Thanks to social media, crowds keep discovering Utah’s ‘undiscovered’ scenic gems — and they’re laying waste to their beauty

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The popular Donut Falls in Big Cottonwood Canyon draws the crowds on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018.

They come from all over — from Japan and Jordan, from China and Chile, from France and Florida. They come to Utah’s national parks, to scale Zion’s Angels Landing, to photograph Bryce Canyon’s Fairyland, to admire Arches’ Delicate Arch.

There, visitors find awe, serenity and wonder. But they rarely, if ever, find one thing: solitude.

Successful marketing campaigns, international exposure and touring packages have seen to that, turning these remote marvels into world-famous destinations.

So more and more hikers, bikers and thrill seekers are exploring spots far from the madding crowds. The trouble is, no sooner is one found than it is shared on Facebook or Instagram and — poof — hordes are beating a path to places once off the beaten path.

One such spot is Kanarraville Falls, just off Interstate 15 and a mere hour away from southern Utah’s Zion National Park.

The rise of social media has beamed a spotlight on Kanarra Creek Canyon, a twisting hallway carved through pink-purple sandstone.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Hikers climb a ladder made from a tree at the first falls of the Kanarraville Falls hike in Kanarraville on Wednesday, July 6, 2016.

Each year, thousands venture through this narrow canyon along a series of makeshift ladders to reach a beautiful waterfall featured in countless internet posts. The sheer number of hikers, however, could be wrecking the very natural features that make Kanarraville Falls worth visiting.

“The environment can’t handle that many people walking in and out of there,” said Tyler Allred, a Town Council member in tiny Kanarraville (population 378). “It needs a chance to recover.”

Bottlenecks back up for an hour or more at the ladders. Rescue teams are dispatched regularly to retrieve injured hikers. Streambanks are eroding into a creek littered with trash.

Visitors, who routinely double Kanarraville’s population on busy days, are tromping through a watershed the town taps for drinking water.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which administers much of the land outside town, lacks the means and authority to clamp down on visitation. But Kanarraville leaders have devised a workaround.

They now charge a fee of $9 a head for hikers, thanks to a new arrangement with state trust land officials, who oversee two key sections in the canyon.

It’s an experiment that could end up being replicated elsewhere to address crushing visitation on Utah’s public lands.

But the fee hasn’t done much to slow daily traffic, which has averaged more than 300 since it began, according to Allred. Past estimates for annual visitation run between 40,000 and 60,000. That’s way too much for the town. The next step is to impose a daily limit on visitors.

Swelling the Swell

Visitation is even heavier farther east, at Little Wild Horse Canyon on the southeast edge of the San Rafael Swell, where the BLM estimated 88,000 people hiked last year and expects even more this year. This trip is billed as an 8-mile loop that is best hiked counterclockwise, although most visitors go up the slot canyon and turn around. But the canyon is so narrow in places that only one person can pass through at a time.

(Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management) Hikers crowd the narrow slots of Little Wild Horse Canyon in the San Rafael Reef. BLM is developing a recreation management plan for the 200,000-acre Temple Mountain Area.

“It really bottlenecks things in there,” said Matt Blocker, a recreation planner for the BLM. “You get cross traffic in the slot canyon that can be frustrating.”

The agency’s solution: Go to other places in this corner of the Swell, near Goblin Valley State Park, such as Wild Horse and Crack and Chute canyons.

“We try to be very intentional with our social media and the places we are promoting,” BLM spokeswoman Rachel Wootton said. “We highlight the places that can handle visitation.”

Deliberately or not, visitors are taking a toll on the delicate landscape. Dispersed camping sites proliferate, while litter and graffiti are left behind.

“People writing their names in the sandstone,” Blocker said, "we see that everywhere.”

Wasatch woes

Utah’s big backcountry crowds are not confined to redrock country.

