The days of free camping in Middle and Ophir Canyons are over because of an initiative to improve their usage and provide fees for maintenance.
When Middle Canyon opens this spring, campers will see numbered campsites and have to pay $10 per night per campsite. The fee includes up to two vehicles allowed per campsite.
A similar system is set to go into effect in Ophir Canyon this spring. But unlike Settlement Canyon, daytime access to Ophir and Middle Canyons will continue to be free. The $10 fee only applies to camping.
The new campsite fee is needed to reclaim the canyons for recreational users and provide revenue to maintain the popular campgrounds, a county official says.
“Last year we had a population of around 80 people living full-time in Middle Canyon,” said Dave Brown, Tooele County trails and canyons coordinator. “We had one person who declared himself mayor of the canyon, and he was extorting things from the residents and harassing families that visited the canyon.”
Brown, who has worked in Tooele County’s canyons for 10 years, said an influx of homeless people arrived in local canyons a few years ago after Salt Lake County cracked down on homeless camps there.
The area’s open canyons have also become a popular place for drug deals and other illicit activity, according to Brown.
“We want to take back the canyons and make them a safe place for people to camp and enjoy,” he said.
A toll booth in Middle Canyon, like the one in Settlement Canyon, is not feasible because Middle Canyon is a through road for a growing number of commuters who use it to reach Salt Lake County, according to Brown.
The campsite fee, along with enforcement of the county code’s seven night camping limit, is designed to help clean up the canyons, Brown said.
Middle Canyon will have 42 numbered campsites. A large information sign that explains the payment system will be erected at the mouth of the canyon and one will be placed near White Pine Canyon for people that access Middle Canyon from Butterfield Pass.
Campers will take an envelope, place the $10 per night fee in it, and deposit the envelope into a drop box. A paper receipt will also be filled out with the dates that were paid for and campers will be instructed to display the receipt on their vehicle’s windshield.
Brown, along with the Tooele County Citizen Patrol and sheriff’s department deputies, will patrol the canyon and check for receipts.
People without a valid receipt, or that have camped for more than seven consecutive days, will be asked to leave the canyon, said Brown.
Fees collected will go back into the canyon, and provide money to fix broken picnic tables, repair rest rooms and other maintenance, he added.
Despite its toll booth and gate, Settlement Canyon has become a hot spot for local and out of county recreationists, according to Brown.
The Settlement Canyon toll booth was installed in 1996. Last year the booth collected $61,000 and is budgeted to bring in $62,000 in 2014, according to the county’s 2014 general fund budget.
Brown expects once Middle and Ophir Canyons are cleaned up, both will also become magnets for outdoor recreation and draw tourists into Tooele County.
“From watching the license plates that go through the booth in Settlement Canyon, we can estimate that at least 40 percent of the people that use Settlement Canyon come from outside the county,” he said. “Every time gas prices go up, we see more people coming out here to use their recreational vehicles because they can’t afford to drive to Yellowstone Park.”
Around 150 to 200 vehicles travel up Settlement Canyon on Saturdays and Sundays, according to Brown.
“Last year, Settlement Canyon got so full on several weekends that we had to turn people away,” he said. “There was no room to camp or even park on the side of the road.”
The new campsite and fee system will be in place when Middle Canyon opens in mid-April.