Feds award $15.3M for 'much-needed' Mill Creek Canyon Road improvements

A Millcreek Canyon sign is pictured in Millcreek on Nov. 20, 2020. A nearly $20 million project aims to improve travel in the upper part of the canyon.

A Millcreek Canyon sign is pictured in Millcreek on Nov. 20, 2020. A nearly $20 million project aims to improve travel in the upper part of the canyon. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

MILLCREEK — Millcreek Canyon is a popular spot for many Utah residents going outdoors to recreate.

"It's beloved by many. You can see that any summer day (or) especially during the fall colors here," said U.S. Forest Service Salt Lake District Ranger Bekee Hotze. "We use it to hike our dogs, go for a bike ride, have a picnic, cross-country ski and reconnect with nature."

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini calls the canyon "unique" because of how undeveloped and natural it is. But Utah's growing love for the canyon has been damaging for Mill Creek Canyon Road and the canyon.

As more people move to Utah and more people recreate outdoors, it poses a threat to the canyon's future.

"These places can be just loved to death," Silvestrini said.

It's why leaders from Salt Lake County, Millcreek City and the Forest Service teamed up earlier this year to get federal funding that will allow for "much-needed" repairs to the final half of the road in upper Millcreek Canyon.

Standing by the road in the canyon Wednesday, officials from the three government entities announced that the county received $15.3 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Lands Access Program to make improvements of the 4.5-mile stretch of road between the Winter Gate and the end of the road at Big Water Trailhead.

County leaders said they will also provide $4.2 million to fund the remainder of the Upper Mill Creek Road Improvement Project, as required by receiving the federal grant.

"What this is about is preparing for the future," said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Wilson said that while Millcreek Canyon was already popular before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately led to a large spike in Millcreek Canyon interest just as it did at national parks and nearby canyons. Looking around at all the people venturing through the canyon on a pleasant fall day, she said it's clear that the canyon is still very popular, and the interest doesn't match the resources.

Cyclists and motorists alike travel through Millcreek Canyon to check out the fall colors on Oct. 2.
Cyclists and motorists alike travel through Millcreek Canyon to check out the fall colors on Oct. 2. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

The plan calls for the road to be widened beyond the Winter Gate to "accommodate the multi-use that we're currently seeing in the canyon," Hotze said. Wilson explained the widening would be in target areas that are "very sensitive to the topography."

Bridges will be included in the project to help allow fish to continue to swim down the creek and roadway drainage systems will be installed to protect the stream from being contaminated by roadway chemicals, Hotze added. It also calls for parking area enhancements, which she explained would not add to overall parking but be used to eliminate roadside parking in the upper portion of the canyon.

New crosswalks near popular trailheads and improved signage are also a part of the plan. It wouldn't change the seasonal closure of the upper roadway, which happens after large snowstorms.

"This is a plan to improve access, to manage access and to build the amenities that we all need when we do recreate here — one of them being efficient parks, (another) being better trailheads," Wilson said.

An open house is scheduled to be held Tuesday at Millcreek City Hall (3330 S. 1300 East) from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., where information about the project will be discussed.

While Silvestrini said the project will include "worthwhile" improvements for the canyon, he views it as just the first phase of improvements to address the popularity of Millcreek Canyon. The next phase would address the road at other places in the lower part of the canyon.

"Millcreek Canyon is an asset that everybody in the Salt Lake Valley enjoys, but it's Millcreek's backyard," he said. "That's why my city takes a special interest in this canyon. It's why we're hosting the open house on this matter and we'd like the people to come and get their questions answered."

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