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Alta parking is a mess, but are bigger lots the answer?

Famed Utah ski area proposes to add 220 spaces or exclude backcountry skiers — and neither options is drawing many fans.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Alta Ski Area closed uphill traffic for avalanche control on March 25 but kept the Summer Road and Grizzly Gulch open to backcountry skiers.

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This winter has been a frustrating one for many Alta skiers, and it wasn’t just because of the meager snowfall earlier this season.

On weekends and powder days, the parking lots at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon often filled up by 10 a.m., forcing hundreds of late-arriving skiers to turn around and go home rather than enjoy a day on slopes that have become more and more popular.

Depending on how you define the problem, there are either too many cars in the canyon or not enough parking.

To Alta Ski Area, the problem is not enough parking, but the resort’s proposed solutions — to either pave 220 more parking spots or exclude backcountry skiers from its lots — have ignited stiff rebukes from growing cadres of critics. They argue Alta’s quest to add parking is shortsighted and would likely add to the traffic woes at one of the nation’s most revered ski destinations.

“Does 200 [more parking spots] make a difference when there is essentially infinite demand?” Alta Mayor Harris Sondak asked at a recent Town Council meeting. “Maybe 200 just adds 200 cars [in the canyon] without really fixing the problem.”

The problem Sondak referenced is hardly exclusive to Little Cottonwood.

Soul-sucking congestion is gripping destination ski resorts across the West and outdoor recreation hot spots all over Utah. Vast numbers of Americans, yearning to enjoy public lands, are flooding places like Moab, Springdale and Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, nearly all arriving in private automobiles. Plenty of Utah skiers have given up on Alta because it poses such an ordeal to get there on a powder day.

At Salt Lake City’s doorstep and within an hour of an international airport, the Cottonwoods have become overrun year-round. Congestion during the winter ski season is particularly acute. The pandemic has exacerbated the headaches since car pools and bus rides — the very practices needed to reduce traffic — can increase the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Sondak addressed his comment to Alta Ski Area General Manager Mike Maughan, who came to the January council meeting seeking support for his proposal to add 220 spots on parking lots it operates under its special-use permit with the U.S. Forest Service.

“If we were able to expand our parking in our permitted area … that would offset some of the parking that is being used by non-ski area patrons. We could go in that direction and not have to change much over [from] what we are doing,” Maughan said. “That seems to be the most appropriate course of action.”

Alta’s second parking proposal falls flat

Town support has not been forthcoming, however, prompting the ski area to announce a new parking proposal in a recent blog post that stirred intense controversy last week.

The resort argues it needs to add parking to replace the 200 spots it says are routinely “consumed” by non-resort skiers who access Grizzly Gulch, Patsy Marley and other choice backcountry runs from Alta. Because its desired parking expansion will not likely be approved, the ski area says it now intends to charge for parking and exclude the general public from its lots.

“During the last few years, use of [Alta Ski Area’s] parking by non-ski area visitors has grown to the point it is significantly impacting ski area operations and the ability for Alta skiers to secure a parking spot,” the post states. “In lieu of adding parking to offset the parking being used by non-ski area visitors, [the ski area] is exploring options to restrict parking in the Grizzly, Albion, and Wildcat parking areas to ski-area customers with a valid lift ticket.”

Alta’s proposal stands in stark contrast to the solutions used by neighboring ski areas. Snowbird now requires reservations for parking, while Solitude charges for parking, using a tiered rate to encourage car pools and bus rides.

Sundance, which is on private land, has announced it will add up to 150 parking spaces this offseason. But General Manager Chad Linebaugh said he realizes that isn’t a long term-solution. In keeping with the spirit of sustainability and environmental stewardship at the resort, he said, a program incentivizing guests to carpool or take the bus could be implemented in coming years.

The Forest Service doesn’t want to tell Alta how to run its business, but it prefers the resort develop a parking plan similar to the one at Solitude, which pioneered paid parking in 2019-20 to choruses of cheers and jeers.

