Every winter, many of northern Utah’s skiers and commuters alike ask the same question during a snowstorm: How’s Parley’s Canyon?
The curving, steep mountain pass is often a hot spot for sliding cars during snow dumps in the mountains. In 2021, around 135 crashes occurred on the roadway during snowy weather between the canyon entrance and the highway’s Park City exit.
So far this year, 77 crashes have occurred in the area during snowy conditions. But locals have created a crowdsourcing Facebook group to make drivers aware of the conditions, aptly titled “How’s Parley’s Canyon?”
The group includes about 8,000 members, and describes the roadway as a home for “tight curves, big trucks, awesome vistas, nail-biting snow days, and a sort of oddly placed runaway truck ramp.”
Since Monday’s storm, its members have posted dozens of updates with photos, videos, traffic speeds and driving tips for even the most seasoned winter driver. But Utah traffic officials also have their own travel hacks for getting through another winter in the Beehive State.
Getting equipped for winter
One of UDOT’s most hands-on programs for winter drivers is the Cottonwood Sticker Program. The free project allows drivers to get their cars inspected at local tire shops and make sure they’re prepared for snowy roadways.
“If you can do one thing from an equipment standpoint, anyway: make sure that you have proper tread on your tires,” said UDOT’s public relations director John Gleason. “The tread on people’s tires can wear down over time, and you’re not really going to know that it’s an issue until you’re out there in these slick conditions.”
The program opened to the public for the first time in 2021, since in 2020 it was limited to canyon workers and residents. This year it has expanded to include more local tire inspectors, who provide drivers with a windshield sticker if their vehicle meets the requirements for the canyons’ traction law.
Jake Brown serves as a south area supervisor for UDOT, which includes the Cottonwood Canyons. When a canyon’s traction law is in effect, vehicles are required to be equipped with four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and have snow tires as well.
These tires are marked with either an “M+S” symbol, which stands for mud and snow, or a “three peaks” symbol, which features a three-peaked mountain with a snowflake in the middle. For cars that are not four-wheel or all-wheel drive, they must have snow chains or some other traction device to get a sticker.
Snow tires have specialized tread that grips much better than other tires, Brown said, and are made with softer rubber with cuts in them that allow for the tires to expand on the road.
“It’s been a good opportunity to educate people, and so now when we ask people about the tires, they actually show them off to us,” Brown said. “It’s been an awesome experience and we’re seeing better equipped vehicles in the canyon because of that.”
The program has also partnered with local car-rental companies at the Salt Lake City Airport.
“They have equipped their vehicles with the proper tires to be able to have stickers put in those rental vehicles, so when people come and ski the greatest snow on Earth, they are equipped with a vehicle that can go up the Cottonwood Canyons, " Brown said.
Starting a drive
Officials say preparing for a drive in the snow should start before you even get into a vehicle. UDOT provides information on road conditions and weather forecasts on its Twitter account, and posts more specific updates to its UDOT Cottonwoods profile.
Drivers should also give themselves extra time to get to their destination, Brown said, since driving slowly is the best way to stay safe on winter roads. He recommends an extra 30-45 minutes if drivers are commuting in the early morning after a snowstorm.
Once drivers have determined the safest route, they should first inspect their tire tread, and make sure their tires are inflated properly. Ensuring the defroster is working is also crucial, Brown said, and he recommends drivers to carry spare windshield wiper fluid just in case they run out.
“Another trick of the trade: When you’re following plows and they’re putting out salt, give them plenty of space, and also turn off your defroster,” Brown said, “because what happens is the salt gets on your windshield and it bakes on. When it bakes on, you’re using your windshield wiper fluid and then you run out and then eventually you can’t see.”
When stopping and starting the car, which can be tricky on icy or snowy roads, drivers should use their anti-lock braking system to help prevent skids. And if there is any skidding, drivers should turn into the skid to regain traction on the road, Brown said.
For canyon-specific driving, Brown recommends drivers put their cars in the lowest gear possible when they’re going down the mountain road in snowy weather. Drivers should also not slam on their brakes on this snow, instead using their engine compression to slow down and stop.
But drivers should always be aware of their own limits, said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Cameron Roden.
“If you get out there and you’re starting to say ‘Hey, this is too slick of conditions,’ maybe it’s time to return home. Or if you just go out and notice ‘Hey, you know it’s better for me to wait,’” Roden said. “If people have the ability to delay driving in a storm … until conditions improve, that would be a good suggestion.”
“Behaviors are the other thing that we need to focus on, and this really goes for every day,” Gleason said. “With the holidays coming up, there’s just a million things on people’s minds. It doesn’t even need to be taking a phone call or responding to a text; there’s a million things that distract us every day that are just everyday type things.”
“You almost need to make a conscious commitment that when I’m behind the wheel, when I’m driving, I’m going to focus all my attention on the road. And put all of these other thoughts — as important as they are — in the backseat until you get safely to your destination,” Gleason continued.