For years Utahns had to trespass to access this trail. There’s a solution in the works, but they don’t like it. (2024)

For decades, hikers trespassed to reach Deaf Smith Canyon. Now they’re worried the landowners’ plans to build will impede access.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Deaf Smith Canyon trailhead in Cottonwood Heights is pictured on Monday, April 29, 2024. Residents fear losing access to the trail due to a dispute with a family planning to build a home where the trail begins on Golden Oaks Dr.

By Sofia Jeremias

| May 15, 2024, 12:00 p.m.

| Updated: May 16, 2024, 4:14 p.m.

Cottonwood Heights • A few ragged sandbags mark the way to a trailhead that starts on a quiet cul-de-sac in Cottonwood Heights. It’s tricky to navigate the secluded, but well-worn pathways. A block away, no trespassing and private property signs and the words “NO HIKING ACCESS” might dissuade some, but for decades locals tramped up the rugged trail that winds its way up Deaf Smith Canyon.

The area is better known for Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons — along with their ski slopes, traffic jams and crowded trails. But, for those in the know, Deaf Smith Canyon offers shade and seclusion.

The catch? To reach the beloved canyon hikers have had to cross through private property and break the law.

The trail is just one example of private property blocking public land access. Private property rights and public access have come into tense opposition as more homes get built in the Wasatch Front’s foothills and crowds flock to recreate on them. In 2008, the Legislature blocked local government’s ability to use eminent domain for trails, the Deseret News reported. Since then, there have been multiple unsuccessful attempts to pass exceptions for projects like the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and Jordan River Parkway.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A private property sign lies crumpled on the ground at the start of the Deaf Smith Canyon trailhead in Cottonwood Heights, Monday, April 29, 2024.

After a snowboarder said he accidentally trespassed on a private road after exiting Brighton Resort, a man with a gun confronted him and yelled, “I have every right to defend my private property.” The footage of the man threatening the snowboarder with a rifle went viral. And in Logan private property owners put up fences to block access to a trail used by the public for decades.

Locals in Cottonwood Heights are fearful that Deafs will be closed off, despite assurances from the property owner that he wants to maintain public access. They are worried that the ultimate plans won’t provide access to the trail’s south fork, be placed on a steep hillside and disturb local wildlife.

“My preference is that we do everything we can to safeguard this quality of lifestyle by working with landowners to secure all the foothills, from the 26 acres that were purchased with help of Utah Open Lands all the way across the hillside, ” said Christine Mikell, who lives near the Deaf Smith Canyon trailhead and hikes it nearly every day. Mikell and other residents have mounted fierce opposition to the plans to build a home near the trailhead.

“I hope that this council starts to look at ways that we can fund the preservation of our foothills because it’s not just Deaf Smith Canyon,” Mikell said. “It’s everything between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon that we should be preserving.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The pipeline trail Deaf Smith Canyon trailhead in Cottonwood Heights is pictured on Monday, April 29, 2024.

A plan for a new home

The controversy over Deaf Smith Canyon began with an application to consolidate three lots to build one roughly 5,000-square-foot home.

At a Cottonwood Heights Planning Commission meeting Kade Huntsman, who owns the property, assured the public that he planned to maintain public access.

“I grew up there too,” Huntsman said, “and I’ve hiked that canyon since I was 5 or 6 years old. It’s my favorite place on earth.”

Huntsman told the commission he wanted to consolidate the three lots to avoid damaging the hillside and didn’t plan to build “a giant mansion.”

The planning commission ultimately approved the plans with the condition that public access be preserved, but residents are still worried. Huntsman’s property is at the end of Golden Hills Canyon Road — a private road with multiple signs dissuading hikers from crossing. At the end of Golden Oaks Drive there’s a separate trail path also on private property.

Mikell, a former Cottonwood Heights City Council member, filed an appeal of the commission’s decision and a hearing officer will decide the case in early June. “People have been walking and using that canyon since the mining days,” she said. “It’s a wonderful canyon.”

Cottonwood Heights residents launched an initiative to Save Deaf Smith, and planted signs in their front yards.

On their website, organizers wrote the easem*nt proposed by the homeowner would have “a much steeper incline, requiring construction to make it accessible.” They also wrote it would “impede access to the Willow Creek drainage.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) One access point for the Deaf Smith Canyon trailhead in Cottonwood Heights begins at the end of the sidewalk on Golden Oaks Dr., pictured Monday, April 29, 2024. Residents fear losing access to the trail due to a dispute with a family planning to build a home where the trail begins.

Public backlash and support for the trail

At a town hall on April 25, roughly 100 residents gathered to tell their mayor and the City Council how much they loved hiking up Deaf Smith. But it became clear that even with public access maintained, residents were still worried about the impact of building near the trailhead.

“I just found the road from Deaf Smith Canyon,” said resident Scott Cuthbertson, “my three girls and I, we hike it regularly. That’s one of the reasons why we came to this area: access to our magnificent outdoors.”

“I would love to see a legal access point for the public to go out there,” one Cottonwood Heights resident said at the local meeting last month. “It’s about as beautiful as Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s a massive area and I just think that we need to provide that to our community, to our children and to the people that come to live here.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The pipeline trail to Deaf Smith Canyon trailhead in Cottonwood Heights is pictured on Monday, April 29, 2024. Residents fear losing access to the trail which begins on private property.

“It’s a very narrow canyon,” another resident said. “There’s a reason those individual properties were never developed and they’re not very developable. If they get combined into one property and that property owner decides to fence their property, it cuts off more thoroughfare for wildlife.”

After more than an hour of public comment, it was clear that nearly everyone in the packed hall wanted access to the canyon preserved.

For his part Huntsman continues to promise there is a plan for public access.

“We’ve given a big piece of land so that the legal trail can be used,” Huntsman said over the phone, “instead of the private driveway that’s been trespassed across for years.”

“We’re a little frustrated because we did the right thing,” Huntsman said, “...we worked with the city, we created access to the legal part of the trail and it just kind of is all blown up.”

For years Utahns had to trespass to access this trail. There’s a solution in the works, but they don’t like it. (2024)


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