Solitude spokeswoman Sara Huey said that program has boosted both car pooling and bus ridership, and the resort has the data to prove it.

Nearly three times as many Solitude pass holders rode Utah Transit Authority ski buses in 2019-20 than in the previous season — and that was despite it closing in mid-March because of the pandemic. Huey said that ridership was bolstered by the resort’s offer of free bus fare to season-pass holders.

In addition, the cars in the lot carried, on average, 2.5 people with 23% of them occupied by three or more.

No numbers were provided for this season because, Huey said, the pandemic has made it impossible to draw any useful conclusions about the program.

Last year’s “numbers show it was a success in changing people’s choices and behavior,” Huey said, “and if that’s what the other Cottonwood canyon resorts want to see, then I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked at the variety of options that we implemented, including paid parking.”

Forest Service has a say in canyon parking

It’s hard to say whether Alta could replicate such a program, but critics insist it’s worth trying before building more parking.

Alta’s permit with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest would allow it to charge for parking but would not greenlight parking lot expansions absent a permit modification, said Ben Kraja, the official who manages the forest’s five ski area permits.

“There’s a lot of nuances in special-use permits and one of them is a nonexclusive-use clause,” Kraja said. “We don’t want to see Alta choosing who they allow to park there and who can’t park there. We would like to see them charge everyone equally” whether the motorists ski at the resort or not.

Currently, there is space to park about 5,000 cars at Alta and Snowbird at the top of Little Cottonwood. Uinta-Wasatch-Cache’s forest plan indicates parking lots in the canyons are not to exceed their year 2000 levels, unless expansion is needed to protect the watersheds or to accommodate mass transit.

“We would love to see the promotion of mass transit and car pooling,” Kraja said. “The goal is to get single-occupancy vehicles out of the canyons.”

For decades, Alta has welcomed all comers to use its lots, including town visitors, employees of area businesses and cabin owners.

Now the backcountry crowd is being unfairly blamed for Alta’s parking quagmire, said Chris Adams, the president of Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and himself a longtime pass holder who taught his kids to ski at the historic resort.

There is no reliable data to support Alta G.M. Maughan’s claims, he said, and the parking crisis is being driven by exploding demand for Utah’s legendary skiing.

“Even if he had every spot, there would be many days where people would be turned away. Look at Solitude, look at Snowbird, Deer Valley. [Utah’s other ski areas] are all full all the time,” he said. “Look at the national parks in this state. Utah has been successful in getting people to come visit, but it’s coming at a cost that we are being forced to pay.”

Adams agrees that the time has come for paid parking in the canyons, but he says Alta should not monopolize a limited public resource.

“It’s public land that is leased to a private business that is trying to exclude the public,” Adams said. “The public is supposed to be able to access its public land.”

Maughan sees the parking proposal as a “stopgap” until transit solutions materialize, rendering the parking debate moot. The Utah Department of Transportation is weighing ideas for expanded bus service, a gondola or a railway to serve Little Cottonwood Canyon, but implementation would still be years away.

Until then, canyon use is swelling. Alta officials contend backcountry use has quadrupled in the past 20 years, and many of those skiers take advantage of the resort’s parking.

Counters installed at Alta’s three backcountry trailheads recorded 50,000 users over three months last winter, Maughan told the Town Council. That level of use could equate to about 200 cars a day.

“We could shut down and restrict the parking to just ski area patrons,” he said. “That’s pretty controversial and, from our opinion, not the right way to go about it.”

The least “disruptive” option, he said, is more parking. But Town Council member Sheridan Davis was skeptical.

“I just wonder if we really want to change the character of Alta from being about mountain skiing and the environment to being more and more parking,” she told Maughan. “I feel like we’ve already jumped the shark on this if we keep increasing the capacity for cars.”

— Reporter Julie Jag contributed to this report.

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