on two or three of the weekends in July, which is the high season. And, that’s what started to concern us," he says.

To be prepared for the upcoming peak summer months, the department commissioned a study to look at volume of users on the trail, the kinds of users and capacity. The results were presented to county elected leaders Tuesday.

"As we get into this, you’ll see that the Rio Grande Trail is an exceptionally busy trail," said Gabe Preston.

He's with Durango-based RPI Consulting and led the study. It examined use on the Rio Grande from Emma to Aspen. He discovered how important the trail is to people who use it.

"One of the things we found out is that people use the trail and it’s part of their lifestyle. Half of the people we talked to use it daily or almost daily. And, a lot of the other folks use it on a very regular basis."

The findings came up with an overall picture of the trail. Turns out, bicyclists make up the largest user group, accounting for 64 percent of the trail’s total summertime use. The closer you get to Aspen, the more crowded the trail becomes and the highest usage comes in the middle of the day.

"This is a graph of monthly use and you can see July and August are the peak, and as you move down the trail, the amount of use goes down," said Preston.

During peak season, more than 600 people use the Upper Rio Grande trail every day, above Stein Park. On that stretch, the survey found nearly 22,000 people on average, use the trail per month in July and August.

"So, you have a lot of use concentrated into a relatively short amount of time," said Preston.

The majority of trail users say the trail’s not crowded, with a mere 3 percent saying it’s too crowded.

Still, the survey concludes the trail is reaching capacity in the stretches near Aspen and will likely continue to get busier. So, what does that mean for future events on the Rio Grande? Again, Dale Will.

"It was interesting to find out that by and large the general public, not only do they not mind the event but they enjoy seeing those things occur."

Sixty-six percent of those surveyed said their encounter with a special event had no impact on their trail experience. Trail safety was a bigger concern for users than crowding. Worries about the speed of cyclists and dogs off leashes rose to the top of the list.

As for special event planning in the future, the county commissioners and Open Space and Trails Board talked about careful planning, so events aren’t double booked in the summer and advising organizers to hold their events outside of peak times.

Commissioner Rob Ittner emphasized how important special events are in Pitkin County.

"Special events bring in a lot of economic sustainability in our community, special events bring in people, special events add value to the experience people have here, which raises property values, those sorts of things. And, I think it’s really important to say that we want special events in our community," he said.

The survey also looked at Maroon Creek Road and the amount of use happening there. A link to the survey results can be found here.