Several thousand years ago, a vast freshwater lake lapped against the Wasatch foothills about where a Latter-day Saint temple now juts above Bountiful’s residential neighborhoods.

Lake Bonneville is long gone, of course, a casualty of ancient climate change, but its shoreline remains visible along the rapidly urbanizing Wasatch Front, where Utah counties have been developing an extensive trail system following the contours of the ancient lakeshore rimming these oak-strewn foothills.

Davis County now hopes to complete its share of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail under a plan released by the U.S. Forest Service. The proposal calls for stitching together several existing segments into an unbroken 50-mile stretch from City Creek Canyon north to the Weber River.

“This will be a well-loved regional amenity to have more trails in the foothills,” said John Knobloch, co-chairman of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Coalition. “It will be heavily used.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Davis County officials propose building 19 miles of trail where none currently exists and reconstructing or realigning another 20 miles. Much of the existing trail was not properly constructed, created by the users themselves.

Built over the next four years, the new trail’s traveling surface would be 3 to 6 feet wide. Bridges would span some steep canyons and perennial streams.

“Public demand for outdoor recreation opportunities is as high as it’s ever been. People want to get outside,” said Jeff Oyler, a Davis County planner who is the project’s chief architect. “Bonneville Shoreline Trail should be viewed as a backbone along the Wasatch Front that gives access to everything else. We are trying make it viewed as a boulevard that can be used by any user to get access to any canyon. That’s why we are planning from a regional perspective.”

To make it happen, county officials and trail advocates are leaning heavily on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which is preparing an environmental review. To avoid passing through developed residential areas in the foothills above North Salt Lake and Bountiful, the proposed alignment would ascend into the national forest above these cities, skirting the private property obstacles that have thwarted trail development in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

“Where alignments need to cross private property, we are hoping the landowners who own undevelopable land see it as in public interest to sell easements as opposed to hold out for unreasonable amounts of money. That’s what some folks have done in Salt Lake County,” Knobloch said. “That leaves the landowner with no money in their pocket and the public with no trail.”

About 20 years in the making, the trail remains fragmentary with significant portions developed along its proposed reach from Nephi into Idaho. The Davis stretch is the central piece, connecting major components in Salt Lake City and Ogden. It would tie directly into Salt Lake City’s system, which reaches 15 unbroken miles from City Creek behind the University of Utah to Emigration Canyon.

At the north end, a major hub is envisioned that would tie the Bonneville Shoreline Trail with the Weber River Parkway. That would entail a pedestrian underpass under the reconstructed U.S. 89 and a new trailhead just south of the river and east of the highway.

Weber County residents enjoy the longest unbroken stretches of the shoreline trail, covering nearly the entire distance from the Weber River to North Ogden Canyon. A piece south of Beus Canyon likely will never get developed because a property owner is not willing to sell an easement, but users can hike or bike 22 miles of trail north of Beus without crossing a road.

About 20 miles of the Davis trail would be on national forest, while 13 miles would cross municipal property and 17 miles would cross private land, according to Oyler. He pegged the cost of trail construction at $1.5 million.

The hard part would be cutting a new path that climbs into the Wasatch, rather than hugging the ancient shoreline.

“They filled the shoreline [in the Bountiful hills] with development, so we have to go farther into national forest to accommodate a trail,” Oyler said. “That forces you higher up the mountain. We are working out the details.”

On the south end, the Davis trail would start near an existing trailhead at Tunnel Springs and climb the ridge separating Davis County from City Creek Canyon. The trail elevation would peak at around 6,300 feet, several hundred feet above the shoreline, before dropping into Mueller Park, according to Zinnia Wilson, a recreation planner with the Forest Service.

In its posting, the Forest Service said the trail may serve as a firebreak and provide access for fire suppression and management. That proved to be a prescient remark. Last month, firefighters used a Utah County portion of the trail to help contain the Round Peak Fire and prevent it from spreading toward homes in Springville, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Loyal Clark.

In Davis County, existing trail and proposed alignments pass through or near seven cities, most of which have plans to improve trailheads. Most current trailheads are hardly worthy of the name, consisting of little more than a trash can, a rudimentary sign and a dirt parking area that was not properly engineered.

The cities are also looking to link the trail to recreational amenities and canyon destinations. For example, Layton intends to pave and expand the parking area that accesses Adams Canyon, as well as install restrooms, according to Wilson.

Farmington plans to build a mountain bike park that will tie into the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. A high school bike team is designing that project, which received approval from the Farmington City Council last week.

Along with Forest Service approval, Davis County needs to reach agreements with numerous landowners whose property the trail would cross. No trail construction would occur on these properties without landowner authorization, according to the plan posted by the Forest Service.

“We have contacted a number of owners. We don’t currently have any easements settled on those properties, but our goal is to put trail in optimal locations for future use and accessibility, and we will adjust things as we need to accommodate private property rights,” Oyler said. “Sometimes it takes years to resolve private property issues.”