Central Wasatch Commission Visitor-Use Study

In early 2021, the Central Wasatch Commission released a request for proposals for a visitor-use study for the Central Wasatch mountains. The results of this project would provide information for managers and decision-makers to:

  • manage each Canyon prescriptively for different physical, ecological, and social conditions,
  • plan for and achieve an ideal transportation system,
  • increase recreation quality,
  • appropriately distribute use, 
  • and plan for increased recreational visitation while preserving desired conditions. 


After two years of study and multiple phase reports, the Central Wasatch Commission released the final phase report of the Visitor-Use Study. The report details the findings of a survey effort designed to better understand the visitors and visitor experiences offered within the Central Wasatch Mountains. The design and administration of the survey follows the USDA Forest Service’s National Visitor Use Monitoring program. As such, the survey provides data that are scientifically defensible and grounded in the agency’s best-practices for quantifying and characterizing outdoor recreation use. The survey provides a variety of insights regarding outdoor recreation use of the canyons that, to date, have not been quantified in a systematic way, including:

  • The total recreational visits by canyon.
  • The total recreational visits to different types of sites within the canyons.
  • The proportion of visits involving different outdoor recreation activities.
  • The total time visitors to the canyons spend participating in different activities.
  • The average number of times visitors recreate in the canyons each year.
  • Characterize the variation in use across individual trails within the region.
  • Visitors’ perceptions of crowding in the canyon.
  • Visitors’ overall satisfaction with their visits to the canyons.
  • The importance and satisfaction with site-specific attributes of recreation settings.
  • The distance traveled to recreate in the canyons.
  • The sociodemographic characteristics of visitors to each of the canyons.

The data collected through the study have been integrated into the Central Wasatch Commission’s Environmental Dashboard, serving as the foundation for a sixth, “human” element, providing insight to any impact that human recreation in the Central Wasatch Mountains may have on the environment. The human element incorporates data that reflect the temporal and spatial dynamics of outdoor recreation use within Little Cottonwood Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and Millcreek Canyon.


A team led by Dr. Jordan Smith, Director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation & Tourism, and Professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University conducted the multi-year data collection and analysis for the CWC’s Visitor-Use Study. Dr. Smith worked collaboratively with Dr. Phoebe McNeally and her team at the DIGIT Lab, an auxiliary facility of the University of Utah Department of Geography that provides geographic information analysis and application development to integrate the Visitor-Use Study data into the Environmental Dashboard.

Originally released to the public in 2022, the Environmental Dashboard is a tool for the public, land managers, policy makers and technical users to learn about the historic and current environmental conditions of the Central Wasatch. The Dashboard contains five environmental elements: air quality and climate, geology and soil, vegetation communities, water, and wildlife, and existing data for each element has been gathered and presented for public access. This photo was taken from the Environmental Dashboard website. Click the image to learn more and explore.


The outdoor recreation opportunities offered in the canyons of the Central Wasatch are some of the most iconic in all of Utah. The data and findings serve as a base of information that can be used to inform the decisions of both the USDA Forest Service as well as the many other entities that steward the Central Wasatch mountains. In addition to helping agencies and other stakeholders, everyday recreationists can also utilize the study to help preserve the quality experiences available in the Central Wasatch. 


You may read the Final Visitor-Use Study Report, the Trails-Use Report, and the Visitor-Use Study Phase 1 and Phase 2 Report below.

Environmental Dashboard Human Element

Phase 1 Visitor-Use Study Report

Phase 2 Visitor-Use Study Report

Trails-Use Visitor-Use Study Report

Final Visitor-Use Study Report

Visitor-Use Study Video Explanation