Tri-Canyon trails blueprint starts to take shapeMar 08, 2023 12:04PM ● By Zak Sonntag
Trail users Matt Schiffgen and Taylor Burke clock steps on the popular Millcreek Dog Lake trail. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)
The Tri-Canyon Trails Master Plan—a recreation access blueprint for Millcreek, Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood canyons, pursued in a partnership with Salt Lake County and the United States Forest Service (USFS)—is taking shape with the help of public input from several recent meetings, where community members have begun to galvanize around a list of priorities for the world class terrain moving into the future.
With a goal to manage trail use and ecosystems, the Tri-Canyon Trails Master Plan (TCMP) comes as the area’s surging outdoor tourism has raised questions about equity, access, and sustainability in the national forest and surrounding foothills—from far ridgelines to scenic meadows and picnic areas.
Data collected in the period from 2019 to 2023 provides insight on recreation habits and shows that high elevation lakes in the central Wasatch experience large levels of foot traffic, according to reports published on the Tri-Canyon website.
Brighton Lakes in Big Cottonwood Canyon, for example, sees an average of 3,700 trips per day in summer months, with White Pine and Cecret Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon averaging between 1,500 and 3,000 trips per day.
The data was gathered with the use of trail counter boxes emitting infrared beams to measure activity, as well Mobile Location Data, or “digital footprints,” derived from third-party applications installed on user’s mobile phones. USFS also relies on fieldwork inventories and analysis of trail conditions to provide a comprehensive understanding of trail trends.
“We know that visitation is increasing, and we want to meet that challenge so that we still have good, clean water, healthy ecosystems, and high quality sustainable recreation,” said Zinnia Wilson, USFS program manager at the Salt Lake Ranger District, speaking at a public meeting at the Millcreek Community Center in February.
“We don’t think that will just happen by chance if we don’t have a good roadmap for all the partners and participants,” Wilson said.
Beyond the data, TCMP managers are placing high priority on public input and the February meeting in Millcreek revealed that community members have started to unify around a series of concerns and desires.
“Anything we can do to get cars out of the canyon,” said one attendee at the February Millcreek meeting.
“And getting people bused or shuttled, like Zion’s canyon, to the trailhead. I’m all for getting the cars out of the canyons.”
Users expressed high priority for increased bicycle amenities and lamented the that the few bike racks currently available fail to address worries about weather and theft—an increasing concern for outdoor recreationists.
“One thing that would help with traffic is that if I had a safe place to ditch my bike up the canyon, I would leave my car every time. And if we had safe storage for bikes that would help get cars off the road, and they take a lot less space than a parking lot,” said one woman, speaking to a shared anxiety about saddle and wheel theft at trail heads.
Other attendees expressed similar sentiments.
“I bike up to Millcreek a lot and I would love secure storage, like bike boxes you see across the country,” said another recreationist. “Also with summer thunderstorms that will increase the need for overhead structures that can shelter from storms.”
Natural landscape over built environment
Wilson said USFS is amenable to additional structures, but explained they nonetheless need to ensure “the overriding experience is of the natural landscape rather than the built environment, and uses the most minimalist structure we can to get the job done.”
To this end the TCMP intends to draw on examples from the National Park Service, which has a reputation for working smartly with natural environments to improve user experience, utilizing clearings and tree canopies, for instance, rather than built structures to help protect against both precipitation and heat.
A big concern emerging from stakeholder meetings is not with the trails themselves, but the roadways to get to the trails.
One prerogative of the TCMP is to connect canyons to existing and future multiuse paths in nearby cities, allowing users to find their way from their front doors to the foothills and beyond without having to get in a car at all.
Despite partnership with the county and regional stakeholders, Wilson explained that designing a comprehensive and contiguous access plan across jurisdictions entails a variety of challenges and potential roadblocks when dealing with private landowners.
“Obviously, we have a few current situations that highlight how complicated land ownership is in the canyons,” Wilson said, explaining that USFS is working on purchasing land or obtaining right-of-way for some proposed trail areas.
“At a minimum, what makes this plan implementable to some extent is that the Forest Service is the majority landowner (of the Tri-Canyon area) and we can make plans on Forest Service land, evaluate them for impact, and implement them.”
Along with competing ownership and jurisdiction, the plan will need to address competing usage modalities, as residents asked for better management of mountain bikers and hikers.
“I’m both a hiker and a mountain biker and I love doing both, but as the trails get more and more crowded there is a need to separate those activities on the trails. If it’s a biking day I don’t want to go for a hike because it’s hard to manage. I think there is a need to look at the multiuse aspect of it,” said an attendee at the Millcreek meeting.
In some Tri-Canyon areas USFS currently allows bikes on even days and dogs off leash on odd days. However, residents complained that enforcement of those standards are insufficient, a point that Wilson conceded. It was suggested that the TCMP should include robust education component with an emphasis on trailhead signage to help address non-compliance.
So far no consensus has developed on the issue of e-bikes and where or whether they should be allowed on trails.
There was a strong response from residents who said they’d like to see trails for people of all abilities.
“As parents of a physically disabled son, tonight he said just have them make more wheelchair accessible paths. I know it can’t be everywhere, but it would be more than just disabled people who would appreciate that,” said one woman.
Another woman and mother of young children said, “I’d like to see stroller accessible trails in the region. As a mother it’s been a struggle to find a place where you can take a kid for a couple hours.”
The discussions have underscored the challenges of managing public lands in a modern era where wide variety of constituencies with a stake in the game.
They Tri-Canyon Trails Master Plan management team anticipates publishing a first draft for the plan later this year. It will then solicit additional community feedback and reformulate the second draft based on follow-up input. Once a final plan is passed it will be instituted in phases, and each phase will require an environmental impact study.