KANARRAVILLE, Iron County (AP) — For years, Kanarraville Falls was one of southern Utah's best-kept secrets. The hidden hike leading to a slot canyon waterfall was seemingly reserved for residents of the small town of Kanarraville.
Over the span of a few years, the natural wonder turned into a big problem for the locals.
They first noticed the increase during the Fourth of July weekend in 2004. Town Council member Tyler Allred remembers being surprised by the 75 cars squeezed into the land between the edge of the creek and down the hill leading to the town.
"It was a catastrophe," Allred said.
Now, that would be low attendance for a busy summer weekend.
In the 13 years since then, the popularity of the 4.8 mile hike has exploded through social media, marketing and word of mouth.
What used to be a treasure has now become a nightmare for many Kanarraville residents. The influx of hikers has left the small community of 350 faced with many difficulties they would have never known otherwise, including parking problems and fears of contamination of the primary water source.
Now, they're facing opposition and criticism as they try to do what's best for their community.
Previously, Kanarraville Town Clerk David Ence always thought the interest in the falls had to eventually hit a cap. But the popularity only continued to increase as photos of the waterfall flooded social media sites like Instagram.
More than 40,000 hikers visited the falls in 2015, according to a Bureau of Land Management assessment.
Kanarraville officials have done their part to meet every challenge that has risen with the exploding popularity. When people kept dragging couches into the slot canyon for parties, they put up gates at the top of the hill to keep cars from driving directly up to the mouth of canyon.
After that, they were faced with parking problems. Previously, visitors would park along 100 North — the main street leading to the trailhead. Oftentimes, the vehicles would be parked in front of residents' driveways, behind horse trailers or in front of easements.
So, the town footed the bill for the construction of a fee parking lot near the trailhead to accommodate the ever-growing influx of hikers. The decision to charge $10 per vehicle was met with criticism.
People also have the option to park at two other privately operated paid lots. The town has never turned people away from parking at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints parking lot for free before walking the few blocks to the trailhead. Anything was better than cars lining the usually quiet neighborhood streets.
"We used to have floods of people going through town and it really irritated the residents," Ence said.
In 2016, the parking lot grossed approximately $95,500. Some aren't happy about having to pay, Ence noted, but he believes the system generally has a 90 percent compliance rate. The town pays local parking attendants to enforce the fee during the busy months.
The funds from the parking lot typically end up paying for roads, portable toilets in the trailhead parking lot and for employee wages. While the money could be used for other town projects, it's usually limited to just upkeep for the trail.
Officials actually had to close the trail for three days in April to make repairs to the towns' water system. Frequently, Allred said, hikers would walk on the water line because it was easier than walking in the creek. Over time, the combination of weather and frequent traveling had unearthed the pipe carrying the town's main water source. The project cost approximately $10,000.
"It's a financial tool, but it's not working in our favor," Kanarraville Mayor Galen Allred, who is the father of Tyler Allred, said.
"I would honestly say 80 percent of our community would give back the cash cow to have back our sanctuary," Tyler Allred said.
Despite the recent attention to the issue, matters seem to have only escalated over the recent Memorial Day weekend. The parking lot and the road leading up to it were consistently packed throughout the weekend. The Iron County Sheriff's Office was called three times for parking issues. Iron County Search and Rescue was also dispatched to locate a group of kids who managed to get lost.
Concerns have previously been raised about safety. While the hike is overall moderate, it can be a bit technically difficult in some areas. Search and Rescue has responded to Kanarra Falls six times since June 2016 for both medical issues and lost hikers.
A Life Flight medical helicopter previously had to park in Tyler Allred's backyard to respond to a medical emergency because they were unable to find an open space closer with the parking lot packed.
"At what point is it not Kanarraville's responsibility?" the mayor questioned. "This is getting ridiculous."
Images of Kanarra Falls have increasingly played a larger role in marketing and tourism materials for both Cedar City and Iron County.
While there's no exact numbers on how many visitors come to Iron County specifically to see Kanarra Falls, Iron County — Brian Head Tourism Bureau Executive Director Maria Twitchell said it is has generated a significant amount of interest.
