UDOT’s gondola renderings changing opinions in Little Cottonwood Canyon

Images of cabins floating above campsites, iconic vistas creates conflicting reactions in canyon visitors

Alta • Traci Musselman let out a long, deep, guttural sigh after wrapping up her hike to Gloria Falls in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday.

It wasn’t a sigh of satisfaction. Just the opposite, really.

Musselman, a Riverton resident who hikes at least once a week and has a season pass to Alta Ski Area, was imagining a gondola carriage floating over the trail right in her sightline while she and her friends trekked toward the White Pine parking lot.

“I’m standing here and I don’t want to see it happen,” she said from the parking lot. “This is God’s country. Like, I hate to see all the trees that we’re gonna lose, wildlife that’s gonna be impacted. It’s really sad.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amiel Richter, 21, climbs down from the granite boulder hillside near Lisa Falls in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, July 14, 2023.

A few minutes later, Musselman actually saw a gondola in the canyon — in the form of renderings published by the Utah Department of Transportation and shown to her by The Salt Lake Tribune. The agency released the images and announced that it is officially greenlighting a controversial plan to build one of the world’s largest gondolas through the 8-mile canyon.

It was Musselman’s first peek at the renderings, which depict haul lines strung across some of the canyon’s most recognizable views and towers rising up next to its iconic granite rock faces. And to her surprise — yet not unlike many of the people who viewed the sketches for the first time Friday — they moved Musselman to soften her stance. To a point.

(Utah Department of Transportation) A rendering of a snowshed from Tanners Flat Campground in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“Initially it doesn’t look as bad as what I thought it was going to be,” said Musselman, who said she thought the gondola would be more intrusive.

“But also at the same time, I still just don’t want to see it. I still know that we’ve got to take some land away to build that and to get in and out of those different areas and locations. So it’s not as bad, but I still don’t want to see it happen.”

The drawings had the opposite effect on Curtis Harris of Lehi.

Harris lives in an area near Thanksgiving Point that is dealing with its own issues stemming from rapid growth, so he said he can empathize with community members who have strung anti-gondola banners up and down Little Cottonwood Canyon Road and State Route 210, which travels the length of the canyon. Still, he sees promise in the project.

“I’m sensitive to the idea of what they’re going through as a community,” he said. “But as a state, I think it’s better for the taxpayer, better for the environment and a lot easier to actually utilize and access the outdoors.”

(Utah Department of Transportation) A rendering of a proposed gondola near Snowbird Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Harris had coaxed his 13-year-old son away from his video games to join him on a short hike to the majestic Lisa Falls, which was running at full force thanks to the runoff from last winter’s record snowpack. For a few minutes, he pulled his eyes away from the water to look at the renderings. Most were more or less what he expected, he said. One, though, soured him some on the project: a gondola cabin hovering like a spaceship over a secluded picnic area that, according to the image’s label, represents the Tanners Flat Campground.

“I could see that impacting going up and trying to do a picnic and having people coming over[head] the whole time,” he said. “That kind of kills the vibe of sitting in the outdoors.”

In the long run, though, Harris said he thought having the gondola in place might encourage him to use the canyon more often. He said the traffic congestion in the winter, which can turn a 20-minute trip into an hour or more, regularly deters him from skiing at Alta or Snowbird.

According to UDOT, a 35-person cabin will leave every two minutes from a station at the base of the canyon, which will be built to accommodate parking for 2,500 cars. The cable can move approximately 1,050 people per hour, which, according to a 2020 UDOT mobility analysis report, is roughly how many cars drive up the canyon per day in winter. A trip to Alta, at the top of the canyon, is expected to take 37 minutes. It will also stop at Snowbird. No other terminals are planned.

Tolls, expected to be in the $20-30 range, will be implemented on SR 210 to encourage carpooling and siphon more people to the gondola. The gondola is expected to run only during the ski season initially, but service could eventually extend into the summer. Cables would remain up year-round.

The renderings released by UDOT aren’t as glossy as some of the images produced by Gondola advocates, many of which have accompanied news stories on the project. They have the same effect, though.

Amiel Richter of Midvale, a recent transplant from Seattle, said most of what he knew about the gondola was that locals seemed to be against it. He also knows that, even though he moved to Utah for the skiing, he has a hard time justifying sitting for a combined three hours in traffic to ski somewhere when so many other resorts are nearby.

So what did he think of the gondola after stopping to look at UDOT’s images at the end of his hike above Lisa Falls?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors to Lisa Falls in Little Cottonwood Canyon take a pause before continuing their hike along the trail on Friday, July 14, 2023.

“I don’t hate it, honestly,” Richter said. “It’s kind of unique. It just makes it feel like a way bigger skier destination. The skiing’s right there in your face. And it has that bougie kind of vibe.”

Hannah Blodgett of Holladay agrees with that assessment, but has a different spin on it.

An Alta pass holder who has to fight the downhill traffic every time she takes her three kids to the slopes, she said she’s still strongly opposed to the gondola. One glance at the renderings, though, and she was certain the gondola will hold a certain appeal for certain people.

”People from out of state are probably gonna think it’s cool, right?” she said. “I just think there’s gonna be a lot of upset locals.”