Major road upgrades on tap for Mill Creek, but will they improve popular canyon?

Salt Lake County has released a plan to substantially widen the upper canyon’s narrow, bendy road in hopes of alleviating congestion.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fall colors make for a vibrant drive along Mill Creek Canyon above the winter gate on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Salt Lake County is proposing to widen the upper half of the 9-mile road, an upgrade that could alter the character of the popular year-round destination.

Acre for acre, few outdoor recreational areas in Utah see more use than Mill Creek Canyon, the heavily wooded destination where a nine-mile road connects Salt Lake City with numerous backcountry trailheads into the Wasatch Mountains.

So many visit to hike, fish, bike, picnic, ski and, most conspicuously, run their dogs that the road is jammed with cars below the winter gate most weekends and evenings year-round and above the gate in summer.

Salt Lake County has released a plan to widen the upper canyon’s narrow, bendy road in hopes of alleviating congestion and protecting the watershed. But some canyon lovers are wondering if pouring more asphalt would really help or just make matters worse.

On Wednesday, county officials proposed nearly $20 million in improvements for the upper canyon, which they say are needed to accommodate the growing number of cars in the canyon. Salt Lake County and the U.S. Forest Service are looking to widen the 4.5 miles of road beyond the winter gate leading to the Big Water Trailhead as part of a $38 million program funded mainly through the Federal Lands Access Program, or FLAP.

“We know that this canyon is loved by so many and really what this is about is preparing for the future,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson at an event held at the gate, now closed for winter. “This is a plan to improve access, to manage access and to build the amenities that we all need when we do recreate here. One of them being efficient parking, one of them being better trailheads [and] in appropriate places, road widening. I know that the Forest Service is being very sensitive to this topography and we’re not going to do anything that doesn’t make sense.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake District Ranger Bekee Hotze of the U.S. Forest Service unveils plans to upgrade the narrow deteriorating road in the upper reaches of Utah's popular Mill Creek Canyon, shown behind her, Wednesday Nov. 3, 2021. Also pictured are, left to right, Salt Lake County planning official Helen Peters, Mayor Jenny Wilson and Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini.

The road would be closed during construction from fall 2024 till spring 2026, while upper canyon backcountry could still be accessed via trail from the Terraces, the Pipeline and neighboring Lambs Canyon.

Many people cherish upper Mill Creek Canyon the way it is now, with its narrow, low-speed roadway, and are concerned road improvements could alter the canyon’s character for the worse. A wider road could usher even more traffic into a place that is already saturated, Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons.

“There needs to be improvements for sure, but do we build more stuff in the canyons to accommodate more people? The answer appears to be yes,” Fisher said in an interview. “We are on the verge of losing any semblance of the Wasatch we once knew.”

About five miles up the canyon, the road is gated for at least eight months a year, from Nov. 1 or earlier through June 30. Though closed to cars, it sees even more traffic during this period when it is used by cyclists, cross-country skiers, hikers, kids on sleds and canine companions. Widening the road would hardly improve the experience of these seasonal users and probably degrade it, critics say.

Some stakeholders have explored a shuttle system for the canyon, but that idea has not gained traction with the Forest Service, which oversees the public lands in the mountains above Salt Lake City.

The agency proposes to completely rebuild the road and widen it to 29 feet from the winter gate to Elbow Fork and up to 24 feet for the last three miles to the Big Water trailhead.

“Access to Mill Creek Canyon and the facilities within the canyon are deteriorating and not keeping up with the use that’s currently going on,” said Salt Lake District Bekee Hotze of the Forest Service. “Where feasible, the road will be widened to accommodate the multiuse that we are currently seeing in the canyon.”

Parking would be improved at busy spots such as Alexander Basin, Big Water and Elbow Fork, but it would be eliminated along the roadway where parking has broken up the road edges.

“You want the road base to stay on the road, you don’t want that in your stream. The road is made of tars and chemicals that, when you put into the waterway, are not good for the fish,” Hotze said. “So this project will add retaining walls where needed to make sure that the road base stays where it’s supposed to.”

Bike lanes would be added, but not everywhere.

“In some portions of the road, it’s not feasible to widen the road quite enough and maintain the character of the canyon,” Hotze said.

Officials will host an open house on Nov. 9 at Millcreek City Hall, from 4:30 to 7 p.m., and are accepting input from the public through Dec. 9.

A $15 million FLAP grant would fund this upper canyon work with local sources adding a $4 million match. An equally sized FLAP investment is envisioned for the lower canyon, which is opened to cars year-round, but at a later date.

Like the neighboring Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, Mill Creek has experienced a significant influx in recreational use in recent years as more and more Utahns discover the natural wonders just outside the state’s major population centers along the Wasatch Front. Since early 2020, the pandemic pushed many people into the outdoors, accelerating crowding in the canyons and other Utah destinations.

Even before the pandemic, traffic in Mill Creek was soaring, from 192,000 vehicles counted in 2013 to as many as 1 million last year, according to county spokeswoman Jordan Carroll. Mill Creek is particularly popular with dog owners, whose furry friends are not allowed in protected watersheds, such as the Cottonwood, City Creek and Parleys canyons.

Julie Jag | The Salt Lake Tribune Though some trees have lost their leaves, many are still popping with color along the Red Pine Road trail in Mill Creek Canyon on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.

“It’s so beautiful and natural. And unfortunately, as our population in Utah increases, these places can just be loved to death. And the purpose of this grant is to kind of stop that gap and do some things that are necessary to preserve the wild nature of this canyon, preserve the watershed, provide better access so people can get up here and park,” Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini. “Mill Creek Canyon is an asset that everybody in Salt Lake Valley enjoys, but it’s Millcreek’s backyard, and that’s why my city takes a special interest in this canyon. That’s why we were hosting the open house on this matter.”

The Uinta-Wasatch Cache National Forest oversees Mill Creek Canyon in partnership with the county, which charges visitors $5 per vehicle upon exiting the canyon to generate revenue to cover maintenance of the many amenities that line the roadway. Annual passes are $50.

Revenues raised by the fee, which had been increased in January 2020, has nearly doubled since 2016, from $583,000 to more than $1 million last year, according to county data.

This revenue does not typically fund improvements, such as the new parking lot at Rattlesnake Gulch or the new trails at Rattlesnake and Alexander Basin. But some of it could be tapped to meet the local matching requirements for the FLAP grants, according to Carroll.