Wasatch Front residents are getting outside, but trail options are few and crowded

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rhett Reger, Ashley Reger and Case Elliott take rest on their hammocks in Bell Canyon, Tuesday April 7, 2020.

As warm weather returns, northern Utahns are surging into the outdoors amid an incredibly stressful time, but options for destinations and activities along the Wasatch Front have narrowed considerably due to limits from the coronavirus.

Resort skiing, organized youth sports, the San Rafael Swell, Summit County trails, foot and bike races and state parks are largely off-limits to Salt Lake County’s 1 million-plus residents. What to do? Go for a hike, of course, but now Utah’s urban residents are crowding the few destinations available to in search of dispersed recreation.

The result is shaping up to be a social distancing nightmare.

The Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Corner Canyon and Mill Creek Canyon are teeming with cyclists and hikers, making it all but impossible to adhere to the guidelines for reducing risk of coronavirus transmission.

“These trails will get more use,” said Bill Becker, Corner Canyon Trails Foundation executive director. “The problem is they’re crossing paths with one another on a narrow trail. That has some risk. You are not contained indoors, but the social distancing aspect is tough.”

The simple solution is for everyone to remain home, but telling Utahns, many of whom moved to the Beehive State for its outdoor opportunities, to stay indoors is like telling water to flow uphill.

Utah’s most populous counties are also the smallest geographically. The governor’s directive to recreate within your own county appears to be having the unintended effect of concentrating use in the few areas open for recreation.

Officials urge trail users to give fellow hikers and bikers a wide berth — as much as 15 feet — avoid high traffic spots, announce yourself while passing, keep dogs leashed since fur and collars could transmit the virus, hike only with members of your household, and stay home if you feel sick.

But getting out is not only healthy physically but also mentally. Even the state’s top medical point person on the coronavirus does so.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn tweeted a photo of herself with her dog last Saturday enjoying a walk on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

“Outside is one of the safest places we can be. The virus is known to transmit less in the open air," she said Friday in a news conference. “It’s really important to stay away from crowded areas. We don’t want congregation of large groups in any area, even if it is outside.”

The key is to avoid large numbers of people, which can be accomplished with some planning.

“Limit your exposure to anyone outside of your household,” Dunn counseled. “If you’d like to go outside, go for a hike, do so with people that are in your household, so people you are already exposed to. ... And try to go at nonpeak times, so, earlier in the morning, or later in the evening, just before sunset. Go to a trail that’s not as crowded.”

Oh, and take it down a notch, first responders advise, to avoid injury in a crash or fall; the medical system is stressed enough already.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hikers take a rest on the banks of Lower Bell Canyon Reservoir, Tuesday April 7, 2020

The Unified Police Department went on two canyon rescues this past week, one ending tragically.

“We are getting an influx of a lot of people mountain climbing, backcountry skiing, hiking,” said Sgt. James Blanton of the department’s canyon patrol. “It’s only going to get busier because more areas are closed down and people are tired of being cooped up.”

And with large numbers in Mill Creek and the Cottonwood canyons, people are bound to get hurt. Last Saturday, Blanton’s unit rescued a hiker who had injured a knee at the Desolation Overlook. Then, on Wednesday, the team rescued a Park City man injured in a fall while hiking in Big Cottonwood Canyon near Storm Mountain. The man died on the way to the hospital.

“It puts our rescuers at risk to contact those individuals,” Blanton said. “It worries a few of them. There’s always that chance of transmission. Our search and rescue team is more than happy to help. They are itching to [do] that.”

Anyone hiking or riding the Shoreline, Mill Creek, Bell and Corner canyons in recent days would have been struck with the sheer difficulty of adhering to just a few feet of social distance, much less 15 feet. Trailhead parking lots were crammed. Cars were parked along roads, particularly at Mill Creek’s lower trailheads. If Wednesdays are crowded, Saturdays are likely to be even busier.

“This is exactly why we spent so much money and time, decades, to build these trails, to make our lives better and provide safe places to recreate,” said Martin Jensen, director of Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation. “What we need people to do now is to make sure they are aware of the guidelines, of the new reality, of what today is.”

He asked that trail users avoid driving to trailheads and use trails wisely.

“We don’t want to overwhelm our trailheads as gathering points. It’s a challenge. Each county is facing this. People are staying close [to home] but still trying to get out and get exercise and get sunshine. People need to be creative. Try off-times. I encourage folks to explore the Jordan River trail. We have completed it from county border to county border. It’s a hidden gem. The trail is big and wide.”

‘Foothills, foothills, foothills’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hikers enjoy the warm afternoon sun, on the banks of the Lower Bell Canyon Reservoir, Tuesday April 7, 2020

For trails advocate Sarah Bennett, the crowds illustrate what she sees as Salt Lake County’s sorry lack of trails and trailheads in the Wasatch foothills, areas close to where people live and far less ecologically sensitive than the alpine destinations at the heads of the canyons.

Despite the region's large population and outdoor-loving culture, most of the county's trail systems remain poorly developed and isolated, making them hard to access and pushing many to Summit and Wasatch counties to find trail recreation.

