New data indicates trail congestion caused by locals, not visitors
Locals are more sensitive to changes in crowding and are more likely to report problems than new users, officials say
Complaints of trail overcrowding have been building in recent years, leading various county agencies to search for solutions, yet new data suggests the problem may be different than residents and officials initially thought.
Overall trailhead use has actually decreased between 2018 and 2021, according to an analysis performed by the Snyderville Basin Special Recreation District. The Summit County Council asked the group early last year to dig deeper into the topic of user origin in response to recurring community complaints about trail congestion, and Basin Rec representatives presented their findings on Wednesday.
In 2020, permanent trail counters were installed and the data collected shows that use by residents has increased while visitation from nonlocals has decreased, according to Matt Wagoner, Basin Rec trails and open space manager.
The results contradict public speculation that visitors were causing overcrowding.
“We don’t have the luxury of blaming outsiders as much for our woes as we might have thought,” said Summit County Council Chair Chris Robinson.
Basin Rec divided users into three categories, including locals who live within 10 miles of a trailhead, regional users who reside between 10 and 50 miles from trails, and visitors who live more than 50 miles away.
The most recent data indicates that locals make up 40% of trail users, regional users 38% and visitors 22%, according to Wagoner. The percentages track overall volume rather than the number of individual users.
Basic Rec was able to determine the most intense use was coming from people who live closest to the trails. People from the Salt Lake Valley also widely used the trails but less intensely.
“The usage over the years, the increases, have come from closest to the trailhead,” Wagoner said. “You’ll see a noticeable decrease in that 10- to 25-mile range, which encompasses most of the nearby Salt Lake Valley. Tourism has decreased as a percentage of total use a little bit, but it’s been fairly steady.”
Overall, trail use peaks in the summer and declines somewhat in the winter. Basin Rec staff utilized anonymous, aggregated cell phone data to determine that in 2019 there was a typical seasonal curve with trail usage declining during the muddier months. The following year, there was low usage in the winter and early spring, but as pandemic lockdown conditions eased, there was a historic spike in usage during the early summer.
“That quickly dissipated and then there was very average use or below-historic levels of use for the remainder of the year,” Wagoner said.
There was below-average usage in the early months of 2021, likely due to limited snowfall or closures at popular trails like Rob’s trail, but usage for the rest of the year remained similar to data collected in 2019.
The most evident change was at Parkview trailhead — a popular destination for locals. In 2018, usage peaked in May with daily traffic averaging around 1,000 users. Usage increased in 2019 with a summer peak of around 1,200 users in July. The following year saw the lowest reported usage until June when there was a large spike in visitors, with the trailhead averaging more than 1,400 users a day, before dropping off in the following months.
After that peak, Basin Rec and elected officials began discussing restrictions on roadside parking near the trailhead with full-time enforcement staff hired in September 2020. There was a decline in November usage, which Wagoner said may have been because seasonal parking enforcement started.
Like the Parkview trailhead, Rob’s trailhead is another popular destination for local users, according to the data. Other trails like Highland and Short Stack are frequented more by regional visitors. Tourists also frequently visit Rob’s in addition to the Spring Creek trail.
There are some patterns in usage, such as trailheads closer to the freeway receiving users from farther away, while locations tucked inside neighborhoods are more often used by locals.
The coronavirus pandemic may have played a role in outdoor recreation with all users staying closer to home. Wagoner said another trend is that there are more participants overall but new users were recreating less often, which wouldn’t necessarily contribute to an overall increase in trail use.
“It may contribute to some of that trailhead behavior that we’ve talked about before, the etiquette. New users are less familiar with this etiquette so they tend to stand out more and have a larger footprint, so to speak, on the feelings of congestion,” he said.
Unpredictable patterns, such as 60% of users changing the times and locations of their activities, also likely led to the feeling of increased congestion, according to Wagoner. Experienced trail users, like locals, are more sensitive to changes in crowding and are more likely to report problems than new users.
Basin Rec staff did acknowledge that usage was high in 2019 when the county began examining trail use volume and congestion, but active management such as parking restrictions, seasonal closures and improved presence at trailheads has helped.
“Overall usage is maybe not what matters to people most, what contributes to this perception of congestion, but peak usage, this sort of mixing up of trail use patterns contributed to this. Weekday mornings became increasingly busy at Rob’s trailhead for some reason … and this gets perceived as tons of crowding,” Wagoner said. “We’re seeing a pretty clear reduction in usage from outside of the district and that didn’t necessarily mean less peak usage. It seems as if this increase in local usage was enough to fill up many of the trailheads because they have such low capacity.”
Moving forward, Basin Rec staff plan to try to address peak usage times and expand the ranger program to educate new trail users.
Dana Jones, Basin Rec’s director, said they’re also considering working with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office to hire a deputy who can help with trailhead presence and write personal citations when needed because rangers can only write parking tickets.
Councilor Malena Stevens suggested a need to diversify trail use and encourage visitorship at less-frequented trails. Jones said they’re working with the Park City Chamber/Bureau on messaging to disperse use.
“The trend seems very clear: that regional use is decreasing, with a big drop between 2019 and 2020, and then local usage is increasing,” Wagoner said.
Summit County Clerk Evelyn Furse said ballots are expected to be mailed on Oct. 18 and should arrive later that week.
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