Colorado Gulch Sign

Since 1995, county leaders have struggled to address high foot traffic at the Chocolate Gulch hiking trail north of Ketchum, which links up with the Oregon Gulch and Fox Creek trail systems.

For many, the Chocolate Gulch trailhead forking out from Wood River Estates Subdivision north of Ketchum offers hard-to-beat access and miles of hiking trails.

But those who live in the neighborhood—where many homes fall between the $1.5 to $3.5 million price range—have long complained of loud traffic, speeding, dog waste, long lines of visiting cars and even vehicles parked on lawns.

Conflict between landowners and visitors at Chocolate Gulch has been simmering since the 1990s, according to Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson. Once the five-car parking lot fills, he said, cars will spill onto Black Bear Road, Chocolate Gulch Road and Polaris Road as they’ve done for 27 years.

Recently, increased interest in outdoor recreation has brought the issue to a head—and, last week, to the Blaine County commissioners, who entertained a new parking ordinance that would bar visitors from parking along the right-of-way.

Roger Godfrey, a resident of Wood River Estates, set the scene on Tuesday.

“You will see 11 cars in a five-car lot, people double-parked, people coming in groups. They will park on Black Bear Road and walk to the trailhead, thinking ‘No one is going to do anything about it,’” he said. “There are horse trailers and tailgating [parties]. Two dogs have been killed and two others have been hit. We’re reaching our limit.”

Kristine Hilt, floodplain manager and code compliance officer with the county’s Land Use Department, said complaints have run the gamut.

“Complaints have ranged from dogs being hit to people leaving cigarette butts and trash. The list goes on and on,” she said. “Through our process of investigation and in working with the homeowners, it became apparent that these impacts have been longstanding, but nothing has really resulted in a long-term solution.”

The neighborhood has posted “No Parking” or “Park Elsewhere” signs since the late 1990s, with the latter message encouraging visitors to park at the nearby Fox Creek or Oregon Gulch trailheads when the Chocolate Gulch lot fills.

The signs don’t carry much weight because the county, unlike Ketchum or Sun Valley, does not have an ordinance regarding parking on county rights-of-way, according to Blaine County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Will Fruehling. That means officers can’t write parking tickets.

“Our deputies have had a hard time with enforcement because there is no clear parking ordinance. State law bans parking on state highways’ rights-of-way. That’s pretty easy for us to enforce,” he said. “But in this situation, we’ve only really been able to issue educational warnings. The fire districts do have rules about parking in rights of ways that could be enforced, but they don’t have the resources, so it falls to the Sheriff’s office.”

Another problem is that signs posted by Chocolate Gulch landowners have been torn down by disgruntled recreationalists, Fruehling said.

“We’ve just been leaving cards on people’s cars and asking them to call. A deputy will explain that if they are not parked in one of those five spots at Chocolate Gulch, they’re in violation,” he said. “But then when it comes down to it, what are they in violation of? There’s no county ordinance.”

County Commissioner Dick Fosbury added that after visitors park along the road to go hiking, they’re hard to reach on the trail.

“I think we’re just faced with an issue of continued growth, continued interest in access to public lands and that’s something we need to keep in mind,” he said. “What we’re seeing is increased use that started last year with the pandemic, which seemed to exacerbate all of this.”

Fosbury lauded the city of Sun Valley for recently using its right-of-way to build a parking lot near Hemingway Memorial, a move that made it possible to close off public parking at the end of Fairway Road. The neighborhood had been a common access point to Proctor Mountain up until recently.

Several steps have already been taken to alleviate pressure from the Chocolate Gulch trail system. Twenty years ago, county and Forest Service officials teamed up with residents to create the nearby Fox Creek trailhead, distributing hikers more widely. Wood River Estates residents pitched in $12,000, Godfrey said during the comment period.

But according to Steve Thompson, Blaine County’s Road and Bridge Manager, signs or new trailheads aren’t enough to lessen the impact for nearby homeowners.

“Signs aren’t going to do any good without some sort of enforcement behind them,” he said.

Fruehling agreed.

“A county ordinance would certainly give us some more teeth from the enforcement standpoint,” he said.

Thompson raised the point that a countywide ordinance would affect “not just people coming to use the trailhead, but every subdivision and neighborhood in the county.”

“This would dictate how landscapers do their job. Go into any of these subdivisions in the county on any day of the week, and it’s cluttered with landscaping trucks parked in the right-of-way,” he said. “A parking ordinance isn’t a bad idea, but we’d need to think about the details.”

Commissioners traded thoughts on expanding the Chocolate Gulch parking area or creating a new designated trailhead. Board members and homeowners in attendance agreed that more capacity would only exacerbate the problem.

“It sounds like we have some work to do,” Fosbury said.

A workshop on solutions to the traffic issue at Chocolate Gulch will be held later this fall at a date still to be determined, commissioners said.

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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