Alta has ‘tenuous’ relationship with Snowbird. Canyon traffic is to blame.

Roadside parking, rush for spots at lower resort negates measures taken by Alta, general manager says.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alta Ski Area general manager Mike Maughan stands at the UTA bus stop outside the Wildcat base area, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. Maughan told the Town of Alta town council on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024 that neighboring Snowbird's resistance toward parking reservations has backed up buses and cars entering and exiting the ski area.

Mike Maughan, the general manager of Alta Ski Area, called for a ‘heart to heart’ with neighboring Snowbird on Valentine’s Day. It won’t be a lovefest.

At a Town of Alta town council meeting Wednesday, Maughan expressed frustration with Snowbird over its refusal to require parking reservations. That decision impacts the traffic flow in and out of Alta and, in particular, his resort’s customers and employees. Maughan said he has raised the issue to Dave Field, Snowbird’s general manager, to little avail.

“We have a tenuous relationship with Snowbird, a little bit,” Maughan said.

“We’re going to have a heart-to-heart here pretty soon with them and the Forest Service,” he added, “and see if there’s something we can do.”

Alta sits at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon and can only be reached via State Route 210, an avalanche-prone two-lane highway that first passes by Snowbird. Two years ago, Alta implemented reservation-only paid parking until 1 p.m. every Friday through Sunday and on holidays during the ski season. Maughan said he “never could have fathomed the benefits” the reservation system would produce. It has spread out the arrival of skiers and reduced the number of cars being turned around after lots fill. In addition, he said reservations have led to an increase in carpooling and, perhaps surprisingly, more skiers visiting the resort.

Even with reservations in hand, however, Alta customers and its employees still often have to battle the red snake — the colloquial term for the canyon’s slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A long line of cars forms near Little Cottonwood Canyon during the snow storm on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Traffic in the canyon has gotten so out of hand that last year the Utah Department of Transportation made the controversial decision to approve building a gondola through the 7-mile canyon. The Town of Alta is considering formally opposing the plan, and Maughan spoke at Wednesday’s meeting as part of that discussion.

Maughan said while he’s not completely against the gondola, he said it will not solve all of Alta’s traffic issues. Many of those issues he linked to Snowbird’s resistance to parking reservations and to its use of roadside parking.

While space in some lots can be reserved on a daily basis, much of Snowbird’s parking — at least a thousand cars’ worth — remains first-come, first-served. Hours before lifts start spinning on a powder day, cars saddled with ski racks will line up for miles along Wasatch Boulevard waiting for the Utah Department of Transportation to open SR210. Oftentimes, more cars queue up than there are parking spots in the canyon. Even armed with reservations, those bound for Alta must first wade through Snowbird traffic. That includes cars parallel parking along the south side of the road in the mornings and making U-turns out of those spots in the afternoon.

Maughan said that gums up the whole system.

“We are struggling, to put it lightly, with our neighbors down the street not having a reservation system,” Maughan said. “It’s really impacting now our employees. We are now bringing our employees in a half hour earlier, at 8 a.m., just to get them here in time to open the area because of all the traffic that has been created by first-come parking down the canyon.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alta City Council member Dan Schilling, Mayor Roger Bourke and Alta City Council member Carolyn Anctil listen to speakers, during the Alta City Council meeting, on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

Maughan said Alta Ski Area conducted some modeling last season to measure the impact. That modeling revealed that on a clear day, nine cars from Snowbird will filter in between every two cars that leave Alta heading down the canyon because of the number of merge points at the lower resort. Add in roadside parking, Maughan said, and it’s 16 Snowbird cars for every two from Alta.

The worst of it comes, though, when the direct route between the two resorts is closed, as it often is due to avalanche danger. Maughan said in that scenario, as many as 500 Snowbird cars can fill in between every two cars coming from Alta.

“When that’s closed, we get gridlock for about an hour to almost two hours,” Maughan said. “So nothing moves: no emergency vehicles, no public transit. And it’s very frustrating.”

That frustration with traffic flows down the canyon as well, according to Fields, Snowbird’s general manager. He said the resort has been “in constant dialogue with all partners in the canyon” to find a solution.

The resort tinkered with a reservation-only system during the 2020-21 COVID-19 season, and it flopped, he said.

“We really learned that given our unique parking situation here at Snowbird,” Fields said, “a full reservation system was not ideal.”

The crux of the problem, Fields said, is that the availability of much of Snowbird’s parking depends on avalanche conditions. UDOT must greenlight parking on the highway and the resort’s own crews do the same for its Superior lot, which serves as a runout for slides coming down Mount Superior. Fields said sometimes those permissions don’t come in until hours before lifts open. He said he believes that’s too late to offer them online or to calm the early morning free-parking frenzy.

Snowbird has tried to be a good neighbor and tame traffic in other ways, though, Fields said. That includes offering giveaways and other incentives for carpooling and working with UDOT to install a barrier that keeps Alta traffic from having to merge with Snowbird’s visitors until below Entry 1. In addition, traffic is no longer allowed to park on the north side of SR210 and employees are encouraged to travel to the resort via rideshare.

Rather than a lack of reservations, Fields said he believes the traffic issues can be traced back to the Utah Transit Authority’s decision to eliminate one of two bus routes through Little Cottonwood Canyon. The 953 route, he said, was the most popular route with Snowbird passholders and employees.

“The biggest driver in all of this that can make a huge impact on the number of vehicles in the canyon,” Fields said, “is reinstating the 953 bus route.”

Fields has been an outspoken proponent of the gondola. Additionally, he steered Snowbird’s purchase of a 5-acre parcel of land at the base of the canyon that he has said would be sold at cost or donated to become the gondola’s base station.

Still, he balked at the idea that interest has played into how Snowbird is handling parking or that it doesn’t want to find solutions to the canyon’s traffic issues.

“Absolutely false,” he wrote in a text to The Tribune. “We are supportive of the gondola but no one wants to see the resumption of full UTA ski bus service more than me.”

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