Potato Salad Hill would be the main access point; user fees would be established

Moab has lost control over many of the recreation areas that locals were once able to keep secret.

Even as the secrets started getting out years ago through decentralized information systems — namely, social media and crowd-sourced trail databases — things were fine. Then Moab exploded with tourists.

Mill Creek was once one of those secrets. With the secret largely out and continuing to be exposed, a group of public, private, and nonprofit stakeholders has come together to create recommendations on what to do about the secret now being out.

The recommendations are based on survey data collected last year and many meetings held among stakeholders representing various user groups, property owners, public entities, nonprofits contributing to area management, and more.

A spokesperson for the collaborative presented the recommendations to the Grand County Commission and Moab City Council during a joint meeting on Tuesday, June 23.

Hiding no longer works

The Moab Area Travel Council, which is in charge of marketing the area to tourists, has never leaked the secret of Mill Creek. In fact, it has done the opposite.

Robert Riberia, assistant marketing director for the travel council, said that the team once approached a local campground that was advertising Mill Creek in one of its visitor brochures. Riberia said the travel council successfully lobbied the campground to remove mention of the area from the brochure.

The Utah Office of Tourism, for all the publicity it gave Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park with its Mighty Five campaign, has also avoided mention of Mill Creek.

In 2019, the state office pivoted to asking that people also See What Lies Between the state’s Mighty Five national parks. Areas appearing in the new campaign included Flaming Gorge, Monument Valley, San Rafael Swell, Goblin Valley, and others. None were in Grand County, and none were Mill Creek.

Yet Mill Creek saw over 140,000 visitors in 2020, according to estimates from a group working on a management plan for the area. Compare that to estimates of Grand County’s permanent population, which was roughly 10,000 last year.

License plates from across the U.S. are a common appearance at the Mill Creek Trailhead the same way they are at the trailheads for Slickrock and Delicate Arch. Related and similarly, the Mill Creek Trailhead parking area commonly overflows into nearby streets and private land.

The group working on solutions

The group working on a management plan, the Mill Creek Community Collaborative, is wrestling with those issues, and it has come up with some recommendations.

Kara Dohrenwend, the director of Rim to Rim Restoration and spokesperson for the collaborative, provided an update on the efforts and recommendations in a joint meeting of the Grand County Commission and Moab City Council on Tuesday, June 22.

Ideas about what to do about much of Mill Creek have gained consensus among the members of the collaborative, according to Dohrenwend. Vegetation management in the riparian corridor, trails and signage recommendations, and other matters all have clear solutions.

But perhaps the most vital piece of Mill Creek management is what to do about the interface between the creek and Moab. Should parking expand to accommodate additional visitation? Should fee stations be used to monetize and moderate visitor numbers?

The collaborative came up with four options to frame the discussion, ranging from the status quo to a vast expansion of parking that would expand to the Potato Salad Hill area, across the creek from the trailhead. It surveyed locals last year to estimate a portion of public opinion on the options.

The two extremes were the most unpopular among roughly 400 people surveyed. The middle options were less unpopular.

One middle option would have removed parking from the Powerdam area from spring to fall and redirect vehicle traffic to Potato Salad Hill during that period. A fee station near Sand Flats Road would monetize and moderate visitors traveling via car.

The other option would have formalized a secondary parking area at Potato Salad Hill but keep open the existing Powerdam parking lot during the peak season. No fee station would be established, and access via Right Hand would be monitored for unofficial trails.

The recommendations

That survey data led the collaborative to recommend to the city council and county commission Tuesday that Potato Salad Hill become the primary trailhead for Mill Creek, among many other recommendations. The complete list is available at moab84532.wixsite.com.

Moving the main parking would enable changes to Powerhouse Lane, restricting access to bikers and pedestrians, emergency vehicles, and locals who gain a Powerdam parking permit, perhaps by logging trail management hours.

However, two members of the collaborative did not agree that Potato Salad Hill would provide a better access route than Powerdam parking lot and requested a traffic assessment of Sand Flats Road. One also expressed concern with the prospect of constructing a pedestrian bridge over the creek to facilitate Potato Salad Hill access.

The collaborative also recommended the establishment of user fees collected via some automated system, with the option that non-monetary contributions like via trail management hours could be made in lieu of a fee.

Now that the city and county have received the recommendations, they will next go to Bureau of Land Management, which manages many of the relevant Mill Creek areas. Dohrenwend said she did not have a timeline for that next step.