“We can’t concentrate so many people in these areas. We need connections where people can access trails close to where they live. We need to look where we can put in trailheads and alignments, and we might need an eminent domain law to do that,” said Bennett, who heads Trails Utah. “I have been singing, ‘Foothills, foothills, foothills,’ for years. It’s obvious our high alpine areas can’t take it.”

Around the state, all of Utah’s national parks are closed and Kane and Garfield counties shut down public lands to all recreation. Camping is prohibited in Emery, Carbon and Grand counties. State parks are open only to residents of counties where the parks are located, in accordance with Gov. Gary Herbert’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive.

That edict has led to some strange results. For example, residents of two populous counties, Salt Lake and Weber, are blocked from nearby Antelope Island, Utah’s largest state park, because they would have to cross a county line to get there.

“We, in State Parks, are following the governor’s directive and that is for people to recreate locally. That’s defined as recreation in the county in which you live," State Parks spokesman Eugene Swalberg said. “We don’t have authority for deviation from that.”

The agency will make no exceptions that would allow Weber residents to visit Antelope Island in Davis County or equally close Willard Bay State Park in Box Elder County.

The 10-mile-long island might be ideal for social distancing, with miles of shoreline and a 45-mile trail network. For many of those miles, the trail is eight to 10 feet wide. The park can safely absorb hundreds perhaps thousands of visitors at a time, yet only folks from Davis County will get past the gated causeway.

That’s great if you’re from Farmington, but what about those who live just as close, in Ogden? Weber County, home to 260,000 Utahns, is puny and has no state parks. As the temperatures rise, the county’s reservoirs and national forest in and around Ogden Valley will be available for fishing, hiking and boating, but April conditions aren’t ideal for recreation there.

There are two state parks in Salt Lake County: Great Salt Lake and Jordan River Off-Highway Vehicle. Neither is really a practical destination for those without a sailboat or a dirt bike. Saltair, on the Great Salt Lake’s south shore adjacent to the state park, however, is an ideal destination for social distancing with its expanses of exposed sand flats surrounded by distant mountain horizons.

Memo to climbers: Stand down

Ordinarily this time of year, Salt Lake City-based climbers head to places with vertical rock faces, such as Idaho’s City of Rocks, Zion Canyon, Moab, Joe’s Valley in Emery County or Indian Creek in San Juan County. With those areas now unavailable, Utah climbers have turned their sights on American Fork Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon’s boulder fields and Gate Buttress. These sites are seeing plenty of action now — to the dismay of Julia Geisler, executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance.

“Your fellow climbers in the medical field are risking their health on the front lines and don’t need to be stressed more with rescues or climbing related injuries,” she wrote in a post last month.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signs posted at Bonneville Shoreline trailheads in Salt Lake City provide guidelines on how to use the busy trail safely during the coronavirus epidemic.

Climbing by necessity is pursued in groups. Partners handle the same gear and spot one another. Since social distancing is not really practical, climbers should “empty the crags” until the pandemic subsides, said Geisler, who survived a bout with COVID-19 along with her boyfriend.

“Our experience was super mild. It’s a scary proposition to be infected and not know it and potentially spread it to my parents,” Geisler said. She believes the risks of transmission are too great to justify climbing.

“There are simply too many of us to all take to the crags and expect to socially distance. This has become apparent in the crowds at local climbing areas the past few days,” Geisler wrote in a post last month. “The shared surfaces of climbing (from holds to ropes and more) are a way that we, as climbers, can potentially spread the virus.”

Geisler is staying home, doing yoga for exercise. She counseled fellow climbers to get creative and find ways to exercise in ways that replicate climbing at home.

Or switch to golf.

As of Wednesday, all six of Salt Lake City’s golf courses were open and seeing traffic, but golfers should be ready to lug their clubs on foot and bring everything they need to enjoy a day on the links. Carts are not being rented, concession stands are closed, and no merchandise is being sold. Tee times are separated by 10-minute intervals to put greater distance between groups, according to Andrew Mecham, the assistant pro at Mountain Dell in Parleys Canyon. No flag pins or sand rakes, either.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin Pyle fires off the fairway at Rose Park Golf Course while playing with a friend, April 9, 2020. Despite the coronavirus and social distancing requirements, Pyle manages to play at least five times a week.

“We eliminated anything that can be touched,” Mecham said. “The only thing that can be touched is the bathroom, and we sanitize that every hour. We encourage hand-washing. As long as you’re doing that, it will be OK.”

Mountain Dell saw 140 golfers on its season opener Wednesday, Mecham said.

At Draper’s busy Corner Canyon trails, an 80-mile network of paths, city officials are considering making some high-use routes one direction to minimize passing. But Bill Becker believes visitors can still find some solitude if they know where to go.

“People don’t know where all the trails are. They go to the one that they know rather than spreading out,” Becker said. “Seek out those trails that aren’t used much, and there are tons of them. Hoof 'n' Boot is one of them. You could get a long run in and not come across a lot of people.”

And if you do, remember, try for 15 feet.

— Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.

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