Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ogden Canyon Realities

Ogden Canyon is one of the many beautiful mountain locations near where I live. The canyon connects the Greater Ogden Area with Ogden Valley, which is home to Huntsville and Pineview Reservoir. Three ski resorts are accessible from Ogden Valley, including Snowbasin, which was a venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Prior to the construction of the Trapper’s Loop Highway, Ogden Canyon served as the most improved road between Ogden Valley and the more populous areas of the Wasatch Front, including Ogden City.

The naming of the Ogden City and of Ogden Valley is confusing, even to residents of the area, because Ogden Valley is six miles over the mountain from Ogden City. Peter Skene Ogden headed a company of trappers in 1824-25 that trapped in the area that came to be known as Ogden Valley. Apparently other trappers started to call the valley by that name, and the name stuck when the valley was later settled. Ogden and his company didn’t spend much time in the valley, and records seem to indicate that Ogden never entered the area where Ogden City was later built.

Fort Buenaventura was purchased from trapper Miles Goodyear by Mormon settlers. The settlement was then named Brown’s Fort and later Brownsville in honor of the group’s captain, John Brown, who lived there only for a couple of years. Four years after settlement, the name was changed to Ogden City at the encouragement of Brigham Young, the President of the LDS Church at the time.

The Ogden River runs through Ogden Canyon. In the mid 19th Century, settlers cut a wagon road that ran along side of the river. Eventually the entire canyon was re-graded during the construction of a rail line. And in the early part of the 20th Century, an improved automobile road was constructed. The WPA built a low rock wall along the road in many places in the 1930s. Remnants of this wall still line the road. In the days before air conditioning, the wealthy and elite of Ogden built summer retreats in the canyon, which was markedly cooler than the city. Many of those homes still exist. You can see a fun photo history of the canyon on the walls of Dylan’s Drive Inn Restaurant.

The bottom of Ogden Canyon is very narrow. In many spots along this six-mile stretch, there is barely enough room between the rocky canyon wall and the river for a two-lane road. In the broader portions of the canyon where homes exist, the road usually runs on the narrow area on the other side of the river from the homes. And on the side where the homes are built there is usually only one to three hundred feet of real estate between the river and the canyon wall.

During my life there have been projects to improve the Ogden Canyon road, and for the most part, those projects have been quite helpful. But driving in the canyon can still be hazardous, especially when people speed or pass in no passing zones. One rarely drives through the canyon without encountering large vehicles, including semi trucks, motor homes, and vehicles pulling recreational vehicle trailers.

Every so often when there is a serious accident or a spate of accidents in Ogden Canyon, people write letters to the editor of the local newspaper complaining about the lack of proper traffic enforcement. This letter is representative of those kinds of letters. The writer complains, “I see speed traps all the time on quiet city streets where no one has ever been killed, but never in Ogden Canyon where there have been many fatalities over the years!”

What many of the writers of these letters seem to dismiss is the sheer physics of the situation. There are very few spots throughout Ogden Canyon where police could safely and effectively radar or patrol. There are only a couple of spots where drivers could be safely pulled over without creating a greater safety hazard than is caused by their bending of the traffic laws. The road is like a luge chute. Once vehicles enter either end, it’s very difficult to safely get them off the road. Traffic enforcement officials are in a Catch-22. Enforcing traffic laws in Ogden Canyon can be more hazardous than tolerating traffic law violations. Motorists seeing violators can’t even call 911 in many parts of the canyon due to spotty cell phone coverage.

Ogden Valley is following in the path of Heber and other communities surrounding Park City. It is transitioning from a sleepy agricultural area to a resort area. It is now common for million-dollar homes to be built in Ogden Valley. As the valley’s population increases, the pressure on Ogden Canyon also increases, despite the availability and quality of Trapper’s Loop. Trapper’s Loop is great if you’re headed to points south, but for access to the Ogden area, Ogden Canyon is still the best route.

While road officials can and do work to keep the Ogden Canyon road well maintained, there really isn’t a whole lot more they can do to make the road safer. It simply can’t be widened. And all of the curves that could reasonably be straightened out have already been straightened out at great cost. Concrete barriers have been added on the river side where necessary. Road officials have pretty much maxed out their capacities in Ogden Canyon.

Any further steps would require traffic regulation that many travelers would consider oppressive, such as prohibiting larger vehicles during certain hours or having traffic lights at either end timed to promote safe distances between vehicles (which would cause long lines). Utahns have strongly rejected photo-cop systems as an infringement on the presumption of innocence.

The fact is that there are no seriously good options to improve the safety of access between Ogden City and Ogden Valley. Ogden Valley has a number of outlets, but there are no remaining places to build more outlets. We can’t construct a road over the top of the mountains and we can’t blast a new canyon. What you see is what you’ve got. Whining and complaining about it won’t change anything. If you deem Ogden Canyon too unsafe to traverse, then use Trapper’s Loop instead. There is an alternative. Your use of Ogden Canyon says that you’re willing to accept the risk of doing so. It’s harsh, but that’s the way it is.


y-intercept said...

