Solitude Mountain Resort will charge visitors for parking

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Snowboarders walk through a packed parking lot at Solitude in 2016. The resort plans to begin charging a parking fee.

Solitude • Free parking will get a lot scarcer in Big Cottonwood Canyon this winter, when Solitude Mountain Resort plans to charge visitors who drive up the canyon by themselves $20 to park, less if they carpool.

It’s a bold experiment aimed at helping to alleviate gridlock in Utah’s crowded ski country. Of course, it could encourage skiers instead to drive farther up the road to Brighton or to Little Cottonwood’s Alta and Snowbird, which, to this point, have not said that they will discontinue free parking.

Either way, there are major implications for Utah’s central Wasatch Mountains. Solitude’s goal is to persuade skiers — through their pocketbooks — to carpool or take public transit as part of a larger, carrot-laden plan to reduce congestion and emissions, according to Solitude General Manager Kim Mayhew.

"It's all about changing behavior," Mayhew said. "It's like a science experiment. It's an opportunity for us to jump off the cliff, do something, and then get some good data on what happened."

Vehicles carrying one or two passengers will be charged the full $20 to park at Solitude. The charge is $10 for three passengers and $5 for four or more passengers. The resort is also offering incentives that reward visitors who carpool and make it easier for them to leave their vehicles out of the canyon.

While a charge for parking could make skiing even more expensive, public officials and conservation activists applauded Solitude’s plan as an overdue move that some hope the three other Cottonwood resorts will explore.

"What Solitude is doing is really important," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. "They have stepped out in a risky way. This is totally new, never done in the Cottonwoods. I am interested to see how this experiment plays out."

Congestion reached crisis levels last winter, when the advent of the Ikon pass brought more out-of-state skiers into the Cottonwoods at the very time Utah was seeing its best powder season in several years. It routinely took skiers hours to get up and down the canyons, leaving many to wonder if the Greatest Snow on Earth was worth the hassle.

"We are at a fork in the road," Fisher said. "Do you build more parking to accommodate the masses in the canyons or do you do something to force a behavior change to protect the environment?"

Fisher and others support tolling the roads up Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, but Utah transportation officials have yet to impose a toll, although the Legislature has authorized it to do so.

The Utah Department of Transportation is developing a new plan for Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to Alta and Snowbird, which includes widening roads, while some ski resort officials would like to build lift connections between the Cottonwood resorts and their Park City counterparts.

Alta Ski Area General Manager Mike Maughan has argued that connecting the resorts could allow skiers staying in Park City to ski the Cottonwood resorts without having to travel the roads. He said charging for parking at Alta would not be practical because of the way the resort’s parking is configured with the town of Alta.

Many activists oppose expanding infrastructure for cars and interconnecting lifts.

“My community doesn’t come up here to enjoy parking lots,” Fisher told lawmakers Monday during a legislative field trip to Solitude and Snowbird. “They come up to enjoy wildlife and wildflowers.”

Crowding in Mill Creek and Little and Big Cottonwood canyons has reached a breaking point at which gridlock is now a year-round problem. For example, 41,000 cars traveled up Big Cottonwood Canyon during this past Labor Day weekend, according to Silver Fork resident Barbara Cameron, president of the local community council

The three canyons see 4 million to 5 million recreational visits a year, on par with Grand Canyon National Park, according to Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. He applauded the move by Solitude, which operates partially on Forest Service land as do the three other Cottonwood resorts.

"This could be huge," Whittekiend said Monday during the field trip. "It will cut down congestion immediately."

Solitude will collect its parking fees at kiosks supplied by a vendor that has deployed the system at other ski areas, such as Colorado’s Copper Mountain. As drivers enter the parking areas, a Solitude staffer will hand them a card with a code that correlates to the number of occupants in their vehicles. The driver then punches the vehicle’s license number and the code into the kiosk keyboard and pays the appropriate fee.

“These are necessary steps to reduce single-occupancy vehicles,” said Blake Perez, deputy director of the Central Wasatch Commission. “It’s not going to solve it this year, but it’s necessary.”

Solitude also plans to add 200 parking spots, bringing its total to 1,400.

Season pass holders, who typically ski Solitude 15 to 20 times a season, can buy a season parking pass for $150, Mayhew said. The fees will be in effect only during the ski season, which runs from Nov. 23 to April 19 this year.

Whatever revenue this system generates will be gobbled up by the incentives Solitude is providing visitors and staff to take the bus and carpool, she said.

Round-trip fare on Utah Transit Authority canyon buses, which operate only during ski season, is $9. Solitude will cover this charge for all its season pass holders, including those who hold the multiresort Ikon pass. It also intends to lease vans to ferry its employees up and down the canyon.

About 50 front-row parking spots will be reserved for cars with four or more occupants; Locker space at the Moonbeam Lodge is to be expanded; Solitude is developing a ride-sharing app that will be available this season and app users will be able to participate in a rewards system.

To ice the cake, Solitude is pledging a percentage of the new parking revenue to Breathe Utah, a Salt Lake City nonprofit devoted to improving air quality.

Many canyon observers are eager to see whether the skiing public will punish or reward Solitude, but Mayhew figures there won’t be a solution to canyon gridlock unless the resort leaves its comfort zone. And charging for something that has long been free will not be comfortable.

“It’s going to affect the resort’s reputation in a good way‚” she said. “I would hope that people would jump on board and recognize we’re trying to solve the problem that has been bitched about for 20 years.”