TIMPANOGOS CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT — Park employees are working out of a visitors center that is actually a double-wide modular home that should have been replaced more than 20 years ago.
When they're not dodging falling rocks — some of which have crashed through the ceiling — they're battling an inefficient cooling system in the heat of summer or warily eyeing the walls and ceiling occupied by foraging or nesting rats or ring-tailed cats.
A new 2,300-square-foot visitor center is one improvement planned for the popular Utah County attraction in American Fork Canyon. The old one burned down in 1991, replaced "temporarily" by a thin-walled structure that park superintendent Jim Ireland said has long since outlived its purpose.
"It's something people have wanted to see dealt with for a long time."
An environmental assessment up for public comment through July 15 contemplates a variety of improvements to the national monument, which boasts of three caves featuring 42 various formations.
More than 120,000 visitors visit the national monument each year and some have to dart around traffic on state Route 92 — or the American Fork Canyon-Alpine Scenic Loop — which Ireland says sees as much as 2,000 vehicles on it per day.
"It is only by grace that we don't have more accidents," Ireland said, adding that visitors literally have to back into the roadway where canyon traffic is traveling 35 mph.
The idea under consideration would be to slightly realign the highway and pull it over through the current north parking lot and put all parking on the south side adjacent to the current building and trailhead.
Ireland said the plan also also calls for shifting the visitor's center location to the east of where it is now located and away from more extreme hazards of falling rocks. While it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk, Ireland said the new location has better topography less susceptible to falling rocks.
One component of the plan includes the co-location of the U.S. Forest Service's Pleasant Grove Ranger District and park service administrative functions under one roof.
The Forest Service owns 37 acres in Highland that would be the site for a new interagency center to house the district and wildfire crew. Ireland said as it is now, the ranger district once built in a largely rural area is now surrounded by a city — sharing neighborhood space with an elementary school and cemetery.
"They've outgrown their building," Ireland said, with the analysis pointing out that the active fire station during the wildfire seasons creates emergency traffic congestion for the residential area, in addition to noise from the sirens.
While some of the improvements up for consideration include the possibility of a mandatory or optional shuttle system for monument visitors, Ireland said the alternative settled on by the park service doesn't call for a shuttle system, but does not preclude one in the future either.
"Shuttles are great, but they are expensive to operate," Ireland said. Park fees would have had to have been increased by $4 to $11 under current visitor scenarios, but should should the monument become even busier, the parking area would be big enough to accommodate shuttle service.
Following the close of the public comment period, additional tweaks may be made to the proposal before Ireland presents it to a National Park Service review board in November.
That board will determine if the estimated $15 million project makes it into a rolling five-year list of capital improvement needs that would merit funding.
"We think it is a good project," he said.