Infrastructure upgrades sought at Utah's Calf Creek Recreation Area as its popularity soars

Ali Thiel, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., visits Lower Calf Creek Falls while on a trip through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on Sunday, July 9, 2017.

Ali Thiel, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., visits Lower Calf Creek Falls while on a trip through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on Sunday, July 9, 2017. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News, File)



BOULDER, Garfield County — Federal land managers are seeking a plan that could increase parking and improve infrastructure at a recreation area within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that's grown in popularity over the past decade.

The Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday unveiled a proposed plan for the Calf Creek Recreation Site that calls for the possibility of building a new overflow and expanding or reconfiguring the main parking area, as well as widening an access road that connects state Route 12 to the parking area and campground.

Other possible improvements proposed include modernizing campgrounds and adding new camping units, as well as replacing old infrastructure such as the recreation site's fee station, restroom building, shade shelters or an access road bridge in the area. A communication fiber line could be installed to allow for digital fee payments or even emergency phones in the area.

The trailhead of the popular Lower Calf Creek Trail could also be rerouted around the recreation area's campground, so hikers don't have to walk through campsites to get onto the trail.

"Our goal is to implement additional measures that will enhance the visitor experience while improving public access and safety as well as reducing resource degradation," said Vicki Tyler, the bureau's Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument manager, in a statement Tuesday.

The Calf Creek Recreational Site predates the formation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Recreational facilities, such as nine camping units, a group picnic area, bridges, toilets, roads and a water system were developed in the early 1960s, according to a document compiled by the BLM. The Lower Calf Creek Trail was then completed in 1968.

The recreation site was later included within the national monument, which was designated in 1996; however, it really spiked in popularity over the past decade, according to Tyler. In fact, the bureau now considers the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trails one of, if not the biggest outdoors draw along S.R. 12 between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks.

While that helps expand recreation in Utah, federal land management officials said they are concerned that the recreation area has essentially become a victim of its own popularity. Not only is it difficult to score a camping spot at the recreation area, but it's also difficult to find parking for those stopping by to check out the waterfalls, which has only led to new safety concerns.

It's not uncommon to find visitors parked "in numerous undesignated shoulder locations" along S.R.12 leading up to the access road, or even on the access road itself, throughout the duration of the region's "visitation season," officials wrote in a document about the project.

That season has only gotten longer. As outdoor recreation experienced an uptick tied to people looking for safe and fun activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the bureau wrote that the demand for Calf Creek recreation even resulted, at times, in parking along S.R.12 as far as a half-mile away from the entrance to the recreation area.

This photo shows vehicles parked or traveling through state Route 12 at the entrance to Calf Creek Recreation Area in 2020.
This photo shows vehicles parked or traveling through state Route 12 at the entrance to Calf Creek Recreation Area in 2020. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)

"In this area (S.R. 12) is curvy, narrow with little to no shoulder, and with steep grades eastbound (north of) from the recreation site entry. This resulted in pedestrians walking in the travel lanes around blind curves," the document states. "In addition, the entry to the recreation site is narrow and the main parking area layout is not efficient for parking or functional for traffic flow."

The document states that possible plans include the expansion of the current parking area, which has about 30 stalls. An overflow parking area would be constructed near the entrance of the site, adding 40 stalls. There would also be 15 designated parking spaces along the site road that connects S.R. 12 and the current parking lot.

The access road bridge, which was built in the 1960s, was determined to be in "poor condition" following a 2019 inspection, which is why that is also included in the proposal.

This map, created by the Bureau of Land Management, shows the project map for the Calf Creek Recreation Site in Boulder, Utah. The project area is estimated at about 17 acres.
This map, created by the Bureau of Land Management, shows the project map for the Calf Creek Recreation Site in Boulder, Utah. The project area is estimated at about 17 acres. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)

Five new walk-in campsites and four new car camping sites are proposed to be added, as well. The site currently holds 13 campsites.

"All camping sites would be outfitted with accessible tables and fire rings, and tent pads that are flush to the ground," the document states. "Existing shade shelters would be replaced, and new shelters would be installed at other sites as funding allowed."

Other changes would include a new vault toilet on the west side of the creek and another new toilet in the overflow parking area. New picnic tables would be installed to replace aging ones built in the 1960s while working to preserve "as many of the oak trees as feasible" that remain in the area.

Funds from the project would come from the Great American Outdoors Act that Congress passed last year, as well as from recreation fee revenues and "other funding sources," according to the BLM. If approved, the construction of the proposed upgrades would begin in 2022.

Harry Barber, the BLM's Paria River district manager, said he believed the project "should help improve customer service at Calf Creek for years to come."

A 30-day public comment period on the project opened up Tuesday along with the announcement of the project proposal. Anyone wishing to comment on the project can do so on the BLM's website. The public comment period ends at 11:59 p.m. on June 30.

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