It is a stunningly beautiful canyon ... that no one can enjoy because idiots want to drive their rigged out SUVs at 85 MPH through the canyon.

Anyone foolish enough to enjoy the canyon will have their venture ruined by a massive fuel guzzling pickup grinding on their rear bumper, weaving back and forth in road rage.

I am completely at a loss for how people can drive through such a beautiful canyon without wanting to slow down and take in its wonders.

I've thought about trying to cycle through the canyon. Is that possible? It seems too narrow. The drivers are so discourteous that I would imagine the road is instant death for cyclists.

BTW, your post comments on traffic enforcement simply mean that a different type of traffic enforcement would be needed. As you said the canyon is a luge run. You can record the violations in the canyon and ticket them on the outlet.

For that matter, you can record the person at the start of the luge run and at the end. You divide by time and get the speed. If they do the six mile luge stretch in under six minutes, then they are doing sixty.

Scott Hinrichs said...

People cycle Ogden Canyon all of the time, but I certainly wouldn't advise it. It's wonderfully beautiful, especially at this time of year, but my personal feeling is that it's too risky to cycle. Some parts of the road are just too narrow for two vehicles plus a cyclist to safely pass.

If you ride a mountain bike, there is a very nice trail that runs several miles along the face of the mountains south of Ogden Canyon. You only meet hikers and other cyclists up there. If you ride this trail, you have the option of going up several canyons along the route.

I think speeding is only part of the problem in Ogden Canyon. It's the relative safety (recklessness) factor that is difficult to judge based on speed alone. Also, people tend to speed through certain portions of the canyon while going more sedately (due to curves) in other parts, so they might average out at a safe speed even if they break the speed limit.

Having said that, I have safely traversed the canyon hundreds of times. I have encountered reckless drivers, but most people drive relatively safely; even those with big rigs. But in that environment, it only takes a few unsafe drivers to cause problems for many. I once pulled over at the Alaskan Inn (about halfway through the canyon) to let an aggressive motorist pass me, but I usually have no real problems.

y-intercept said...

I seem to have a knack for annoying other drivers. This is a quick recount of my driving habits.

I was driving on a narrow road coming back from Southern Utah. Coming up to a small pass, I saw 4 bald eagles right on the side of the road. They were right there on the shoulder. I was coming within 10 feet of a group of absolutely magnificient wild birds.

So, I slowed down to about 10 MPH to take in the sight.

A jeeps barrels down on me from behind. He starts honking his horn, fishtailing and making these little runs at my bumper. Looking in the rear view I could see that the guy was yelling.

It was unsafe to let the guy pass, so I sped up to get to a spot where it was safe to pass (about twenty yards beyond the eagles). The driver flipped me the bird while passing at full acceleration.

As he finishes passing me, the passenger saw the bald eagles that were taking to flight. The passenger started yelling at the driver who then slammed his brakes right in front of me. He then pulled a u-turn and drove back to where the eagles were. They then parked illegally in the road and got out of their car to watch the birds fly away.

I know that it is annoying when people on these designated scenic roads through our public lands slow down to enjoy the view. I figure that the whole reason we are here is to enjoy the scenery.

Quite frankly, if a person designs their life to commute through a scenic area, then they should learn to enjoy other people enjoying the scenery.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Good point. What's the point of having all of the beauty if you never look around to enjoy it?

Bekkieann said...

Don't forget the other alternative, North Ogden Pass, that accesses Ogden valley from the north end. It's a better, safer road in good weather (though steep and winding in spots) and it takes less time as well for trips originating in Ogden. It is, of course, a problem in snowy weather, but many people continue to drive it even then.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I live closer to North Ogden Pass than to Ogden Canyon. In fact, I drove over the pass four times this past weekend (once in snow with low visibility). They did a lot of improvement to the pass not too long ago, widening out some spots, straigtening out some curves, and adding some concrete barriers. With the fall colors, its quite spectacular right now.

However, the North Ogden Pass has a much greater climb than Ogden Canyon, and it has a number of curves that are far more severe than the worst curves in Ogden Canyon. It is true that the traffic is generally much better than in Ogden Canyon, but it has picked up a lot in recent years with growth in that end of Ogden Valley.

Like Ogden Canyon, people cycle the pass all the time, but I wouldn't do it; although, I did skateboard down the pass a couple of times in my teen years (when I was more naive).

At the summit of the pass is a parking area where you can access the Great Western Trail (also Indian Trails). Head to the south to go to Lewis Peak, or even to Pineview or Ogden Canyon. Head north to go to Ben Lomond Peak (and on to Willard Peak and Willard Basin), or split off and head to Weber County's North Fork Park. All of these trails can be hiked or cycled. One warning is that the first mile and a half of either the northbound or southbound trail consists of switchbacks that climb quite a bit. It's physically demanding to go up the switchbacks, and it can be rough on the shins, ankles, and toes coming down.

But you are right about North Ogden Pass' accessibility. As I consider my patterns over the past several decades, I choose North Ogden Pass probably five-to-one over Ogden Canyon. It's easy for me to get to and I know every curve very well.