The Grit Mill Project in Little Cottonwood Canyon


The Lower Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) Hiking & Climbing Trail Project is the largest climbing access trail project on US Forest Service (USFS) land in the nation. This project is a large scale public private partnership in which the user group is taking the lead and providing the experts. The Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA) saw the need for an organized and coherent trail system around the climbing areas of lower LCC that would be sustainable, serve the community, and protect the watershed. The SLCA brought many interested parties together, including the USFS, and formed a public private partnership (P3) that will likely serve as a model for future projects.

In existence since 2002, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance is your local non-profit rock climbing advocacy organization that exists to provide a unified voice for climbers in the Wasatch through advocacy, stewardship, community, and education.


“The partnership with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance has been outstanding.  They have been very patient with our processes and extremely cooperative in helping make the Grit Mill trail system and climbing area successful.  Construction of the trails could not have happened without the time and energy devoted by the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance and all the many volunteers who value climbing and protecting these special areas.” -Dave Whittekiend Forest Supervisor, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest

Public private partnerships are nothing new and have been used successfully for decades. A P3 is a contractual arrangement between a public agency and a private sector entity. Through this agreement the skills and assets of each sector (public and private) are shared in delivering a service or facility for the use of the general public. With increasing financial pressures on federal, state, and local agencies, many agencies have a renewed focus toward P3s. The LCC Project, however, is a break from the norm, and represents a unique P3 that is sure to be used as a model for future P3 projects. The partners are the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, Access Fund, Trails Utah, and United States Forest Service with funding support from Salt Lake County, Department of Natural Resources, Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Mountain Accord, and REI.


The superb granite walls of Lower LCC have been a favorite for rock climbers in Salt Lake City for over fifty years. When Ted Wilson and Robert Stout climbed “Chickenhead Holiday”, the first rock climbing route in LCC, back in 1961 they were probably the only climbers in the canyon. Trails, sustainability and climber impact on the watershed was not an issue then. Fast forward to the present where the rise of rock climbing popularity is undeniable as is the impact on the environment. Now, a climber may have to queue up to get on popular routes like The Coffin, Crescent Crack, or Mexican Crack. A newly released rock climbing guidebook by Nathan Smith called The Granite Guide boasts over 1,670 routes in the area. Trail and staging infrastructure in this fragile environment is still non-existent. Due to the lack of a signed and coherent trail system each climber may have approached the cliffs in a different way furthering the spider-webbing of trails and erosion of soil. I know that I rarely take the same route to the base of the cliffs twice.

Exact numbers are hard to come by when it comes to the amount of rock climbers out there but estimates range from 1 to 5 million active rock climbers nationwide. A 2012 study reports that nearly half of all Americans take part in outdoor recreation. There are well over 400 rock climbing gyms in the nation that are pumping out more and more rock climbers. The increasing numbers of climbers is good for our sport but puts a strain on the outdoor climbing resources. Fortunately, climbing rocks usually connects a person to the environment and instills a need to help conserve and protect the places we love to play. Climbers are great stewards of the environment.

With the population of the Wasatch Front forecasted to double in the next twenty years and with the amount of visitors to LCC already exceeding the number visiting all five National Parks in Utah combined, the need for a plan to mitigate impacts on the watershed is plain to see. The Lower LCC Hiking & Climbing Trail Access Project is part of that plan.


Phase one of the plan was removal of the derelict Grit Mill building itself. The abandoned structure was an eyesore at the mouth of LCC, a public safety hazard, and a magnet for graffiti. Last year the structure was removed, with funding help from Snowbird and support from the Wasatch Legacy Project, making way for a future new trailhead with parking, signage, and bathroom facilities.

Implementation of this trail project began in April of this year with a Climbing Stewards Training. Volunteers and land managers interested in learning how to care for climbing areas gathered to discuss the future of climbing in the Wasatch and to learn the technical rock work skills essential to building and improving trails in this rocky terrain. This training was offered by the Access Fund in conjunction with the SLCA, the USFS Salt Lake Ranger District, Trails Utah, and Black Diamond. The Access Fund is a national climbing advocacy group that has created the Access Fund Conservation Team (C-Team). The C-Team are trail specialists with expertise in rock work trail building and climbing area improvement that travel the country doing the good work of stewardship and teaching others to do the same locally.


The climbing access part of the plan is specifically designed to improve approach trail and staging area conditions. The use of technical rock work skills will be used to increase sustainability and to decrease erosion and plant degradation. The trail project will not only create more sustainable access to climbing areas but will also provide hikers and nature lovers with a stunning 1.5 mile loop trail at the mouth of LCC that will eventually connect with the Bonneville Shoreline trail. So, the Grit Mill Project aims to preserve and improve access trails for climbing, create a signed and sustainable trail system for hikers and nature lovers, and ultimately help to conserve the health of the Salt Lake City watershed.

The Salt Lake Climbers Alliance has teamed up with Trails Utah and the USFS to take on this monumental project. Utilizing the expertise and might of the Access Fund’s Conservation Team, the work has begun. The C-team will be on site doing trail and staging area improvement work from now through November but they cannot do it alone! The success of this project relies heavily on volunteer hours put in by anyone wishing to be a steward of LCC. Climbers are not the only stewards and lovers of the environment. So, calling all hikers, climbers, and lovers of Little Cottonwood Canyon! Volunteers are welcomed every Saturday and Sunday through November. Sign up to help by going to Meet at the lower Little Cottonwood Canyon Parking Lot at 8am and expect to work until 2pm. Come prepared to work hard and be a part of the largest climbing access trail project on Forest Service property in the nation. You will be proud to take part in creating this sustainable infrastructure in LCC that will help conserve the watershed and this place we love for future generations of outdoor enthusiasts.

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