In the urban north, the central Wasatch Mountains are home to world-class skiing, but most of the traffic comes during the summer. Throngs of visitors stream up Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, on the Salt Lake Valley’s eastern doorstep, for picnics and day hikes to waterfalls, meadows and lakes nestled in dramatic but fragile alpine basins carved out by glaciers.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, 325 hikers were counted inside an hour on the 1-mile trail to Big Cottonwood’s Donut Falls.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) A typical summer Saturday at Big Cottonwood Canyon's Donut Falls sees hundreds of visitors who make the 1-mile hike in Cardiff Fork. Excessive recreational use in the canyons east of Salt Lake City now threatens the very resources that make the canyons worthy places to tap for drinking water and enjoy nature.

Visitors follow a creek shaded by aspens and firs before climbing a dangerous boulder field to reach a cave, where the creek pours through a hole in the rock above and creates a pool popular for wading — despite prominent signs warning that such activity is forbidden.

“The trail is widening from people going off trail,” said Bekee Hotze, the Forest Service’s Salt Lake district ranger. “They walk down to the creek. That gets rid of the vegetation.”

The crowds illustrate how the Cottonwoods are approaching saturation levels, undermining the cousin canyons’ ability to provide water for Salt Lake City and sustain outdoor recreation.

Waders are contaminating the lakes. Human waste is registering in water treatment plants. Meadows are being trampled to bare dirt and rock, particularly in spots where portrait photographers venture farther into the flowers to get shots that don’t show stomped spots.

Graffiti covers Little Cottonwood’s granite near a historic quarry — which once supplied the building blocks for Salt Lake City’s iconic Mormon temple — and the creek nearby is lined with soiled diapers, condoms, clothing and other garbage.

Starved of resources, the U.S. Forest Service relies on the public and nonprofits to clean up the messes that reappear soon after paint is scrubbed and blasted off rocks.

“This is not just an eyesore,” said Serena Anderson, the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation’s executive director. “It’s an invitation for crime to live in these locations.”

The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest sees more visitors than all of Utah’s national parks combined. The Cottonwoods alone saw 4.2 million visitors last year, averaging 22,000 vehicles a day, according to Hotze. Trailhead parking areas at Big Cottonwood’s Guardsman Pass, Mill B, Mill D, Spruces and Silver Lake are insufficient on busy weekends.

“People are parking a mile up and down the highway, which is causing problems along the road with gravel eroding,” Hotze said. “People don’t want to walk on the pavement, so they walk in the vegetation.”

The Forest Service is considering fees on visitors who use trails and picnic sites, something already imposed in American Fork Canyon and the Mirror Lake Highway. This year, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache authorized Alta Ski Area to control summer access into Albion Basin.

To the east, in the Uinta Mountains, backpackers and pack horses crowd into remote alpine basins dotted with fish-filled lakes. Grandaddy Basin is the hardest hit, and it shows on the ground: illegal fire rings, slashed trees, scattered trash.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Graffiti has proliferated in lower Little Cottonwood Canyon, where vandals, often wielding cans of fluorescent-colored spray paint, have covered granite faces, trees and structures. The vandalism is particularly apparent along the Temple Quarry Trail and the creek at the Moon Rock swimming hole and former pavilion site. Volunteers using donated equipment and solvents spend thousands of hours removing the paint from the rocks only to see graffiti return to the same faces or on rock nearby.

The Forest Service tracks all these impacts in Grandaddy, and so far this year has already recorded the highest levels of visitor impacts seen in years. According to data compiled by the Ashley National Forest, rangers have documented 166 cut trees and 174 fire rings. Crews have packed out 184 pounds of trash, taken down 36 illegal structures and rehabilitated 1,285 square feet of ground. And the season still has two months to go.

Reversing the overcrowding in Utah’s scenic spots is critical to preserving its $12 billion recreation economy, but possible fixes are either costly or politically unpalatable, or both.

Many are closely watching Kanarraville’s new-won authority to manage visitation on public lands. Next year, the town expects to cap visits at 150 or 200 a day, far below the 300-plus who currently show up.

Perhaps solutions will emerge there, but it’s a sure bet people turned away from Kanarraville will look for an alternate destination close by.

It could be only a matter of time before Instagrammers discover the next canyon to the south tumbling out of the Hurricane Cliffs, which is almost as pretty and visible from the interstate, and no less fragile.

And has no fee in place.