One warm day last fall, the U.S. Forest Service counted 1,300 people visiting Silver Lake, giving a snapshot of heavy use at the popular family destination at the head of Big Cottonwood Canyon. A flat 0.7-mile trail circles the shallow lake teeming with life under the Wasatch’s craggy peaks.
“That wasn’t even on the busy side of the trail,” said Cathy Kahlow, Salt Lake District ranger for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
The growing popularity of nonwinter natural amenities in the canyon and its neighbor Little Cottonwood highlights the need for a planning process currently under way by Salt Lake County, which relies on Wasatch canyons for water and as a recreational relief valve.
A draft plan explores a regionwide transportation plan aimed at reducing vehicle congestion and a user fee to fund possible improvements, which include lots of bathrooms and a year-round visitor center with structured parking.
It’s not just skiers, mountain bikers, climbers and tourists enjoying these canyons. A broad spectrum of the Salt Lake community flocks into the mountains to hike, picnic, camp and otherwise commune with forests, wildlife, streams and lakes.
“To remain a quality watershed, it needs the facilities to support visitation and that means picnic tables, restrooms and maintained trails so people stay on the trails,” said Jessie Walthers, executive director of the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation.
“We don’t advocate more or less use, but we realize that more use poses challenges to the resources and all of us who use the canyons as an escape from the valley. [The growth in use] demands all of us to be low-impact and neighborly and encourage more sustainable ways of visiting the canyons and create a mechanism for people to give back.”
Earlier this month, the county released draft planning documents for Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood and Parleys canyons, providing lists of planning goals and proposed projects to achieve those goals. A draft vision statement for Big Cottonwood says this canyon should maintain its role as a major destination for outdoor recreation as well as a place where people live.
Suggested projects are geared toward enhancing access to the canyon’s public land and protecting visitors’ experience. They include:
• Restrooms and parking improvements at numerous trailheads.
• Summertime bus service with transit stops at popular destinations like Spruces and Mill D.
• Expanding the Silver Lake interpretive center.
• Interpretive signage.
• Improvements to the pedestrian path between Cardiff and Brighton.
• Upgrades to Guardsman Pass Road and keeping it open year-round.
• Study of the canyon’s “carrying capacity.”
“Good judgment and respect toward the environment by users and residents and reasonable regulations will strike a balance to preserve the natural character, function and scenic beauty of the canyon for the benefit of future generations,” the draft vision statement says.
But as Big Cottonwood becomes more popular, achieving such a balance will get harder. The Forest Service would prefer fewer cars in the canyon, but care must be taken to ensure bus stops don’t funnel people to overused sensitive areas, Kahlow said.
She supports identifying the carrying capacities of various high-use locations, but is concerned there would be no point if limits aren’t set and enforced.
“I don’t think people want to see thousands of people on a trail,” she said.
Wasatch Canyons general plans
Salt Lake County is drafting plans for Big and Little Cottonwood and Parleys canyons. For more information on the plans, go to bit.ly/XE1Q6p. The public can send comments to email@example.com.
Public hearings are scheduled for:
Kearns Township Planning Commission, 4 p.m. April 8
Salt Lake County Planning Commission, 8:30 a.m. April 10
Millcreek Township Planning Commission, 4 p.m. April 10
Emigration Township Planning Commission, 8:30 a.m. April 11
(All the above will be in the Salt Lake County Council Chambers, Salt Lake County Government Center, Room #N1100, North Building, 2001 S. State St.)
Copperton Township Planning Commission, 6:30 p.m. April 9 at the Bingham Canyon Lions Club, 8725 W. Hillcrest St., Copperton
Magna Township Planning Commission, 6:30 p.m. April 11, in the Salt Lake County Magna Library, 8950 W. Magna Main St., Magna