Utah ski resorts unveiled new features this winter designed to help their visitors enjoy a day traversing their mountains and relaxing in their lodges.
There are faster lifts, upgraded trails and expanded dining options.
Solitude Mountain Resort’s fresh amenities include a waffle shop, a snow groomer and something unique — perhaps revolutionary — to Utah ski areas: kiosks where skiers pay to park.
With this bold move, the Big Cottonwood resort is aiming to help alleviate canyon congestion. But in doing so the resort is alienating some of its loyal customers over what they see as a predatory fee and, at the same time, winning kudos for doing its part to tackle Utah ski country’s most vexing problem.
It’s even gaining converts to buses and car pools.
Erik Olson, who commutes from Logan to ski Big Cottonwood, said the parking fee got him to embrace transit.
“Saves money, reduces congestion and air pollution/CO2 emissions,” he wrote on Facebook. “I don’t have [four-wheel drive], and it also reduces the stress of driving and I can read ... or do anything else except look at brake lights.”
At least, some reason, Solitude is trying to address a traffic crisis that is making the Cottonwood canyons just east of Utah’s metropolitan heart harder and harder to enjoy.
Not everyone is convinced.
“This didn’t change traffic,” Jack Gauthier wrote in a Facebook post. “The lot is just as full. People always carpooled to ski anyway. Solitude just decided they wanted more money and they are getting it.”
Parking fees are intended to reduce the severity of gridlock, resort officials say. Making money, Solitude spokeswoman Sara Huey insists, is not the purpose.
“We have invested in alternatives so that paying $20 to park [for one or two people per vehicle] is not their only option,” Huey said. Solitude covers the $9 round-trip bus fare for its season pass holders and will donate some of the parking receipts to Breathe Utah, a nonprofit clean-air group.
“We have received a mix of comments and that includes a lot of support from the community," Huey said. "We have not seen queues waiting to get into the parking lot or at the kiosks. It has gone smoothly.”
The Salt Lake Tribune invited readers to share their feelings so far about Solitude’s parking plan on its Facebook and Twitter pages and got an earful. The resort’s experiment is being closely watched by Central Wasatch stakeholders as they explore solutions to the Cottonwood canyons’ transportation woes, which reached epic proportions last ski season and now persist into the summer.
Solitude, along with Alta and Snowbird in neighboring Little Cottonwood Canyon, opened Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving, to fresh powder and a winter storm that turned the evening drive home into a five-hour ordeal.
“Still plenty of traffic,” Travis Ambrose posted. “Still idiots in [two-wheel drive] cars and no one enforcing chain laws/4x4.”
Parking at Solitude now costs $20 during ski season, though less for cars with three or more occupants. The move won praise from government officials and environmental watchdogs, although it is unlikely to be replicated this season by neighboring Cottonwood resorts, all of which run out of parking spaces most weekends.
Cars with three occupants pay $10 to park at Solitude, or $5 with four or more.
“After multiple seasons of having traffic being a concern and coming to a head last year with congestion being the No. 1 complaint, we couldn’t leave this option on the table any longer,” Huey said. “We can’t control people’s behavior, but we hope this will get them to think twice before driving up the canyon.”
Of course, paid parking could get them to think twice about skiing Solitude. Skiers are free to drive up the road to Brighton or switch to Little Cottonwood Canyon’s Alta and Snowbird, where parking remains free.
That’s what Taft Arnold will do.
“I didn’t renew my Ikon pass this year because of the parking fee. I opted for a @BrightonResort pass instead,” Arnold tweeted. “If it were really about the environment [Solitude] would donate the proceeds for that purpose. This is just a cash grab after many people already had passes.”
Yet many Solitude skiers said they are happy to patronize expanded Utah Transit Authority bus service. Rides are free to season pass holders, including those holding the multiresort Ikon pass, which serves as an unlimited pass to Solitude.
"Buses are running every 15 minutes this year!" wrote Jenni Curtis Shafer. "So far it's been less crowded and a lot more convenient. Really hoping to see more people use the ski bus. It's the right thing to do."
Barely two weeks into the 2019-2020 season, Solitude and UTA officials say it is too early to tell whether car pooling and bus riding are up over the same period last year.
However, Alli Murray Kogelschatz’s husband spent 4.5 hours standing in a traffic-clogged bus returning home on Solitude’s opening day with his brother after a semi slid out and blocked the highway.
“I bit the bullet and bought a parking pass,” wrote Josh Lombardo, referring to Solitude’s $150 season parking pass. “If I’m going to be stuck in traffic for hours, it’s going to be sitting down in the comfort of my truck. Not the bus.”
According to Huey, 60% of the cars paying to park at Solitude have had three or more occupants, offering anecdotal evidence of skiers carpooling in higher numbers.
While the Utah ski season got off to a promising start in terms of snow, the congestion shows little sign of abating.
“Traffic is still as bad or worse,” wrote Jake Lawlor. “They offered no real solution as there’s nowhere near enough parking at the bottom of the canyon. Biggest problem is no enforcement of 2wd cars and no restrictions in place on mornings when the forecast calls for afternoon storms. But Solitude is making a lot of $$$.”
Added Jamie Fendler: “More congestion trying to get up BCC last weekend than I have ever seen on a non-powder day."
Some commenters observed many cars parked along the highway near the Solitude entry. While they assumed drivers did so to avoid paying to park a few hundred feet closer to Solitude’s Moonbeam base, it is likely many were backcountry skiers, snowshoers and snowboarders headed to popular terrain across the highway from Solitude.
“Maximum $20 parking to avoid a minimum $300 tow is always going to be worth it,” wrote Tabitha Edison. “UDOT [Utah Department of Transportation] has already been out towing people off of the side of the road. Worst-case scenario, just pick up a hitchhiker or two at the mouth and you’ll get your discount.”
Highway parking near ski areas remains legal as long as all four wheels of the vehicle are completely outside the line marking the edge of the travel lane.
Skier Cody Tate noted how upset many commenters were with Solitude.
“Maybe stop supporting Solitude?” Tate posed. “More powder for me.”
Whether skiers drive, carpool or ride buses to Solitude this Saturday, there is one thing they won’t have to pay for. Waffles will be served for free to mark the grand opening of Little Dollie Waffles, the resort’s new restaurant at the Moonbeam lodge.