When the summer heat and thick air begin to smother the Salt Lake Valley like a spicy enchilada, area cyclists start pedaling toward Mill Creek Canyon. The 18-mile round-trip stretch along Mill Creek Canyon Road from the fee station to Big Water trailhead has been heralded as one of the Salt Lake City area’s 10 best biking routes and often is the go-to circuit when temperatures heat up.
But not this year.
Various construction projects have officially closed Mill Creek Canyon Road to cyclists all summer, with the lower part of the road is expected to remain off limits until at least mid-September. The upper section of the road, meanwhile, might be inaccessible to bikes from late 2024 until mid-2026.
“The road will be closed to cyclists for their safety,” said Maridene Alexander, spokesperson for the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District, which is one of several entities whose projects will disrupt traffic flow in the canyon in the coming years.
“There is a concern,” she added, “for the safety of the cyclists where there’s only one lane.”
Currently, Rocky Mountain Power is in the middle of burying power lines as a way to mitigate wildfire danger. The project, which started in May, has required digging a trench along, and sometimes through, the westbound lane between the winter gate and the fee station. In addition to reducing the road to one lane at times, it has also left a large scar through the middle of the already narrow lane that could be dangerous to cyclists.
Rocky Mountain Power does not plan to fix the scar, however. That’s because as soon as it wraps up its project, that entire stretch of the canyon road is scheduled to be repaved and restriped.
The Greater Salt Lake MSD will be heading up that approximately $2.7 million project, which is set to begin Aug. 8. And though cyclists will be prohibited from using the road while the paving is happening — probably through at least mid-September — they are likely to appreciate the work in the long run. It includes resurfacing the pockmarked road through mill and overlay, performing maintenance on drainage systems and updating signing and striping between the fee station and the winter gate.
Alexander said the Greater Salt Lake MSD will have signs at the mouth of the canyon and along the roadway alerting cyclists to the closure.
“They also are contacting cyclist groups,” she said, “to help notify those riders who like to cycle in that canyon.”
While construction on the lower section of Mill Creek Canyon Road is ongoing, mountain bikers will still be able to access trails in the canyon. In addition, cyclists will be able to ride the upper stretch of the canyon road, between the winter gate and the Big Water trailhead. That section, however, will be undergoing its own makeover in 2025.
The 2025 project will involve more than just repaving the road or burying power lines, though it includes both those tasks. Spearheaded by Salt Lake County and mostly paid for through a grant from the Federal Lands Access Project, the nearly $20 million project will expand the road through much of the upper portion of canyon, improve parking lots and drainage and add safety features such as crosswalks and guard rails.
Helen Peters, the county’s regional planning and transportation director, said the road had slipped into such disrepair that the United States Forest Service, which oversees the land in the canyon, asked the county to apply for the FLAP grant so improvements could be made.
“It’s narrow. The roadway is kind of creaky and cracking off into the stream,” Peters said. “And there’s safety issues with having to pull out into a lane of traffic in order to back out of a parking. lot. There’s just some real safety issues.”
What the road will look like when the project is done, though, is still being sorted out.
The county is considering a variety of options of road widths while trying to find a balance between uses and concerns. One of the more expensive and more environmentally impactful options would expand the road to 26 feet (it currently averages 22 feet from the winter gate to Elbow Fork and 17 feet from Elbow Fork to the Big Water trailhead). That would allow for a 5-foot wide bike lane on climbing segments and a 1-foot shoulder on descents.
One of the most conservative options would widen the road to 20 feet, allowing for two 10-foot-wide lanes with no designated bike lanes, similar to how the road is currently configured.
Peters said the county can pick different lane widths and striping for different segments and will take into consideration environmental features and impediments.
“Right now we’re just doing our best to make sure that we accommodate all users,” she said. “And it’s not an ideal situation, but there are some constraints.”
The project is in the design phase, and Peters said she expects the county to have one more open house this fall, after which it will take public comments on the project for 30 days.
Work is slated to begin in late 2024 with a ribbon cutting planned for summer 2026. The county’s goal, Peters said, is to ensure access to cabins as well as to recreation and biking trails during the road construction.
Update: Aug. 1, 2022, 10:36 a.m. >> This article was updated to show the mill and overlay project in lower Mill Creek Canyon is scheduled to begin Aug. 8.