Officials warn they will close Big and Little Cottonwood canyons this ski season when parking is full

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Busy ski traffic at the mouth of Big Cottonwood on Feb. 5, 2016. Officials warn they will close uphill traffic in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons this year when traffic is full. They say the canyons have become especially popular during the pandemic.

Avalanches may not be the only things that temporarily close Big and Little Cottonwood canyons this year. Now because of increased popularity during the pandemic, officials warn they will close uphill traffic this ski season when parking is totally full.

“We don’t want people to wait unnecessarily,” John Gleason, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Transportation said Monday, adding that ski resort and UDOT websites will warn when that happens or is expected, as will roadside electronic message signs near the base of the canyons.

“We’ve had days in the past where parking completely fills to capacity, and it starts encroaching on the roadway. Then it can become a safety issue,” UDOT District Engineer Shawn Lambert said.

He added, “There’s a huge frustration that someone works their way all the way up the canyon and there are no spots available and they have to come down. It can create a lot of animosity and we want to avoid that by messaging.”

So now when parking fills, UDOT and Unified Police will close uphill traffic — except for resort employees, residents, buses, hotel and spa guests with reservations, rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft that do not take up parking, and for special cases such as parents going to pick up children.

Downhill traffic will be allowed to continue normally.

Lambert said that UDOT, Unified Police and ski resorts will work together to monitor parking at resort lots and in allowed roadside areas. When that, plus the length of the canyons' uphill queue, suggests the canyons are at capacity, restrictions will be initiated.

Instead of allowing a few cars to go up as some leave, “Likely once a restriction is in place, it will be in place for a few hours potentially. And then it will likely reopen for the rest of the day,” Lambert said, adding that past capacity problems usually occur mid-morning on popular days.

UDOT, police and resort representatives will be stationed at turnaround points to answer questions and determine if a traveler meets uphill exceptions.

Lambert said traffic in the canyons has been heavier than ever during the pandemic as people use them to get outdoors at a time when other forms of recreation are limited.

“In the summer that kind of skyrocketed, and every indication is that will continue through the winter,” he said, with officials expecting more backcountry use besides resort skiing.

Also, because ski buses and shuttles will be operating with limited capacity because of the pandemic, Lambert said, “We’re expecting a lot more vehicles.”

UDOT and Unified Police are also taking another step to try to smooth uphill canyon traffic. They are continuing and expanding a pilot program to pre-inspect some cars to ensure they have proper tires with sufficient tread, and give them a windshield sticker to allow them to zip through inspection points on days when such tires or chains are required.

Last year, that program was limited to canyon residents and resort employees. This year, it was opened up to the general population — but Gleason said all 3,000 available inspection time slots quickly filled up shortly after they became available on Monday morning.

(Lee Davidson | Tribune file photo) Unified Police and Utah Department of Transportation officials do a quick "pre-inspection" last year to ensure a car has needed snow tires to drive in the canyons. It receives a windshield sticker to allow it to zip through regular inspection points, as part of a pilot program.

Lambert said UDOT might expand the program. But Gleason said pre-inspections have limited availability because crews that conduct them also are responsible for a variety of other road work, including plowing snow.

“It really does speed up things when I can just wave a car through,” Unified Police Canyons Sgt. Ed Twohill said about the program. “There’s an accordion effect every time I have to stop a car for an inspection and maybe turn them around. It can slow things down a lot.”

On snow restriction days, UDOT requires two-wheel drive vehicles to have chains or “three-peak mountain snowflake” tires that have an insignia with three peaks. Four-wheel drive vehicles are required to have at least “M+S,” or mud and snow, tires.

“The importance of having the right tires up there cannot be understated,” Twohill said, adding that other tires — even regular all-season tires — quickly clog with snow and cause slipping and sliding.

“This year already we’ve had two cars go off the cliff and into a ravine. And it’s because they didn’t have the right tires,” he said. “Another one slid off the road and hit me. And it’s early in the season.”

Gleason said updates about canyon conditions and rules, including alerts when the canyons are closed, is available online at cottonwoodcanyons.udot.utah.gov.