Seven creeks run through the Salt Lake valley that you’ve never seen—because they are hidden underground. Named after the canyons from which they hail—Red Butte, Mill, City, Emigration, Parley’s, Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood—these invisible streams traverse unseen through suburban streets and busy intersections across the Wasatch Front. Though they’re tucked away out of sight, there are plentiful ways to experience these streams.
The waterways are not visible due to being culverted, or buried underground, a process that happened slowly over time as neighboring cities and towns urbanized. Early Utah pioneers relied on the creeks for drinking and washing, but flooding caused by winter snowmelt required residents to tame and tap the canyon waters. City Creek, for example, was diverted in 1847. Though the seven creeks have been forced underground, water advocates believe that the secret to more verdant and gainful communities is held in the streams.
Brian Tonetti, Executive Director of Seven Canyons Trust, envisions a future in which residents and visitors of Salt Lake can use restored waterways for recreation, education, and connection. This movement originated in 2014 when a group of University of Utah students had the idea to bring the seven creeks back to fruition for present and future generations to enjoy. With support from the Utah American Planning Association Achievement, the project was pulled out of the classroom and is now operating as Seven Canyons Trust.
The students created a visioning document entitled 100 Years of Daylighting, which imagines what uncovering miles of buried creek would look like in the Salt Lake Valley. Tonetti describes daylighting as “the act of taking an underground creek and bringing it back to the surface, typically restoring to the most natural state possible.” He explains that benefits of daylighting include improving water and surrounding air quality, as well as encouraging natural wildlife habitats. Daylighting projects often include additions of pedestrian trails and recreation areas, which can lead to further development such as housing and restaurants. The uncovering process has been shown to stimulate local economies and even improve property values as the areas become more attractive and desirable.
Seven Canyons Trust is bringing its mission to life through several waterway-restoration projects. The Three Creeks Confluence, which broke ground in March, is the trust’s first daylighting revitalization effort near the Jordan River Trail that has uncovered 200 feet of stream directed from Red Butte, Emigration and Parley’s. The completed area will be a pocket park, including a fishing bridge and a plaza that will welcome local events and celebrations. Without this endeavor, this corner of the city would likely have remained abandoned and unused. The trust has also been working to incorporate culverted creeks into existing city parks, such as Herman Franks Park.
On a walking tour that begins with a visible portion of Red Butte Creek at Garden Ward Park, follows the mostly submerged Emigration Creek and ends at the Seven Creeks Confluence in Liberty Park, Tonetti guides through historical markers and points out areas that have been altered or further culverted to accommodate development. Part of the trust’s mission is to work alongside developers to advocate for creek restoration and its many benefits, sharing their vision for urban oases across the valley. The trust emphasizes collaborating with community members to ensure that the future of local waterways is equitable and accessible to all.
As we walk through a Sugar House neighborhood, Tonetti keeps his ears perked for the sound of the creek babbling underground, which he says you can hear on quiet nights. As we approach Herman Franks Park, Tonetti shares about the planning efforts underway at this location, which include improving water quality and increasing green space without impacting existing features such as the baseball diamond. Tonetti conceptualizes a prospective Salt Lake that is lush, interconnected, and welcoming.
An example of success for Tonetti and his team (and a blueprint for Herman Franks,) is Fitts Park, located in the South Salt Lake area. The Mill Creek stream gently winds through a large green space, surrounded by lovely grasses and vegetation. Pavilions, benches, bridges, and playspaces make it a well-enjoyed space. The revitalization project was completed in 2019 and helped create an inter-valley connection of waters, as the Mill Creek deposits into the west-side Jordan River.
Some creek areas in the valley are above-ground and easy to enjoy, such as City Creek by way of Memory Grove and Fitts Park. Others require a bit more scouting as they are tucked away in neighborhoods or simply running underground. Miller Park, located in the 15th and 15th area of the city, features peaceful trails and terrific access to a restored portion of Red Butte Creek. Not only is the park forested and abundant with native wildlife, but it is also a dedicated bird refuge. The nearby Wasatch Hollow dips into a creekside loop trail, lined with scenic ponds and golden foothills. The hollow is adjacent to a manicured park with a playground, making it ideal for family exploration.
Opportunities for daylighting in Salt Lake City go far beyond just water. Tonetti says, “Imagine creek corridors, both above and below ground, as greenways. Greenways expand the scope of what stream daylighting—including the ability for people to walk, bike, even potentially paddle in our streams.” He adds, “Areas for revitalization, potential development and creek corridors can become centers of activity.” The trust is working with all eight cities that border creek channels to begin implementation on their Seven Greenways visionary plan, a holistic venture that aims to enhance pedestrian access to nature. A key aspect of the trust’s mission is the belief that water connects us to each other as neighbors and to the land.
In addition to enriching the physical landscapes of the creeks, Seven Canyons Trust is committed to making waterways a place where creativity and community can thrive. Tonetti describes this as cultural daylighting or the intersection between art and environmental advocacy. The trust has partnered with local artists and organizations such as the Hartland Center and loveDANCEmore to bring dance, sculpture, and other vibrant forms of expression to creek sites.
Though some of Seven Canyons Trust’s projects are forthcoming, there are many ways to engage with local waterways. The trust has created a series of seven individualized, interactive websites for each hidden creek, e.g., My Red Butte Creek, My Emigration Creek. My Canyon Creeks feature locations, maps, trails and other amenities at local streams. Users can also access the sites to share stories and photographs, allowing for shared connection and stewardship of the waters.
This fall, the trust will be introducing the completed Three Creeks Confluence project with an online celebration and ceremony. A series of socially distanced walking tours will also be available to introduce community members to the new amenities. Seven Canyons Trust also hosts a series of events throughout the year to bring awareness and engagement to the waterways, including a regular Water Trivia night.
If you’d like to explore Salt Lake’s concealed creeks, visit sevencanyonstrust.org for trail information and project sites.