Are SLC’s long-awaited foothill trails falling flat?

Critics say new trails are prone to erosion and built for high-speeding cycling, not hiking

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bicyclist rides the uphill portion of the new Bonneville Shoreline Bike Trails in the foothills above Salt Lake City, near City Creek Canyon, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

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If Salt Lakers learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that the Wasatch foothills are a crucial piece of the region’s quality of life, a nearby refuge where you can safely recreate in a natural setting and take in terrific views.

Salt Lake City’s foothill trails—long a haphazard arrangement of user-created paths and old Jeep routes with no real trailheads or signage—were more crowded with hikers, children, dogs and cyclists than ever last year, demonstrating the need for the comprehensive 106-mile master plan that city officials approved a year ago.

But not everyone is liking what they are seeing as the plan moves from paper to landscape, with new trails slashed across steep hillsides, old ones trenched into oblivion and choice pathways set aside for downhill biking only.

Some of the new trail recently cut above the mouth of City Creek Canyon crosses unconsolidated sediments and gravels deposited by the ancient Lake Bonneville. On a recent visit, Dan Schelling examined the gash in the slope that towered as much as 10 feet above the new trail surface.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Geologist Daniel Schelling points out some of the erosion on the new Bonneville Shoreline Trail in the foothills above Salt Lake City, near City Creek Canyon, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

“It’s not geologically stable. Every year, more and more material is going to slump off the hillside onto the trail,” said Schelling, a long-time Avenues resident and trail runner. “It means you will have to keep rebuilding the trail and there will be a point where the trail can’t be fixed anymore and you will have to abandon it, so it’s not sustainable ecologically or geologically.”

This trail extends from a future trailhead on Bonneville Boulevard to Morris Meadows, the open natural area accessed from the 18th Avenue trailhead.

The spot sits above the mouth of City Creek Canyon, where the trail system master plan’s first phase of construction unfolded last fall and this spring at a cost of about $1 million. The most conspicuous trails are two mountain bike routes, one built for ascents and the other for descents in the bowl above Morris Meadows.

To the dismay of Schelling and others, this area has become a hot spot for mountain biking and is no longer safe for children or dog walking.

A structural geologist with a trained professional eye for things that can go wrong when earth is disturbed, Schelling sees red flags everywhere. He suspects many of the trails will be too muddy to use for parts of the year, while existing ridgeline trails are being retired, forcing hikers to use new trails that will either be muddy or choked with bikes.

Schelling is now leading a group of avid trail users who are pressing city officials to reevaluate many of the plan’s features. Their main objection is it prioritizes high-impact mountain biking over low-impact hiking.

“We don’t want to stop things, we want it to work better,” said Salt Lake City resident Debbie Feder, who accompanied Schelling on the recent outing. “I don’t think anyone realized how profound this change would be.”

City recreation officials acknowledged some of the new trails have problems, particular the one climbing from Bonneville Boulevard, where a future trailhead is to be developed on a pullout now used to store road salt. The lower part of that trail had to be routed to avoid three private parcels. Consequently it runs through unconsolidated soils not well-suited for trails, especially across steep slopes, according to Lewis Kogan, director of the city’s public lands program.

Yet he remains confident the project’s contractors are building the trails according to best practices. The trails will stabilize and blend into the landscape over time, he said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A biker heads rides down a trail that hikers are no longer allowed to use on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

“What a lot of people are seeing right now is the very obvious scar that exists when you first cut the trail in. There are a few places … where our trail builder basically went through on a steep slope and didn’t cut the uphill side of the trail cut far enough back,” Kogan said. “What we’re seeing now is totally expected and the material is just falling off the uphill side as that slope wants to lay back to the natural angle of repose.”

The city hired Alta Planning + Design, a Portland-based consultancy, to develop the plan, which was released for public review in 2018. It envisions at least 60 miles of new trails to be built from Ensign Peak south to Parleys Canyon over the next two or three years at a cost of $5 million to $10 million, according to Kogan. Many of these new trails connect into the ever-popular Bonneville Shoreline Trail, or BST, the meandering route that tracks the outline of the ancient lake that once covered much of northwest Utah.

“The number of people using foothills trails is inevitably going to go up. It’s already been going up every year. In 2020 it went through the roof,” Kogan said. “We’re just seeing more people on these critical corridors and both Dry Creek and City Creek were identified as two key access points to get to the very popular open space in the foothills above the Avenues.”

A key goal was to segregate downhill mountain biking from hiking in certain places

“That just improves the trail experience for everybody, makes it safer for everybody,” Kogan said. “Inevitably, there’s going to be a temporary sense of loss there as we move some user groups off of one of the existing trails and give the new trail to somebody else.”

The environmental group Save Our Canyons supports trail planning, but now contends Salt Lake City’s plan as currently configured poses too many negative impacts on the foothills.

“We need an improved trail system that keeps up with the crushing growth we are seeing, but it really feels like the city turned over the design of the foothills trails over to a singular user group, which is mountain bikers,” said Carl Fisher, the group’s executive director. “It looked like bikers designed the hiking trails. They are not normal hiking trails.”

An example of this can seen in the banked switchbacks that abound on the new trails, whether or not they are designated for cycling. Banking works well for people on wheels, but not so well for people on foot, who prefer angled switchbacks.

Like many BST hikers, Feder loves the segment that passes through Dry Creek, a formerly peaceful draw behind the University Hospital that leads to a scenic overlook at the head of Lime Kiln Gulch. Under the plan it will soon be designated for downhill riding only, forcing hikers onto a replacement trail to be cut up an exposed hillside.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bicyclist rides along the Bonneville Shoreline Bike Trail. Some hikers think a new trail plan puts too much emphasis on mountain biking.

The plan turns the lovely canyon into a “luge run” for speeding cyclists weaving in and out of the bed of an intermittent stream that runs along the bottom of the canyon, Feder said. She fears the trail will be re-engineered in way to make it unfit for walking; a great hiking experience for the many will be sacrificed to appease the thrill-seeking needs of the few.

Kogan said he empathizes with Feder’s concerns, adding that ultimately the city may change course at Dry Creek, designating the canyon bottom for hiking and putting downhill riders on the new trail.

“The the big goal there is just to segregate those two uses so that you don’t have all the conflicts in that pinch point so that everybody’s having a great experience at Dry Creek,” Kogan said. “I guarantee those [new] trails are going to be awesome and the people who use them are going to go nuts for them.”

As far as Feder is concerned, however, the city needs to go back to the drawing board.