The Community’s Great Rail-to-Trail Project Keeps Valley Culture on Track
There’s a spot along the Rio Grande Trail that smells of sweet sage after a rainstorm. Rugged red cliffs dominate the eastern skyline and the view south toward Mt. Sopris stretches wide open. Adjacent grassy fields — once filled with potatoes — speak to the valley’s agricultural history. During quiet moments on her 32-mile bicycle commute on the Rio Grande, Carbondale resident Rebecca Binion can hear the faint rush of the Roaring Fork River. Binion sometimes pedals briskly past this spot between Aspen Glen and Cattle Creek; other times she’ll stop and have dinner with her husband under the picnic pavilion.
“My morning commute allows me to get energized, and the ride home gives me the opportunity to process the work day and decompress,” Binion says. “When I see other people enjoying the Rio Grande, it just makes me happy.”
Although the last train churned along the Rio Grande corridor in January 1991, the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad’s Aspen Branch corridor still serves as a major artery for residents and visitors. Lined with iconic scenery and soon to be decorated with local history and art, the trail not only ties together the past and the present but also people from different communities, cultures, and backgrounds.
An estimated 85,000 people per year access the 42-mile Rio Grande Trail, which is mostly owned by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA). Pitkin County owns the 8.6-mile section from Woody Creek to Aspen.
Angela Henderson, RFTA’s assistant director in charge of project management and facilities operations, calls the trail “the spine that connects all of the valley’s jurisdictions.” She notes that in addition to giving locals “a safe and alternative transportation option,” it provides access to some of the nation’s most spectacular open space, connects to other trail systems, and provides access to all three of the valley’s rivers and Rock Bottom Ranch.
Additionally, the Rio Grande corridor gives elk, deer, bear, mountain lion, coyote, bald eagle, heron, and other wildlife room to roam, particularly between Carbondale and Basalt where special wildlife restrictions allow animals to thrive, according to Henderson.
Finally, the Rio Grande Trail connects to the valley’s railroad history, which many say was key to the area’s economic growth. The first train rolled into this valley in 1887; the last one on standard gauge rails chugged to Orrison Distribution in October 1995. But because the Rio Grande corridor was purchased for “railbanking” — defined in the National Trail Systems Act as preserving a railroad corridor for future rail use — the life of trains in the Roaring Fork Valley may not be over.
In the late 1800s, Aspen, then called “Ute City,” was the desired destination. Two railroads — the Colorado Midland and Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) — were competing to get there. Despite a tumultuous financial history and the fact that D&RGW had been established to provide a north-south link on Colorado’s Front Range, it beat out Colorado Midland, bringing the first trains to Glenwood Springs and Aspen in 1887. “It was the beginning of Glenwood Springs becoming a resort area because people could actually get here,” commented Patsy Stark, archivist for the Glenwood Springs Historical Society. Railroads led to other infrastructure, including depots and hotels.
In addition to delivering newcomers, trains were essential in the transportation of coal, silver, and agricultural products. That included potatoes from Carbondale, which was once “the potato capital of the country,” says Beth White, executive director of the Mt. Sopris Historical Society.
Remnants of the valley’s locomotive glory days are visible along the Rio Grande Trail. Carbondale’s train depot, sitting roughly 100 yards south of the bike path near Third Street and Colorado Avenue, now houses the American Legion’s Post 100. When cruising along, a hiker or biker will spy red circular lights and railroad crossing signs stamped with the word “EXEMPT.” Rusty railroad tracks, old spikes and crossties, numbered metal posts, and circuit boxes festoon the bike route. In some locations, a hot day brings the scent of engine oil wafting up from the defunct wooden ties.
“The Rio Grande Trail pays homage to the railroad corridor responsible for originally bringing the settlers to the valley,” says RFTA’s Henderson. “If you forget that this railroad corridor is the reason that all of the towns came to be, then you forget how important it is to protect its historic integrity, and its value as a future transportation corridor for the valley.”
Although Pitkin County acquired the railroad corridor segment from Woody Creek to Aspen in 1969, two years after the last train ran to Aspen, the merger of Southern Pacific and Union Pacific prompted the purchase of the remainder of the corridor. In September 1991, eight local governments agreed to acquire D&RGW’s Aspen Branch right-of-way to preserve it as a public asset. They purchased the corridor in 1997 from the Southern Pacific Transportation Company with additional funding from Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Department of Transportation and Pitkin County Open Space. “With the dissolution of Southern Pacific, Union Pacific could have abandoned the rail corridor and the land reverted to possible residential and commercial development. The result would have been the loss of the corridor and any opportunity to preserve it for recreational and transportation use,” states RFTA’s historical documents.
In 2001, RFTA took on the task of building the Rio Grande Trail, which was completed in 2008. But local leaders are treating it as the living history it is, and developing it further.
Currently, Carbondale Arts is developing the Rio Grande ARTway, a one-mile section that will include three zones: the Roll Zone, the Stroll Zone, and the Ol’ Zone. Designed to showcase the town’s creative arts and history, the ARTway’s master plan describes it as a “creative place-making project that reflects the cultural diversity of the community, inspires greater use of non-motorized transportation, preserves our heritage, and strengthens our core creative community.”
On the north end, the ARTway will be marked with an entryway sculpture that incorporates the Carbondale Creative District logo of a cowgirl on a bicycle.
“We want people to get a sense of what Carbondale is about when you reach this section,” says Carbondale Arts Executive Director Amy Kimberly. The ARTway plan includes Derail Park, which will feature railroad artifacts and history; a volunteer-built, single-track trail for two-wheeled fun; a Latino folk art garden; public sculptures; a youth art garden giving a nod to renewable energy; and town history projects.
Kimberly explained that the ARTway blossomed from the idea of building a Latino folk art garden and it “just keeps growing.” The Latino folk art garden, which will include hammocks, tables, gardens, and art, will feature a story sculpture detailing the neglected history of Latinos in the valley. Carbondale Arts is currently compiling historical info and data to include in a report to local historical societies.
A “creative place-making project,” the ArtWay is about bringing different cultures and people together to meet, mingle, and learn.
That’s just what the railroad did in its heyday, so what’s old is new again.