The trouble with Mill Creek Canyon is that most visitors go to the same places at the same times.
So even though traffic counts are much lower there than in Big Cottonwood or Little Cottonwood canyons, cars inevitably bunch up at a few picnic areas and trailheads during the summer and at a gate by the Maple Grove picnic area during the winter.
Finding a way to disperse those crowds was the primary goal of a study the consulting firm Fehr & Peers completed last year for Salt Lake County.
Not only would it reduce environmental damage from people parking along the narrow canyon road whenever parking lots filled up, but it also would lessen the dangers faced by the many cyclists and pedestrians who exercise there precisely because there are fewer vehicles to deal with than in Little Cottonwood or Big Cottonwood canyons.
The study reviewed three main ways of alleviating the problem:
• Change the way parking is managed, such as providing signage that gives visitors real-time updates of parking conditions.
• Increase use of mass transit by closing the upper canyon to vehicles and instituting a shuttle system of passenger vans.
• Introduce features that are bicycle and pedestrian friendly, such as an uphill bike lane.
"All the concepts introduced acknowledge that expansion of parking capacity is not a long-term solution," said the report authored by Fehr & Peers project manager Jon Nepstad. "It is reasonable to expect that expanded parking areas will inevitably become congested as they were before."
Instead, the study suggested more than a dozen measures that could be implemented in the near- and long-term to improve visitor experiences in Mill Creek.
Because overcrowding is a problem mainly on summer weekends, Salt Lake County and the U.S. Forest Service, which jointly manage the canyon, were encouraged to close the road above the "Winter Gate" at Maple Grove to vehicles on summer weekends, the main time overcrowding is a problem. Exceptions could be made for people with cabins in the canyon's upper reaches.
On a test basis, the government agencies could hire a contractor to provide 10- to 15-passenger vans, capable of carrying bikes and dogs, to provide access to trailheads and picnic sites between the Winter Gate and Big Water at the top of the canyon.
Eight vans, running every six minutes, could meet visitor demand, the study said, although more vans may be needed at the end of the day "to avoid leaving people stranded in the canyon."
If a pilot shuttle program succeeded in reducing congestion above the Winter Gate, it could be applied canyonwide on one day per weekend.
To make a shuttle system work, the study said, visitors would have to know in advance about its existence and about the real-time parking conditions that exist at various points in the canyon.
There also would be a need to expand the capacity of park-and-ride lots in the valley, possibly on Utah Department of Transportation property along Wasatch Boulevard or at Skyline High School.
Relaying up-to-date information about parking buildups in the canyon could be accomplished in a couple of ways, Fehr & Peers said.
County and Forest Service staff members could monitor parking lots and report their observations via handheld radios to a fee booth near the canyon mouth, where personnel could post the information.
A longer-term solution would be to improve cellular or satellite-communications systems in the canyon so traffic and parking data could be transmitted to electronic message signs at the base. This data could be collected by a portable trailer that would move between popular visitation sites.
Eventually, the study said, technological improvements could result in text message alerts being sent to people who frequent Mill Creek Canyon, similar to the messages that go out to skiers and snowboarders during the winter about the opening and closing of roads in the Cottonwood canyons.
During the winter, congestion problems in Mill Creek are limited to the area just below the Winter Gate, where people park before heading uphill, usually on cross country skis or snowshoes.
Moving the gate lower in the canyon to a point just east of the Terraces parking lot would provide more parking spaces than the 25-30 available in the current location. It also would provide more room for vehicles to turn around, the study said.
Fehr & Peers included several recommendations to enhance bicycle and pedestrian safety, noting that "road cycling is an ideal activity to encourage in Mill Creek Canyon since it represents a way for people to utilize public lands" without producing air pollution and occupying the canyon's limited parking spaces.
The most expensive approaching $700,000 would involve developing an uphill bike lane from the fee booth to the current Winter Gate. In some areas, the study said, that would require acquiring right of way, stream alterations, clearing vegetation and widening the pavement to accommodate a bike lane.
Since many cyclists can go downhill almost as fast as motorists, the study recommended signs be installed showing that cyclists are entitled to use the whole lane in areas where there are blind curves and inadequate shoulders.
The report added that pedestrian safety could be enhanced, particularly in the heavily used area shared by the Church Fork trailhead and Box Elder picnic grounds, by reducing the speed limit there to 25 or 20 mph and installing solar-powered "feedback" signs that tell motorists how fast they are going.
Several transportation concepts were examined but rejected in the study.
That included the idea of building a cable-propelled transit system, in which people would park in the valley then take a gondola or tram to different centers of activity.
"The cost of building this system was considered to be out-of-scale with the degree of the problems experienced in Mill Creek Canyon," the study said, adding it also would have more environmental impacts and likely would face considerable resistance.
Installing parking meters at different lots also would be expensive and would require an enforcement staff to monitor payments and parking rules, while increasing the canyon-use fee (now $3 per vehicle) would not help disperse visitors from overcrowded to under-utilized areas and would discriminate against lower-income people, the report noted.
In its recommendation, Fehr & Peers recommended testing the upper canyon summer shuttle and several smaller measures in pilot programs this summer. But Nepstad said those projects are on hold because no money is available.
"We went after one [federal] grant but were not successful. The projects didn't have enough oomph to carve out money for them," he said. "They're all great ideas, but getting them over the goal line is always the hard part, especially in these times."
At this point, it's uncertain whether funding for any of these projects might be freed up by the impending "Access Wasatch" environmental impact statement that will examine central Wasatch Front transportation issues in detail.
This is the second of three stories looking at a trio of studies, completed last fall under the auspices of Salt Lake County, that laid a foundation for an environmental impact statement (EIS) expected to provide a comprehensive examination of transportation issues in the central Wasatch Mountains. The groundwork studies dealt with transportation to and within Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons, parking in and around those canyons and transportation issues in Mill Creek Canyon. This story addresses Mill Creek.