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Major road improvements are underway for Mill Creek, but will they improve the popular canyon?


Acre for acre, few outdoor recreation areas in Utah are used more than Mill Creek Canyon, the heavily forested destination where a nine mile drive connects Salt Lake City to many backcountry trails in the Wasatch Mountains.

So many people visit to hike, fish, cycle, have a picnic, ski, and most noticeably run their dogs that the road is crowded with cars under the winter gate most weekends. weekends and evenings all year round and above the door in summer.

Salt Lake County posted a plan to widen the upper canyon narrow winding road in the hope of reducing congestion and protecting the watershed. But some canyon enthusiasts wonder if pouring more asphalt would really help or just make matters worse.

County officials on Wednesday proposed nearly $ 20 million in upgrades for the upper canyon, which they say are needed to accommodate the growing number of cars in the canyon. Salt Lake County and the US Forest Service are looking to widen the 4.5-mile road beyond the Winter Gate to the Big Water Trailhead in a primarily funded $ 38 million program speak Federal Land Access Program, or FLAP.

“We know this canyon is loved by so many people and it’s really about preparing for the future,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said at an event at the now closed gate. ‘winter. “This is a plan to improve access, manage access, and build the amenities we all need when we recreate ourselves here. One of them being efficient parking, one of them being better trailheads [and] in appropriate places, widening of the road. I know the Forest Service is very sensitive to this topography and we’re not going to do anything that doesn’t make sense.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake District Ranger Bekee Hotze of the US Forest Service reveals plans to upgrade the deteriorating narrow road at the top of Utah’s popular Mill Creek Canyon, shown behind her on Wednesday, November 3, 2021. Also pictured, left to right, Salt Lake County Planning Officer Helen Peters, Mayor Jenny Wilson and Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini.

The road would be closed during construction from fall 2024 to spring 2026, while the high canyon backcountry would still be accessible by trail from the terraces, pipeline and nearby Lambs Canyon.

Many people cherish the upper Mill Creek Canyon as it is today, with its narrow, low-speed road, and fear that road improvements could alter the character of the canyon. A wider road could bring even more traffic to an already saturated place, Carl Fisher, executive director of Save our canyons.

“Improvements are needed, of course, but are we building more things in the canyons to accommodate more people? The answer seems to be yes, ”Fisher said in an interview. “We’re on the verge of losing any semblance of Wasatch we once knew.”

About five miles from the canyon, the road is closed for at least eight months a year, from November 1 or earlier to June 30. Although closed to cars, it sees even more traffic during this time when it is used by cyclists, cross-country skiers, hikers, children in sleds and canine companions. Widening the route would do little to improve the experience for these seasonal users and would likely degrade it, critics say.

Some stakeholders have explored a shuttle system for the canyon, but that idea has not caught on with the Forest Service, which oversees public lands in the mountains above Salt Lake City.

The agency is proposing to completely rebuild the road and widen it 29 feet from the winter gate at Elbow Fork and up to 24 feet for the last three miles to the Big Water Trailhead.

“Access to Mill Creek Canyon and facilities in the canyon is deteriorating and not keeping up with current use,” said Bekee Hotze, Salt Lake City District, Forest Service. “Where possible, the road will be widened to accommodate the multiple uses we currently see in the canyon. “

Parking would be improved at high-traffic areas such as Alexander Basin, Big Water, and Elbow Fork, but would be eliminated along the roadway where the parking lot broke the sides of the road.

“You want the road base to stay on the road, you don’t want that in your feed. The road is made of tars and chemicals which, when thrown into the waterway, are not good for the fish, ”Hotze said. “So this project will add retaining walls where needed to ensure the base of the road stays where it is intended.”

Bike paths would be added, but not everywhere.

“In some parts of the route it is not possible to widen the route enough and maintain the character of the canyon,” Hotze said.

Officials will host an open house on November 9 at Millcreek Town Hall from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. and will be accepting public comment until December 9.

A $ 15 million FLAP grant would fund this work in the Upper Canyon with local sources, adding a matching $ 4 million. An equal-sized FLAP investment is being considered for the lower canyon, which is open to cars all year round, but at a later date.

Like the neighboring canyons of Big and Little Cottonwood, Mill Creek has seen a significant influx of recreational use in recent years as more Utahns discover natural wonders just outside of the major population centers of the State along the Wasatch front. Since the start of 2020, the pandemic has pushed many people outside, accelerating overcrowding in Utah’s canyons and other destinations.

Even before the pandemic, traffic in Mill Creek was skyrocketing from 192,000 vehicles in 2013 to 1 million last year, according to county spokeswoman Jordan Carroll. Mill Creek is especially popular with dog owners, whose furry friends aren’t allowed in protected watersheds, such as Cottonwood, City Creek, and Parleys Canyons.

Julie Jag | The Salt Lake Tribune Although some trees have lost their leaves, many are still colorful along the Red Pine Road Trail in Mill Creek Canyon on Thursday, October 7, 2021.

“It’s so beautiful and natural. And sadly, as our population in Utah grows, these places can be loved to death. And the purpose of this grant is to close that gap and do some things that are necessary to preserve the wilderness of this canyon, preserve the watershed, provide better access so people can get up here and park, ” said Jeff Silvestrini, Mayor of Millcreek. . “Mill Creek Canyon is an asset that everyone in Salt Lake Valley appreciates, but it’s the backyard of Millcreek, and that’s why my town is particularly interested in this canyon. This is why we organized the open day on this subject.

The Uinta-Wasatch Cache National Forest oversees Mill Creek Canyon in partnership with the county, which charges visitors $ 5 per vehicle exiting the canyon to generate revenue to cover maintenance of the many amenities that line the causeway. Annual passes cost $ 50.

Revenue generated from the fees, which had been increased in January 2020, has nearly doubled since 2016, from $ 583,000 to over $ 1 million last year, according to county data.

These revenues generally do not fund upgrades, such as new parking at Rattlesnake Gulch or new trails at Rattlesnake and Alexander Basin. But some could be tapped to meet local matching requirements for FLAP grants, according to Carroll.


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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion