Alta Ski Area’s Albion Basin to add summer lift service as alpine paradise adjusts to growing crowds

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alta Ski Area seen Thursday from the Summer Road. Ski area managers will take over summer programs in Albion Basin, the wildflower-filled bowl at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Visitors driving up the summer road can expect to pay a $6 fee or pay to ride the Sunnyside Lift to the Catherine's Pass trailhead.

Fees are in store for summer visitors to Albion Basin, the alpine wonderland at the head of Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, under a pilot program allowing Alta Ski Area to take over summer programs from its namesake town.

The free town-operated shuttle service will not resume this summer and vehicle access will also be restricted up the unpaved summer road, although summer visitors will be able to park for free at the ski area parking lots and may ride the Sunnyside lift on weekends.

Visitation to the flower-filled bowl carved by glaciers and rimmed by Devil’s Castle and Catherine’s and Germania passes has grown so rapidly over the past decade that there is often nowhere to park at popular trailheads above Alta’s Albion base area and impacts are stacking up.

“One of the challenges I observed is more cars are being allowed up Albion Basin than should be up there,” said Alta general manager Mike Maughan Thursday at a public meeting in the ski area’s Albion Grill.

“We love Albion Basin, it is part of our ski area,” Maughan said. “We are the most logical person to help manage it and take care of it. We have the resources.”

His plan is to regulate traffic up the summer road accessing the popular Catherine’s Pass and Cecret Lake trails, charging a $6 fee to drive there, and, for the first time in its 80-year history, Alta will run a lift to carry summer visitors who chose to pay for the ride.

“If we can do this and make it sustainable, it’s in the best interest of Albion Basin. It is in best interest of ski area. It is in best interest of the general public,” he said.

Loved to death

Crowding in Albion is a microcosm of the challenges posed by Utah’s boom in outdoor recreation, especially in Little and Big Cottonwood canyons at the doorstep to Utah’s largest metro area. At least 2 million people a year visit Little Cottonwood, where two legendary resorts attract skiers from around the world, causing epic gridlock on weekend powder days.

Utah officials have teamed with the U.S. Forest Service to develop a transportation plan aimed at better managing cars and encouraging visitors to ride share and take transit.

Albion poses a special challenge because of the fragility of its breathtaking alpine environment.

“Traffic dusts out the wildflowers people come to see,” said Marshall Alford, a planner with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “We are here to connect people with the landscape, but we have to do it in a sustainable way. This is an effort to do that.”

(Steve Griffin / Tribune file photo) A fresh dusting of snow covers the mountain tops in Little Cottonwood Canyon merging fall and winter in September 2016.

Roger Bourke, a resident on Alta’s summer road, has watched the traffic increase every year outside his door under Patsy Marley. The trail to Catherine’s is sometimes choked with hikers, who cut new trails.

“Since 2009, we have seen a doubling every five years in use in terms of traffic on the summer road. There’s more people, there’s more trash, there’s more stomping on the wildflowers,” Bourke said. “The fact is we have exceeded the carrying capacity of this region, and as we add more people, we create more degradation. It has to be limited by some fashion.”

Yet many locals would hate to see access restricted to those with the means to buy lift tickets. But Jen Clancy, executive director of Friends of Alta, said she sees pros and cons. The group has helped the town fund its summer-visitor programs, including the free shuttle service, which carried a record 25,000 visitors last summer.

“[Alta ski area managers] have the ability to invest in infrastructure and a solid work force, but they need to pay these people and turn a little profit,” Clancy said. “My hope is we don’t turn Albion into a pay-to-play place.”

One out, one in

It cost $28,500 to operate the shuttle during the 23 weekend days and holidays when the town ran three 14-passenger vans up and down the basin, according to town clerk Kate Black. The escalating cost of the shuttle is not sustainable, so the town had been planning to impose a fare.

“Charging for the shuttle would shift demand for more cars, and that’s not a viable strategy either,” said Mayor Harris Sondak — especially if the town lacks the authority to limit vehicle travel.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon near Snowbird, April 2018.

But the Forest Service has concluded that Alta Ski Area could restrict such access under the terms of its special use permit. So Alta plans to allow only 65 cars, one for each parking spot, up the road at a time. When one exits, another would be allowed up. Those camping at the Forest Service campground near the Supreme lift will not likely be affected by these restrictions and fees.

The idea, said Maughan, is to evaluate the changes at the end of the season.

“We’ll see if the lift makes sense or should we go back to a shuttle service, or should the road by closed entirely,” Maughan said. “These are all options that have been identified. We are trying to accommodate visitation and do it in a way that’s responsible and has minimum impact on the environment.”

Sunnyside is a high-speed lift, but resort managers expect to run it at a slower-than-usual speed and possibly avoid loading every chair. Prices haven’t been set, but Maughan believes they will be about $10 for adults, $5 for children.