Pay Dirt: Mountain Biking in Crested Butte

By Avery Stonich April 25, 2015

And thus the cycle continues, and the double-edge sword gets sharper: Adding more trails will increase traffic to one of the country’s mountain bike meccas, more tourist traffic will create greater economic opportunities, an expanding economy will elicit more development and infrastructure, more development will encroach on open space.

When Jill Clair, publisher of The Crested Butte News, has a few moments to spare during lunch or after work, she hops on her mountain bike and pedals to the Lower Loop trail network, which snakes out from the northwestern edge of Crested Butte. Within minutes, her knobby tires hit dirt, and all of the stresses of the day melt away as she rides up the Slate River Valley. The trail network is the result of years of hard work by the Crested Butte Land Trust to acquire property and easements. It’s a labor of love, involving many facets of the community.

Nestled in the Elk Mountains in Southwestern Colorado at 8,885 feet, Crested Butte is a charming mountain hamlet of 1,500 people (2,300 if you lump in neighboring Mt. Crested Butte). Surrounded by stunning peaks and acres of open land, it’s a bastion of recreation lovers, who celebrate the outdoor lifestyle above just about everything else.

When it comes to close-to-home recreation, Crested Butte shines above most, with the Lower Loop trail system right in its backyard. Those short on time can bang out a quick lap on the Upper and Lower Loop trails and Woods Walk. The Budd, Lupine and Snodgrass trails give the option for more extended walks or rides. All together, they offer 16 miles of interlocking trails, which cross a patchwork of public, private, town and land-trust land.

“These trails are an integral part of my daily life in Crested Butte,” says Clair, “I run or ride almost every day of the week, and it’s often on one of these trails.”

Protecting recreation opportunities close to town is an important focus of the land trust’s work.

“We talk a lot about riding couch to couch,” says Ann Johnston, executive director of the Crested Butte Land Trust. “You get off your couch, get on your bike, start riding, and you’re on a trail—versus having to put a bike on top of your car. It’s such a convenient, simple way to get that trail experience.”

Lower Loop was the Crested Butte Land Trust’s first major trail system, which the nonprofit started to piece together in the late 1990s. Bit by bit, the organization has been acquiring properties and securing easements to create this network, which is beloved by residents and visitors alike.

Jeff Hermanson, a resident of Crested Butte for 42 years and the owner of Larimer Square—a major commercial hub in the heart of downtown Denver—served on the board of the Crested Butte Land Trust for eight years and donated a trail easement across his property to enable the Woods Walk Trail to connect the Lower Loop system all the way to town.

“I was in a unique position because I own land that abuts the town,” says Hermanson. “It was an incredible collaboration of the land trust, property owners, and a homeowners’ association. This trail system creates a wonderful amenity for the public and for the property owners.”

“It was an incredible collaboration of the land trust, property owners, and a homeowners’ association. This trail system creates a wonderful amenity for the public and for the property owners.” —Jeff Hermanson, Crested Butte resident and land owner

The land trust relies on grants and donations to acquire and maintain properties. It helps that Colorado and the federal government offer incentives for landowners to donate easements, which are handy for creating trail connectivity across private property. The land trust currently owns 3,000 acres of land and manages conservation easements on another 3,000. Volunteer workdays help ease the maintenance burden and bring together locals to give the trails love.

The organization has enjoyed healthy support because the effects of its work are so tangible. Solid backing from the community comes from a network of stakeholders that include local residents, the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, landowners, government land agencies, the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, homeowners associations and local businesses.

There’s no doubt that trails are good for business, which keeps the town thriving. “The land trust is a living example of a local nonprofit creating value to the community both recreationally and economically,” says Hermanson. “The work that the land trust does helps create a viable tourist economy and an incredible place to live.”

But, as Crested Butte’s popularity grows, its wild spaces are increasingly threatened by developers looking to gobble up the remaining parcels of land. Now, with more and more development marching into the Gunnison Valley near town, preserving land and recreation opportunities is becoming even more critical and more challenging.

“As we start to see the effects from increased population and visitation, people are saying we need to expand our network of trails even more,” says Johnston.

And thus the cycle continues, and the double-edge sword gets sharper: Adding more trails will increase traffic to one of the country’s mountain bike meccas, more tourist traffic will create greater economic opportunities, an expanding economy will elicit more development and infrastructure, more development will encroach on open space.

Short of halting all trail construction and development in the valley, stakeholders on all sides will likely remain locked in perpetual debate. The push and pull endures.

OIA will continue to follow this and similarly polarizing land-use issues that affect outdoor recreation. Our ongoing Close To Home series will explore the various opinions and interests of our members and the larger outdoor industry.

Have your own opinion on the issue? Think we’re leaving out an important piece of the puzzle? Let’s hear it. Email our managing content editor, Deborah Williams your thoughts and story ideas.

To learn more about how outdoor recreation benefits the economy and what OIA is doing to support it, check out Outdoor Industry Association’s Outdoor Recreation Economy research.

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