Skip to contents
Outdoors

Battle over Carbondale to Crested Butte trail begins and ends at the top of McClure Pass. Economics are why.

Cyclists on the Gunnison County side of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail welcome the pathway, but don’t expect a connection to neighbors over the mountains

An unpaved road traverses the state's largest aspen grove atop Kebler Pass between Carbondale and Crested Butte. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

On the Gunnison County side of McClure Pass, the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail is exactly that: a one-way trail from Pitkin County.

And unlike residents of the Crystal River Valley who question the impacts of a trail through their narrow, remote canyon, folks on the Crested Butte side of the trail welcome the path.

While Crested Butte mountain bikers would love to see a trail from town over Kebler Pass to the Erickson Springs campground, there’s little interest in climbing single track up from the campground to the top of McClure. The 18-mile Raggeds Trail is always pedaled down from to top of McClure Pass. Climbing up the pass on the single track simply isn’t done.

“That’s riding it backwards,” said Dave Ochs, the head of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association.

MORE: Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail stirs passions as final vote looms

Ochs’ group supports the trail, of course. They support any trail that separates cyclists from cars.

“CMBA is on board for the section of single track to Erickson Springs. That would be fantastic. We are psyched for that. Is anyone going to ride up Raggeds to McClure? Not likely,” he said.

Ochs’ group has spent the last six years carving the Baxter Gulch Trail into Crested Butte’s network of trails, which includes more than 450 miles of single track blanketing the East River Valley. The possibility of connecting popular trails like the Dyke Trail with Kebler Pass Wagon Trail or the Cliff Creek Trail is high on the group’s priority list. Large sections of the trail down from McClure into Crested Butte is existing single track.

“Trails are our future and the proof is out there,” Ochs said, pointing to the recent Outdoor Alliance survey measuring the economic impact of outdoor recreation in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests. “Recreation is our livelihood, our values and our culture. Connectivity of trails is our future, with getting more people off the road and into our public lands. We need to provide better trails experiences.”

The Outdoor Alliance-commissioned study, released in November, surveyed 576 mountain bikers and estimated off-road cyclists pedal GMUG trails 150,000 times a year, and spend about $24 million a year in the national forests, supporting 315 jobs and $7.9 million in earnings. Hikers visit the region’s national forest trails 600,000 times a year, spending the same amount as bikers.

Counting all the human-powered recreation — biking, climbing, hiking, skiing and paddling — the national forests around Gunnison and the Grand Mesa host 2.6 million annual visits and harvest $45.9 million in annual spending from visitors, supporting 5,802 full-time workers who earn an estimated $79.2 million.

A bike trail closely following the unpaved road over Kebler Pass is part of the plan for the 83-mile Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In tourism-dependent communities like Crested Butte, it’s not surprising to see widespread support for trails. Trails keep locals happy and lure visitors who spend and support local communities. In the winter, the CBMA grooms dozens of miles of trails for fat bikes, enabling year-round pedaling. That growing snow biking scene enables Alison Fuchs to keep her Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven shop open year-round, renting a fleet of 25 fat-tire bikes seven days a week.

“Winter used to be just getting by and I’d work most of the hours myself. Now I have a manager running the shop all winter with a mechanic on duty all day,” Fuchs said, noting that all the town’s other bike shops now have fat-tire bikes for rent. “It’s a legitimate winter business now.”

Public lands officials on the Crested Butte side of the trail embrace the growing trail activity on public lands, and are working with bike groups to expand trail networks.

In 2011, the Gunnison National Forest in 2011 floated plans for the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail down McClure Pass, over Kebler Pass and into Crested Butte. The trail followed existing historic trails and was included as a conceptual plan — without in-depth wildlife or archeological studies — in the forest’s comprehensive 2010 travel management plan.

The proposal to improve access and develop the trail from McClure to Crested Butte harvested zero comments in 2011 as the Forest Service began studying specific alignments. That compares with several hundred comments and hours of public meetings hammering out a plan to route the trail through the Crystal River Valley, on the other side of McClure.

“We have not heard anything controversial about it over here,” said Levi Broyles, district ranger at the Paonia district of the Gunnison National Forest.

The Forest Service is chipping away at the plan, adding segments of single track along Kebler Pass Road as funding allows.

MORE: Pitkin County approves segment of Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail with promise of decades more scrutiny

Trails as economic-development

Beyond the resort-centric, trail-webbed Roaring Fork Valley and its Crystal River tributary, planned pathways like the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail stir less emotion, with new networks of singletrack seen as cornerstones for tourist and recreation-based economic development.

The Grand Mesa National Forest in September gave the go-ahead to the first-phase of the Palisade Plunge, a 32-mile downhill trail flowing off the Grand Mesa, which also is among the 16 trails identified by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2016 as high-priority projects. The Bureau of Land Management approved the trail in June and seven different land managers and government agencies have green-lighted the trail, which has been planned since 2010.

The view of Palisade from atop the Palisade Rim Trail. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service recently approved the development of the Palisade Plunge Trail, which will start atop the Grand Mesa and end at the Colorado River. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association is developing the Palisade Plunge and last month the group landed a $527,000 grant from Colorado Parks & Wildlife and Great Outdoors Colorado to develop the first 18 miles of the trail.

The Palisade Plunge promises to rank among the most iconic stretches of single track in Colorado; a destination for mountain bikers on par with the wildly popular Monarch Crest Trail, one of Colorado’s most celebrated mountain bike trails with more than 35 miles of single track rolling down Monarch Pass into Salida.

Capping several years of trail development in Fruita, Grand Junction and Palisade, the Plunge trail is an economic development project designed to bolster a growing outdoor recreation economy that complements the region’s vital energy economy.

Scott Winans, the longtime head of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association stands atop the Palisade Rim Trail in 2012, shortly after his group helped build the trail. COPMOBA now is developing the Palisade Plunge, a 32-mile downhill trail from the Grand Mesa down to Palisade. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

“In the broader discussion in Western Colorado as we struggle to dig out from the economic malaise, a big part of our focus has been on outdoor recreation,” said Scott Winans, the longtime president of Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association. “We’ve been tied to the boom-and-bust cycles of extractive industry and this is how we can expand our economic base. The Plunge merges so well with everything we are doing out here, trying to beat the drum for outdoor recreation and how access to public lands can improve our quality of life.”

This article was reported and written in partnership with Aspen Journalism.


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.

More from The Colorado Sun