The Manti-La Sal National Forest announced that work began on a series of projects along the Geyser Pass Road on Aug. 30. The road has been closed for much of the summer due to the Pack Creek Fire; sections of the road will again be closed between late August and late October. The improvements include widening narrow sections of the upper Geyser Pass Road, improving visibility, expanding and improving parking lots, and adding a restroom at the Trans La Sal Trailhead.
The project was proposed to mitigate safety concerns and user conflicts as recreation areas accessed from the Geyser Pass Road increase in popularity. In 2019, a traffic counter at the junction of Geyser Pass and La Sal Loop roads recorded 36,545 vehicles in a little over a year, indicating that Geyser Pass is one of the most popular locations on the forest.
“Anyone familiar with the area would say that use has exceeded the capacity for much of the existing infrastructure,” says the Geyser Pass Improvements Project Environmental Assessment from February 2021. The project underwent public review this winter.
The upper section of Geyser Pass Road is maintained as a high-clearance vehicle road, though the environmental assessment notes that the rough surface does not deter passenger cars from using it regularly. The road varies between 16 and 60 feet wide, bordered by steep, often eroding slopes created by the road cut. The steep slopes, along with vegetation, narrow sections, and sharp turns, create blind spots; some of the narrow sections are not wide enough for two cars to safely pass.
Part of the road improvement project is cutting roadside slopes to an angle of one foot elevation change in one foot of horizontal distance, or a 1:1 ratio. This will involve cutting back trees and vegetation on the slopes, but the shallower angle will allow for better sight distance. The assessment also notes that the milder slope will be more welcoming to new vegetation growth once the project is complete. Narrow sections of road will be widened to about 20 feet to allow for safe two-way traffic and easier road maintenance.
The National Forest Service holds a road maintenance agreement with Grand and San Juan counties. San Juan County, which is responsible for non-winter maintenance, blades the Geyser Pass Road an average of twice a year. Grand County is responsible for plowing the Geyser Pass Road up to the winter sports trailhead. Widening the narrowest sections of road will allow for easier maintenance for these crews.
Trans La Sal trailhead
The Trans La Sal trailhead is accessed from the lower part of Geyser Pass Road, and provides access to the Squaw Springs and Boren Mesa trails. Hikers, mountain bikers, canyoneers, rock climbers and commercial guides all use the parking lot, which only has the capacity to fit five vehicles. There is limited roadside parking along the steep switchbacks adjacent to the trailhead.
“On busy summer and fall days it is common to see upwards of 20 vehicles in the area surrounding the Trans La Sal trailhead,” according to the environmental assessment. The crowding creates traffic and safety concerns, with some users parking in a way that blocks in other vehicles, and some parking on steep, narrow, washboarded roads close to the trailhead.
With so many people using the area, the forest service also has growing sanitation concerns. The improvements for the Trans La Sal trailhead include the installation of a restroom in the location of the existing parking lot. For parking, the area inside the switchback just across from the trailhead will be flattened and cleared to accommodate more vehicles. The existing parking lot is about one tenth of an acre; the new lot will be about three quarters of an acre, and will also be used as trailer parking for winter recreators, to alleviate congestion at the winter trailhead. The winter trailhead is about 1.6 miles up the road from the proposed new Trans La Sal lot at about 9600 feet. It’s the highest plowed trailhead in the La Sals and is the most popular access point for outdoor activities in the winter months. The environmental assessment says the parking area commonly sees 50 to 60 vehicles on a busy winter day, and congestion sometimes leads to conflict. Trailers, especially, are problematic, the assessment says, because of their size and the complexity of navigating them; the congestion and traffic at the winter trailhead have increased the need for law enforcement presence. The new winter trailer parking at the Trans La Sal trailhead area will, managers hope, reduce that congestion.
Clarke Lake trailhead
The Clark Lake trailhead is along the upper Geyser Pass Road, and can only comfortably fit two vehicles; access to the parking is steep and rough.
“Due to upper Geyser Pass Road’s narrow width and steep roadcuts, roadside parking near this trailhead is nearly impossible and often inhibits vehicular traffic,” says the environmental assessment. The parking lot will be raised to the level of the road to ease access, and expanded to accommodate up to five vehicles.
Geyser Pass trailhead
The Geyser Pass trailhead, at the high point of a saddle between Mount Mellenthin and Haystack Mountain, is the access point for the hugely popular Whole Enchilada route, as well as the Moonlight Meadows trail and other hiking and biking trails. The forest’s environmental assessment says the Geyser Pass trailhead has a five vehicle capacity, but that there are often more than 30 vehicles in the immediate area of the trailhead on busy fall days during the peak of mountain biking season. Many people used to park in nearby ecologically sensitive meadows, until the Forest Service installed barriers to discourage this.
The Geyser Pass trailhead is also used by shuttle companies dropping off clients at the start of the Whole Enchilada. The use of shuttles means fewer cars need to park at the trailhead, but because the route is so popular, the number of shuttles arriving at the same time to drop riders off (as many as 20, the assessment says) can create its own congestion problem.
The project outlines roughly doubling the size of the Geyser Pass trailhead parking area, providing room for about 10 cars, and establishing a separate shuttle unloading area. An area close to the existing parking lot will serve as overflow parking.
The project’s environmental assessment found that overall, the project would likely improve the recreation experience. It may negatively impact wildlife within the project area, but not to a degree that would contribute to a species being added to federal threatened or endangered list, or that will damage the viability of the species.
Three sensitive wildlife species are found along or near the upper Geyser Pass Road corridor: the northern goshawk, the three-toed woodpecker, and the Abajo Draba plant. The assessment notes that noise, activity, and dust from construction will likely disturb these birds and plants, and the removal of trees and widening of the road will further fragment their territories and potentially remove trees used by birds for feeding or nesting.
To offset the potential loss of habitat from the proposed actions, the forest plans to close two unauthorized motorized routes that lead into goshawk habitat.
The Geyser Pass Road will be closed from the junction with the La Sal Loop Road up to the pass from Aug. 30 - Sept. 12. The upper section of the road, from the junction with Gold Basin to the pass, will be closed from Sept. 12 - Oct. 29, or until the project is complete. The pass and trails that begin at Geyser Pass will still be accessible from the east side (which adds about an hour to the drive time from Moab.)
“Road closures can be frustrating, and we certainly understand that,” said Michael Englehart, district ranger for the Moab/Monticello district of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, in an Aug. 20 press release from the forest. “This closure may feel particularly frustrating because of the prolonged, unplanned closure of this road that occurred earlier in the year due to the Pack Creek Fire. We appreciate everyone’s understanding and look forward to delivering an improved Geyser Pass Road, which is a road so vital to our enjoyment of the La Sals.”
The entire Geyser Pass Road Improvement Project Environmental Assessment can be accessed online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/113896_FSPLT3_5596579.pdf.