Its convenient location 10 miles south of Cedar City and a few miles from Interstate 15 makes it a popular choice for both locals and international visitors. The trail is technically challenging in some spots, but it's become a favorite for families with children looking for a quick day hike away from the crowds at Zion National Park.
"It's an attraction that is bringing people here," Twitchell said.
Both Ence and Tyler Allred asserted the town has never been consulted about the images being used in promotional material and do not receive any funds from the marketing.
"Cedar City, Iron County and Brian Head are all advertising the Kanarraville Falls hike," Tyler Allred said during the June 12 Iron County Commission meeting. "(Iron County is) advertising it worldwide, you have thousands of people infiltrating our town every weekend, but we're the ones left with the problem while everyone else turns their back to it."
Twitchell said Kanarraville has never asked the Tourism Bureau to stop advertising the hike. At this point, she said it would be difficult to put an end to the interest entirely due to the online popularity.
The community of Kanarraville has managed to deal with whatever challenges have been thrown its way when it comes to Kanarra Falls. While the issues with parking and safety are concerning, they are all second to their primary concern — their water.
The town's drinking water comes from a spring on a state trust section near the falls before being piped to city tanks at the mouth of the canyon. This covers all of the town's water requirements throughout the year. Two wells provide additional water needed for gardening and watering lawns during the warmer months.
It's difficult to determine where exactly the spring draws its flow from. As hikers walk through the town's water supply, they may be exposing their water source to a multitude of contaminants. The risk of contamination increases when visitors urinate or defecate in or near the water.
"I'm thinking it's not a long charge period before fecal matter and contaminants reach that spring," Tyler Allred said. "So we've got to control those contaminants that are going to leech through our spring because once the spring is gone we have to find another water source."
Currently, the only restroom facilities are located in the trailhead parking lot, which results in hikers urinating in the water, and rules prohibiting dogs are often ignored.
For Kanarraville, this was the breaking point.
"They're loving it to death," Ence said. "We have to protect our resources."
FINDING A SOLUTION
No official plans on how to handle the problem have been made at this time.
While they are considering multiple options, the town is currently pursuing a leasing deal with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration that would give them the ability to control the amount of people hiking the canyon daily. A similar lottery model is already in use at other popular regional hikes, including the popular Wave hike on the Utah-Arizona border and the Subway in Zion National Park is time.
The Kanarra Falls trail begins at a town-owned trailhead before crossing federal lands for approximately one mile. It then runs through a portion of land recently acquired by the BLM at the base of the Spring Creek Canyon Wilderness Study Area. The actual falls are maintained by the state through SITLA.
It could take approximately two to three months for the lease application to be reviewed and approved. An environmental impact study would then have to be conducted before decisions are finalized.
The town has faced mixed reactions since the news they were considering limiting the hike broke in May.
The BLM recently purchased 41-acres of land for $660,000 at the base of the Spring Creek Canyon Wilderness Study Area from private property owners. The Kanarra Falls trail runs directly through the property.
BLM spokesman Christian Venhuizen said the agency's hands are tied. Their control over the matter is limited because the town maintains the trailhead, while the state maintains the attraction through SITLA.
"We don't have control over either," Venhuizen said. "Since we don't control the attraction, the Town of Kanarraville has the option to pursue this. We have been working with Kanarraville throughout this process and we hope to continue to do so
Like Venhuizen, Twitchell said the Tourism Bureau is also interested in working with Kanarraville to find a solution that balances the town's needs with still giving visitors a great experience.
During the June 12 Iron County Commission meeting, both Tyler and Galen Allred asked the commission to help them identify a possible solution to their plight. Commissioner Dale Brinkerhoff assured them that the commission also felt a sense of ownership for the problem.
"Just the sewage alone up there is enough to scare the hell out of you," Brinkerhoff said.
He urged them to assemble a meeting between the commission, SITLA, the BLM and the Tourism Bureau in an attempt to find a solution suitable for all parties.
Until some sort of decision has been reached, Ence is focusing his efforts on educating the thousands of visitors to the town. This will include encouraging hikers to use the restroom before hitting the trail and discouraging people from bringing dogs.
"Most people want to do the right thing, especially hikers whose enjoyment of the experience depends on keeping up the environment," he explained in an email. "I think once people know that the canyon is a 365-day-a-year source of water for Kanarraville, they will do whatever they can to protect it."