Church of Dirt closes: Popular public land wedding venue was ‘loved to death’

Park City officials plan to scrap the site to better preserve picturesque Bonanza Flat.

For years, couples from all over have vowed to love each other until death do they part at the Church of Dirt, an unsanctioned, rustic venue on public land overlooking a picturesque alpine meadow in Park City’s Bonanza Flat. But not for much longer.

In early October, Park City leaders agreed in a City Council meeting to shutter the wedding space to better preserve the area for generations to come. Its rows of plank benches will be removed, officials decided, along with the simple, wooden altar where at least hundreds of couples have tied the knot.

“It was nice to know it was there,” Park City councilmember Max Doilney said of the venue. “But it got loved to death.”

Breathtaking venue for dirt cheap

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stones at the base hold up a wooden altar at the “Church of Dirt” wedding venue in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

The site is a draw both for its breathtaking backdrop beyond the altar — and its free price tag.

Brek Sawatzky said she found the spot online and fell in love with it during a summer visit. Sawatzky grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said, and all she’d known about weddings then were the nuptials she saw in temples.

When she later left the faith, and worked to heal from that separation and her struggles with substance use, Utah’s mountains helped restore her. She lived in Utah for years but now resides in Canada.

“It’s just a place where I feel connected, and it was cool to just have like a small group of my closest family and friends to celebrate that,” she said of her wedding.

But even at the Sept. 29 ceremony, about a week before councilmembers made their decision, there were signs that the unofficial venue was not tenable, she said — including a lack of parking at the small nearby lot, which also marks the Bonanza Flat trailhead. Many of her guests were ticketed and told that their cars could be towed.

“I felt like it was just so different and unique,” she said. “So, yeah, it makes me sad that people aren’t going to be able to enjoy that anymore.”

Pseudo venue, real problems

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Benches sit in front of a wooden altar at the “Church of Dirt” wedding venue in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Part of the reason the Park City Council agreed to tear down the intimate venue is that it became harder to ignore the sprawling wedding parties and in some cases vendors that began swarming the unsanctioned space in the decade since it was constructed.

The Church of Dirt wasn’t even the main topic of discussion when it landed on the council’s agenda. Instead, councilmembers were discussing the Bonanza Flat Adaptive Management & Stewardship Plan, an effort to mitigate human impacts at the popular recreation spot while still keeping it accessible.

“I want to try and make sure that we don’t have that impact on all our trails, don’t have that impact on the entire area,” Doilney said of the site’s surging popularity — and its harmful effects.

Mayor Nann Worel said she receives many “unhappy” emails from people who believe they’ve reserved the venue but are upset about the accommodations, “about not being able to rope off the parking lot up there for wedding parties.”

Some have even tried to become unofficial managers of the venue, creating websites where couples could book a time, said Wendy Fisher, Utah Open Lands executive director.

But Park City has never sanctioned any weddings at the Church of Dirt.

Couples instead reserve the site through an informal system, where they’ll enter their name and wedding date in a logbook at the site, or leave behind a wooden plaque or stone inscribed with the information.

Those reservations are collected in a smattering on the edge of the makeshift reception area, and sometimes, couples leave behind traces of past ceremonies that clutter the public space.

Doilney said councilmembers at the Oct. 5 meeting had to decide: Do they clear the site? Or do they make the unofficial nuptial site official?

Councilors ultimately chose not get into the wedding business.

The matter wasn’t put to a formal vote — since the venue was never formally enacted, it didn’t need to be formally demolished, Doilney said. But councilors unanimously agreed it needed to go.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pile of markers, made of wood, stone and other materials to reserve the space for couples looking to get married, is beside the “Church of Dirt” wedding venue in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Church returns to dirt

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A wooden sign with names and a date, seen here in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, is left at the “Church of Dirt” wedding venue to reserve the space for a couple.

As of Oct. 25, the venue hadn’t been scrapped just yet — even as Google Maps warned would-be visitors that it was “permanently closed.”

That’s what Brent Walker, of Midvale, saw when he punched in the location before heading up to his planned wedding on Oct. 21. He and his soon-to-be bride found much of their spirituality in nature, he said, and they wanted to elope at a spot where they could connect with that.

“He even called me and said, ‘When you put it into Google is says closed, but don’t worry we’re just going to go for it and see if we can make it happen,’” Walker’s now-wife, Maddy Warner, recalled. There was no Plan B, she said.

They arrived to a full parking lot, and Walker was forced to leave his car in a spot he wasn’t entirely sure was legal. But the payoff was worth the risk.

“It,” Walker said, “was just perfect.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Benches sit in front of a wooden altar at the “Church of Dirt” wedding venue in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Rangers plan to clear the site when they ultimately close Guardsman Pass for the winter, said Heinrich Deters, Park City Trails and Open Space manager, at the Oct. 5 meeting. The scenic byway connects Park City to the Salt Lake Valley through Big Cottonwood Canyon.

They intend to reach out to couples who left contact information on the signs and stones they left behind, claiming dates and times for weddings beyond this year — and alert them to make other plans, Deters added.

But nothing is technically stopping enterprising couples from getting married at the former Church of Dirt, or any other spot on open land, Doilney said.

They’ll just need to bring their own props — and take them away when they’re done.