Millcreek Canyon: Jewel of the Wasatch

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Millcreek Canyon Sees New Singletrack and Pavement Improvements

Millcreek Canyon has been beloved by Salt Lake Valley cyclists for as long as people have been riding bikes in the valley; the long and varied stair-step climbs, cool downcanyon breeze, beloved shade in the heat of summer, and proximity to a vast swath of the valley are all attributes that road cyclists love. Anyone who owns a mountain bike has plied the canyon’s Pipeline trail, and when that gets too hot on summer afternoons the lovely, cool network of trails at the top of the canyon are a haven for all levels of mountain bikers. There are a few changes coming to Millcreek Canyon soon, and indeed there are some rules that should be clarified so that the many people who love the canyon can share it equitably.

Cyclists climbing Millcreek Canyon. Photo by Lisa Hazel
Cyclists climbing Millcreek Canyon. Photo by Lisa Hazel

The Millcreek Canyon road is a county road overlaid atop National Forest land, so it is multi-jurisdictional. Just like on all other county roads, cyclists are obligated to follow the same traffic laws as cars, which includes a 30mph speed limit, and cannot ride more than two-abreast. Unlike most other county roads, however, when the winter gate is closed (officially from November 1 to July 1) the road above becomes a “trail” administered by the Forest Service, even after it melts back down to pavement.

This does not affect cyclists using the road; cyclists can use it all year long (including fat bikes on snow in the winter) but it does mean that cyclists need to watch out for pedestrians in the couple of miles above the gate. Since this “trail” is so easy and accessible, many of the pedestrians are little kids, which as we all know are not known for their predictable behavior! Do not “buzz” the unsuspecting pedestrians; no one likes to have anyone whiz past them at high speed, and the closer you come to them the higher the likelihood that you will hit them, which will ruin everyone’s day.

Many of these pedestrians have their dogs with them, since Millcreek is the only canyon nearby with nice hiking that allows dogs. Per Forest Service rules, since the road becomes a trail, dogs must be on (short, i.e., less than 6-foot and not extendable) leashes on even days, while on odd days leashes are optional. However, many dog owners either are unaware of this rule or flaunt it, so – particularly in that zone above the closed gate – be aware of dogs gallivanting about every day; hopefully you’ve gotten your speed buzz in the upper canyon and can back off a bit in that popular section as you approach the winter parking area (especially in the that-much-faster section below Elbow Fork); having that section above the gate as car-less in the shoulder seasons is great, but the user groups need to be patient with one another.

Once the gate is open, of course the upper canyon is very popular with folks driving up – like you – to escape the heat and enjoy the mountains, but the road gets ever-narrower, so even with sweat pouring into your eyes as you grind past the Alexander Basin trail and you are seeing stars up the last pitch to the Big Water lot, keep an eye out for your fellow riders – who are in turn staying to the right, of course – and potentially aimless motorists looking for a parking place.

A good option – if you are up for it! – is the new pavement on the Porter Fork road for a steep mile and a half to the end of the road and the Mount Olympus Wilderness boundary. Go around the gate at the mouth and be respectful of the cabin owners up there as well as the walkers strolling up the mostly-car-less road.

Everyone in the valley who rides a mountain bike has ridden the Big Water trails, and a great new addition is a section of trail connecting Elbow Fork and Big Water on the south side of the road. Yes, that is right: you can now ride singletrack from Guardsman Road all the way to near the mouth of Millcreek Canyon! The last section of the trail to be finished is in the rugged terrain just upcanyon from Elbow Fork, and there is also the need to rebuild the bridge across the creek above and across the road from the upper trailhead for the old Pipeline that was crushed by a falling tree in the September “hurricane”, but these should be finished by early summer. As of this writing, the Forest Service is debating on the management of this new trail; it could be subject to the same odd/even day restrictions of the upper Millcreek trails (bikes are allowed on even days) and/or directional restrictions day to day. Regardless of the decision, cyclists should be quite pleased that we finally have a long-sought new trail section to ride to bypass the pavement in the upper canyon and therefore respect the well-intentioned rules that the Forest Service could invoke to maintain the equity of pedestrian and wheeled users.

And speaking of the Forest Service; they have been busy in Millcreek Canyon, putting those kiosk fees to some appropriate use. You have no doubt seen the nice new parking lot with toilets at the Rattlesnake trailhead, and to add to that the FS’s other main trail project for the summer is a much better switchbacking climb up to the Pipeline as an alternative to the steep erosion-fest of a trail that exists now.

Speaking of the Pipeline Trail, historically there have been no restrictions for bikes on that trail, but if you’ve visited Millcreek Canyon at all over the last few years you’ve noticed dramatically increased use on the Pipeline trail and its spur trails even before COVID-19 created a spike in use, so it’s become even more important to be acutely aware of runners/walkers/dogs on this swift trail and its blind corners.

Millcreek Canyon is now seeing over one million visitors a year, and this use has been hard on the canyon and created increased management challenges. The Forest Service itself is perpetually strapped for resources, and the Wasatch Forest is the most heavily used in the country, so it is nice that we have gotten some “love” in our beloved little Millcreek Canyon.

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