It's the most popular amenity in the town of Eagle and it's been almost 30 years in the making.
When residents are polled, Eagle's sidewalk/bike path/trail system is consistently rated as the community's top asset. On any given day - rain, snow or shine - there are people walking or biking to various community facilities. Some are commuting to jobs or school while others are simply enjoying a jaunt around town. As Eagle looks to increase its tourism base, the trails system is viewed as a marketing asset.
"It's a big deal to have a system of trails and appropriate connections," said Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell. "We still have some holes in the system, but those are fewer and fewer as time goes on."
The town's focus on making sidewalk/path connections actually began back in the 1980s. At that time, the glaring deficiency was along Third Street.
"There was no sidewalk along Third for students to walk to school," said Powell.
At that time, Eagle Valley Elementary was the only elementary school in western Eagle County and it was a crowded facility that generated lots of auto and pedestrian traffic. Without sidewalks in place, kids walked on the street shoulders and the situation was viewed as unsafe by town and school officials alike.
However, the fix was expensive for a small town like Eagle. "It was a major capital outlay and a big challenge for the town with the resources that were on hand at the time," said Powell.
After sidewalks were completed on both sides of Third Street, the town turned its attention to the next big safety concern - a pedestrian access to Chambers Park.
Powell noted when the U.S. Post Office moved from downtown Eagle to Chambers, there was an obvious need for a pedestrian path. The initial solution was a sidewalk that extended from Howard Street down to U.S. Highway 6 and a walking lane across the Eby Creek Road bridge over the Eagle River. Eventually, construction of the Eby Creek Road roundabout and the extension of Church Street to the roundabout resulted in a reconfigured path.
"One of the most important projects was getting pedestrians off of the Eby Creek Bridge spanning the Eagle River and on to a separated pedestrian bridge," noted Powell.
The paths to the school and the post office were early examples of the goal behind Eagle's trail system. Put simply, the town has tried to provide paths for people to get to where they need to go. That's why residents can walk to the Town Park or the library or the pool. The interconnected trail system has also guided development in town for more than 20 years.
"We created paths, both trails and sidewalks, to connect pedestrians to the important facilities in town, especially to schools," said Powell. "That doesn't mean we have a sidewalk in front of every dwelling, however."
Case in point was The Terrace, the residential development that was approved in the 1990s. As part of the development plan, the town negotiated a sidewalk and path network through the development and a path connection to town through property owned by the Sunset View Cemetery. The Terrace path became a very popular community amenity in addition to an important connection for kids headed to the elementary and middle school campus on Third Street.
Around the same time, the town partnered with Eagle County and obtained grant money to build a pedestrian/bike bridge over the Eagle River. The "Fishing is Fun" bridge is accessed north of U.S. Highway 6 at Brooks Lane and carries a lot of traffic when events are held at the fairgrounds.
But the event that really took Eagle's trails system to the next level was the development of Eagle Ranch.
"With Eagle Ranch, we had a developer who really understood the value of sidewalks and trails as an amenity for the subdivision," said Powell. The town also had a golden opportunity - with development of the previously private ranch land, Eagle could provide access to outlying U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.
The general path plan at Eagle Ranch provides sidewalks and trails within the subdivision to connect to facilities located in development and to the rest of town. There are also specific connections through town-owned open space to adjacent federal land. That plan evolved into a treasured town amenity.
"It's no secret that having a path at the edge of the riparian corridor is going to be a great amenity," said Powell. "And the trails system also has areas with more elevation gains in the upland areas."
Powell said that with time, the town has found that the Eagle Ranch sidewalk/trail system didn't have a lot of gaps to be filled. This year the town built a connection at one of the entrances to Aiden's Meadow and other minor additions have been constructed. But in general, the hard surface system is complete as it currently exists. The soft surface trail system is another story.
Trail access to BLM property was an important aspect of the Eagle Ranch Plan. In that vein, specific access points at Horton Street, Abrams Creek and Arroyo Drive were called out in the plan. The town stipulated that the areas would be subject to winter closures to protect wildlife as well as the trails themselves. It did not take long for bike riders to discover Eagle.
"I think we were the third family to move into Eagle Ranch," said Scott Turnipseed, local architect and a member of the Eagle Town Board. "When we were looking for lots at Eagle Ranch, there were still cattle there."
At the time, Turnipseed was living in Boulder and working in Eagle County. He would bring his mountain bike when he traveled up to the high country and he vividly remembers the first time he and a friend rode up the Abrams trail and connected back down along what is now the World's Greatest trail loop.
