Crowded Wasatch canyons finally get a trails plan

Forest Service wants public input as it develops trails plan for busy Tri-Canyon area.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Families begin their hike to Donut Falls, the busiest destination in Utah's Big Cottonwood Canyon, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. The Uintah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest is preparing a trails plan for Big Cottonwood and two neighboring canyons.

Utah’s most popular outdoor destinations are not necessarily its famed national parks, ski areas or state parks — the busiest spot for outdoor recreation is the network of largely nonmotorized trails in the Central Wasatch behind Salt Lake City.

Year-round, residents and tourists alike flock to the trails to enjoy the alpine wonders of Big and Little Cottonwood and Mill Creek canyons.

The so-called Tri-Canyon area sees more visits than Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks combined with traffic increasing every year. Hundreds of miles of trails lead into the wilderness from numerous trailheads hardly a half hour from Utah’s population center, and some are getting hammered with overuse. Donut Falls in Big Cottonwood Canyon, for instance, saw 61,000 hikers in 2021, according to trail counter data generated by the U.S. Forest Service. That’s nearly 400 a day on average during summer and fall hiking seasons, with use on mid-summer Saturdays exceeding 2,000 hikers.

Now the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, in concert with Salt Lake County, is developing a plan for the Tri-Canyon trails system, addressing critical questions of trailhead development, parking, signage use of eBikes, where to cut new trails and where to retire existing ones. And officials want the public’s help.

“We want people [to] show up to a trailhead that’s safe and clean and has good information, they take a trail that suits the experience they were out for, to a destination, whether that’s a distant peak, or hammocking spot 100 yards off the trail, that’s a clean and healthy environment and we continue to have nice water coming out,” said project leader Zinnia Wilson at a recent public meeting.

The planning area includes Parleys Canyon and neighboring spots in Summit, Utah and Wasatch counties where trails connect into the Cottonwood and Mill Creek canyons.

By fully engaging the public in the process, planners hope to avoid the controversies that arose in 2021, when Salt Lake City began implementing its foothills trail plan. Many trail users were stunned to see cherished trails getting eliminated, parts of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail given over to downhill mountain biking and unsightly trails cut above the Avenues neighborhood.

“We want to do it right,” said Wilson, a Forest Service recreation planner. “To meet that vision, we need coordinated action, and we’re not going to get there just making ad-lib kind of decisions.”

With the help of its consultant Landmark Design, the Forest Service has set up a website where the members of the public can explore their favorite trails and provide their thoughts on what they want to see for specific sites. The next meeting is Monday at the Salt Lake County Library, 2266 E. Evergreen Ave. in Millcreek, at 6 p.m. People can participate in that meeting online.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hikers walk along the Cecret Lake trail, in the Albion Basin, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022.

The three canyons see around 9 million visits a year. In a separate process, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest has proposed a system for collecting fees at developed recreation sites and trailheads.

The trail planning process has been underway since 2020, when the Forest Service installed trail counters at various locations to measure the use of some trails and began conducting in-depth interviews with trail users. Now the agency and Landmark are presenting their findings to the public to devise a draft plan this year, which would be subject to another round of public comment before it is finalized next year.

And they are asking a lot of questions they want trail users to help answer.

“Should we be controlling the number of visitors in the canyons?” posed landscape architect Lisa Benson, Landmark’s project leader, at the Jan. 11 meeting. “Obviously, it’ll help protect the resources and maybe improve the visitor experience. But how do you do that in an equitable way? And what tools or processes are fair? Is it a lottery system, reservation system?”

The profusion of electric-powered mountain bikes, or eBikes, on Utah trails has raised sticky issues that the plan will address.

“Are there appropriate areas in the canyons [for electric-assisted cycling]? Would it be appropriate to have them only at the [four ski] resorts?” Benson said. “And then there’s a little bit of debate on do they actually cause more safety or conflicts than other uses? Do they impact the trail system more than other users? Do they serve more of a wealthier segment of the community? Or do they provide access to a portion of the community that couldn’t otherwise get out to recreate in nature.”

Currently, eBikes are barred from designated nonmotorized trails across all national forest lands, but the Forest Service has established a process for evaluating trails for eBike use on a case-by-case basis.

Planners are also exploring how to revamp signage to better serve the public.

“There’s concern about a lot of the new users we’re seeing to the canyons and how there’s a lack of education about what’s allowed in the canyons, what the trail etiquette is, what’s expected and also what’s available,” Benson said. “Updated comprehensive signage can go a long way towards protecting the system and also improving recreation experiences for users, making sure that signage is located not just at trailheads, but also at trail junctions and at canyon entry points.”

The trail-use data was generated with counters borrowed from the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, which acquired counters for its own studies of winter use. The summer data has shed new light not just on how much use specific trails see, but how that use changes during the day, week and time of year, according to Chelsea Phillippe, a recreation planner with the Forest Service.

“It varies per trail,” Phillippe said. “You can see that Donut Falls sees most of its visitation at midday around noon and just after, where other trails like Desolation have two separate peaks, at a mid-morning and then later afternoon, perhaps even after work.”

In its 2021 trail-counter surveys, the Forest Service recorded 44,000 hikers on the trail to Lake Mary; 40,000 for Cecret Lake; 38,000 at White Pine; and 26,000 at Lake Blanche. Meanwhile use at Lambs Canyon, a trail in Parleys Canyon that accesses Mill Creek, recorded only 2,000.

The planning team has also inventoried every mile of system trail, as well as informal user-created trails, like the one to the summit of Mount Olympus. Some of the latter trails likely will be retired because they serve little purpose or cause damage, according to Wilson.

“It shouldn’t be on the landscape,” she said. “We’re not going to go out and shut everything down. Some of those user-created routes should be modified and incorporated because they’re serving a really valuable function. They just need to be made more sustainable.”