This storm-filled winter, the skiing in Utah’s Cottonwood canyons was spectacular.
That’s if you could get there, and you forgot about the hours you spent inching out of the canyon behind a serpentine line of red tail lights after a truncated day on the slopes.
Beyond the epic powder days that left near-record snow totals, the 2018-19 ski season at Alta and Snowbird may be remembered as well for its traffic. A drive in or out of Little Cottonwood Canyon, which normally takes 20 minutes, would take two or more hours anytime snowfall coincided with a weekend or holiday, highlighting the need for the transportation plan currently underway by the Utah Department of Transportation.
Crowding this winter certainly had a lot to do with generous snowpack that blessed skiers with powder day after powder day. But industry observers believe other factors are in play for the crush of cars in Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, where parking lots routinely filled by 10 a.m. and parked vehicles lined the highway for a mile or more.
The rise of multiresort passes, especially Alterra’s Ikon Pass that debuted last year, reordered how destination skiers visit Utah resorts in ways that put more cars in the already jammed canyons east of Salt Lake City.
In short, the passes that are filling up resort chairlifts are driving up canyon traffic.
“People are now coming on vacation, and they intend to visit multiple resorts. They are renting cars and traveling between resorts even if they are staying on the mountain,” said Mike Maughan, general manager at Alta Ski Area. “We see a fair amount of traffic between Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.”
This traffic increasingly includes visitors who exacerbate the congestion by sliding their rental cars off the highway. A few of these accidents can add hours of commute time for thousands of homebound skiers.
Skiing Utah’s famed light powder at a Wasatch ski area undeniably remains a sublime recreational experience, but the driving is not nearly as fun as it used to be, according Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah and the state’s top ski industry marketer.
“Getting from where you are staying to where you are skiing can be Third World. It feels like Mumbai sometimes,” Rafferty said. “I’m blown away by the passion of people for what they will do to ski there.”
A ‘war zone’
On powder days, Rafferty and nearly every other Alta and Snowbird skier not staying on the mountain, spent more time in cars than on the skis.
Alta’s skier visits have mushroomed by 25 percent in the past 15 years and are expected to top 500,000 this year, according to Maughan.
“While the ski areas have adjusted to accommodate growth on their mountains," Maughan said, “the road and parking capacities are the same as they were 15 years ago.”
He would like to see more parking and road improvements, but others argue the canyons don’t need more pavement, which could simply lead to more cars.
Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, likens the efforts to keep Little Cottonwood open to a “war zone.”
“There’s a plow truck with wings that can plow the road in one swoop. …. You have military ammunition flying over head. You have Gazex exploders, there are flashes, bangs and booms and the sun isn’t even up,” he said in a panel discussion recently at the University of Utah’s Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment.
The canyon is crammed with machinery to keep the road safe from avalanches with more installations on the way, all to get people to a place Salt Lake City taps for its drinking water.
“You are topping out on a climb up some of the best granite in the country … and you are looking down the barrel of an exploding device. It’s a little jarring,” Fisher said. “Is that the experience we want to leave for future generations?”
Catch a ‘RIDE’
Increased use of public transit, ride-sharing and road tolls — measures that encourage people to leave their cars out of the canyons — are expected to play a big role in whatever emerges from the UDOT-led planning process.
Planners recently revised a “scoping” document, announcing a public comment period through May 3 and an open house April 9 at the Cottonwood Heights City Hall. Over the summer and fall, the agency will refine its alternatives that will be expanded to address avalanche control, trailhead parking and congestion in the Sandy neighborhood near the canyon’s mouth. A draft environmental impact statement will be released late this year or early next year.
Ridership on Utah Transit Authority’s ski buses has climbed sharply since the 2016-2017 winter, when the agency consolidated canyon bus routes from eight to three and boosted frequency to 15 minutes during peak hours. But this winter, ridership in the two Cottonwood canyons took a dip from nearly 3,000 riders on an average Saturday to about 2,400.
The typical riders are resort employees or some resort pass holders who catch the bus for free, UDOT’s scoping document states. According to a Ski Utah survey, about 7 percent of ski area visitors use public transit, while 78 percent ride personal or rental vehicles. The rest are overnight guests or arrive in shuttle vans.
Snowbird recently deployed a cellphone app that encourages its skiers to ride-share.
“We are using what resources we have at Snowbird to influence people. We think that comes down to time, money and powder,” the resort’s sustainability director Hilary Arens told the Central Wasatch Commission several weeks ago. VIP parking spots are reserved for car poolers, who are eligible for prizes and discounts.
The resort’s new app, called RIDE — an acronym for “reducing individual driving for the environment” — has been downloaded 2,000 times and had resulted in 808 ride-shares at the time of her presentation.
“You can find others to carpool with, search for friends or whomever is riding up the canyon,” Arens said. “We are excited about making it scalable so other resorts can use it as well.”
Have pass, will drive?
Alta’s Maughan and Ski Utah’s Rafferty would like to see lifts added that allow skiers to travel betweens canyons and over the Wasatch Divide to the Park City resorts.
This move would not only link the Central Wasatch resorts but also enable visitors to travel between these destinations without driving. Past proposals have gotten shelved in the face of opposition from backcountry enthusiasts, but ski industry leaders believe the traffic crisis could lead to a renewed look.
“Is it going to solve the problems?” Rafferty asked. “No, but it might help in a lot of different ways.”
Alta has been conducting informal surveys of drivers parking in the Albion lot, and Maughan was surprised to learn that nearly a third were in rental cars. An equal portion had made the 42-mile drive from Park City.
Rafferty agrees the multi-resort passes, such as the Ikon, Mountain Collective and Epic, have changed the way skiers select where they ski, not only resort by resort but also state by state.
If skiers have trouble getting up Little or Big Cottonwood canyon, they can now make a 40-minute detour to Snowbasin or Deer Valley. Rafferty said Snowbasin, a Mountain Collective member, increases its staffing on days Little Cottonwood is closed for avalanche control because resort operators know a lot of would-be Alta skiers are heading their way.
Launched last year by the Alterra Mountain Co., the Ikon is good at 38 resorts, including all four Cottonwood canyon destinations and Deer Valley. Ikon grants the holder unlimited access at Solitude and 13 other resorts, plus seven days at Deer Valley and Brighton, and seven days combined at Alta and Snowbird — all for $949 for adults ages 23 and older. A more restrictive “base pass” is available for $300 less.
Ikon has proved itself a tough competitor to the Mountain Collective, the first major multi-resort pass that Alta helped launch eight years ago and now appears to be fading away as member resorts skip to other passes. Ikon, in its second year, accounted for about 10 percent of Alta’s skier visits this winter, Maughan said.
But how much has it lifted Alta skier visits? That’s a harder number to pin down, but Maughan figures about 3 percent or 4 percent.
The impact on traffic, on the other hand, may be far beyond that.