"We got back to town and said 'That is an unbelievable loop.' We went over to talk to Charlie Brown at his bike shop (Mountain Pedaler) and he had never ridden it because access to it hadn't existed before."
Today the extensive single-track backcountry trail system attracts a bevy of riders and runners. It is also at the forefront of Eagle's new marketing effort.
Adam Palmer of the Hardscrabble Trails Coalition, a recently created non-profit group with the mission to maintain and improve trails in the Eagle area, noted that the backcountry trails are great, but what bumps them into the exceptional category is the town's comprehensive system.
"What's most unique about Eagle is that a lot of places where you go, you can't access a great system of backcountry trails from a downtown community like you can here," he said.
Palmer spoke about the recent development of point-based rating system designed to recognize great trail riding communities. Of course the system includes items such as the number and mileage of trails, difficulty and trailhead accessibility. But it also gives points for community factors such as having a brewery nearby. He was happily surprised to see how well Eagle could rate on the overall scale.
As the town looks at its trail system to boost tourism numbers, Palmer said caution and realism should dominate discussions. In terms of caution, he quoted a government official from Moab to illustrate his point. "One of the council members from Moab has been quoted saying, 'We went fishing for some tourism and caught a Great White Shark,'" said Palmer. He noted that the mountain biking and jeep crawling amenities brought a lot of dollars and a lot of demands to the Moab community - most particularly a need for enhanced medical care facilities.
But Palmer does believe Eagle can potentially expand into the recreation-based tourism market.
"I think it's savvy and a great opportunity for the town to explore some economic development, especially in the spring and fall when destination trail users are attracted to this area," said Palmer. "I don't think anyone wants to become the next Fruita or Moab and I don't think that is realistic. Everyone wants a balanced approach."
Both Palmer and Powell noted that the town has submitted comments to the BLM as it develops a resource management plan for the Eagle area. Those comments promote the goal of trail expansion and increased recreation uses on federal plan. Additionally, the Hardscrabble group and the town have received approval from the BLM to place trail signs throughout the area.
Palmer acknowledged that some people believe the Eagle trails are already falling victim to their own popularity. Some riders and runners worry that by promoting the system, the town could seriously damage it.
"Obviously trails can be overused and eroded and damaged and our soft gypsum soils exacerbate that," Palmer said. "The challenge is having a network that disperses the uses."
"The town board has decided we are going to write a new trails plan establishing a vision for the future," said Powell.
Dispersing users and making sure the town's goals fall in line with the goals of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service are important aspects of the plan.
Part of Eagle's on-going effort to keep the community trails connected reached fruition this week when the first phase of the ECO Trails bike path through town opened. The section runs north of Highway 6 through town from Brooks Lane to the existing path at Violet Lane. Future plans include continuing that trail along U.S. 6 through town.
When the town launches construction of the Eby Creek Road project next year, trail connections will be an vital part of the plan.
"During the planning for the roundabout, sidewalk and trail connections were a very important part of the design process, said Powell. "There will be a separated bike and pedestrian access across Interstate 70 and that is a very significant safety improvement."
Beyond that project, Powell said there are some holes in the town's network. He cited the lack of sidewalks along Fifth Street between U.S. 6 and Eagle Town Park. Another needed connection is at Church Street where The Terrace path ends. Powell noted ideally there will be a path through the Lower Kaibab area connecting to the school property on Third Street. It's a question of money and timing to address such holes in the system, he noted.
But looking back to the days when local kids had to walk in the street to get to school, Powell said the dollars Eagle allocated to is path network have been very well spent.
"The best thing we have learned is we have a very active population of people who like to run, walk and ride. That's a very good thing about our community," Powell said.
Next week's cover feature will take a look at how Eagle County's connectivity has evolved over the years and where it's headed.
The county's website summarizes the importance of transportation matters in terms of growth: "Eagle County's population is expected to double over the next 25 years. Trip-making, primarily in personal automobiles, will grow even faster. Commuting is expected to increase 30-fold if the county is to meet its demand for labor. These factors will impact the region's fragile ecosystem, natural beauty, community character and quality of life. ... Transportation will be critical to Eagle County's future environmental quality and livability. ... Eagle County has the second highest rate of work-related transit in the State. Together, ECO Transit, Avon, and Vail provide over 5 million person trips per year on transit, or about 4 percent of all transportation trips in the county. The county must cultivate a robust land use and transportation system that relies less and less on the automobile simply to maintain this 4 percent mode split."