UPDATE: The Park City Council has unanimously voted to close the Church of Dirt. Our original story continues below.
At the top of Guardsman Pass between Big Cottonwood Canyon to the west and Park City to the east, there’s a small dusty parking lot that fits maybe a dozen cars.
Mere steps away and hidden by a rise in the mountaintop is a wedding venue.
“I just heard that it was a church on a mountain,” said Mary Beth Pennor, whose nephew tied the knot there on Sept. 12. “So I Googled it, of course, and it just looked so amazing and so beautiful.”
It’s called the Church of Dirt.
“Church” is a generous term. There’s a makeshift arch made out of old tree branches, an aisle and bench seating for about 100 people. It’s surrounded by sagebrush and scrub oak and is complete with a breathtaking 360-degree view of the Wasatch Mountains. There’s a trail frequented by hikers and bikers there, too.
It’s a mountain top wedding spot couples could easily spend thousands of dollars locking down. But here’s the thing — it’s free to use — if you can get a spot on the so-called waitlist.
Park City is perhaps known more for celebrity sightings at the Sundance Film Festival than literal dirt-cheap weddings, and the Church of Dirt offers a welcome counter to some of the opulence found a little further down the mountain.
But according to city officials, it’s not all rose petals and wedding bells.
“There's a beautiful sense to what the church really is,” said Park City Trails & Open Space Program Manager Heinrich Deters. “And then there's a harsh reality of what it's become.”
What was once an under-the-radar community space is starting to get overrun.
The city owns the land and doesn’t advertise the Church of Dirt anywhere. There’s no website to visit or phone number to call and ask questions or make a reservation. That’s all done through the honor system at the site itself.
“[My nephew and his wife] put their reservation on a piece of cardboard,” said Pennor. “But he said it probably got blown off.”
Couples leave a marker in the dirt with their names, their requested date and time and a phone number or email address to contact them with. That’s it. Then you just show up and hope nobody else had plans to use it that day.
“Sometimes, especially if your marker blows away, you never know what you're going to end up with — having somebody else up here,” said Pennor.
There are dozens of these markers. Some are even for dates well over a year in advance.
Between social media influence and the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many weddings outside, the Church of Dirt is starting to suffer from what Deters calls the “privatization” of public open space.
“We've actually had many reports of people who are trying to access the trail through there that are stopped by people in bow ties, et cetera,” he said. “Tents that are put up right in the middle of it, you know, blocking the trails and people saying, ‘Hey, you can't come through here, private wedding.’”
The land actually was private until Park City purchased almost 1,400 acres of what was known as Bonanza Flat in 2017. The goal was to preserve the community open space. According to Deters, the Church of Dirt was just left over from a wedding hosted by the previous landowner.
The site is a major trailhead that hundreds, if not thousands, of people use to access the extensive trail network each week.
Finding a balance between the area’s myriad of users is the challenge.
“You want people to see these beautiful landscapes that they've purchased with public funds,” said Deters. “But if you don't provide the infrastructure and sort of the guidance of how best to enjoy that, if you will, sort of like, coexist with the landscape, then the landscape is going to lose every time.”
Park City launched a free shuttle service in 2021 that takes people from downtown up to several popular trailheads. The program has been successful in clearing up some of the traffic and parking issues plaguing Guardsman Pass.
But city officials still see safety concerns with too many cars on the road and trash sometimes littering the landscape after a celebration.
For Deters, it might take a new generation of couples to solve the church’s issues.
“It takes the young creative mind to go find the next Church of Dirt, right?” he said. “It's that sort of purity of it that I think is why it was so special. And I think it's lost that. So I think that there's lots of Church of Dirts out there. I think that people have become lazy in finding their own and creating their own.”
If the crowding and usage problems don’t get better, the Church of Dirt could disappear. The Park City Council will tentatively discuss trails and open space issues in October.