Skiers encountered packed lift lines, parking lots after season’s first powder dump. Here’s how to avoid a repeat.

Snowbird, Park City’s reservations systems put to the test as snow-starved skiers, snowboarders converge on Wasatch, Uintah mountains

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers and snowboarders at Park City Mountain Resort on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The resort saw a surge in visitors this weekend when the first significant snowfall since early November dropped more than a foot of snow in Utah's Wasatch and Uintah mountains.

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People in brightly colored jackets were strung out like strands of Christmas lights at ski areas such as Snowbird, Alta and Deer Valley on Saturday. Starting from the lift turnabout, they stretched uphill for at least two football-field lengths. At a UTA Ski Bus stop in Sandy, they wrapped around the block. And up and down the narrow roads of the Cottonwood Canyons, they crept in their cars, bumper to bumper.

Rather than picking their lines last weekend, many Utah skiers and snowboarders found themselves waiting in them.

The Uintah and Wasatch mountain ranges had been starved for snow since the second week in November, before most ski areas began running their lifts. So when a storm packing more than a foot of fresh powder also coincided with a weekend, it was enough to entice even those who heretofore had been reluctant to hit the slopes to dust off their planks and drive to the hills.

“There were definitely more crowds,” Dijon Alston, a snowboarder from Lake Point, said. “All of Utah came out.”

That scenario could be on repeat again this weekend. Close to a foot of snow is expected to be dumped in the mountains Thursday with several more inches forecast for Friday and Saturday.

The sudden onslaught of thousands of skiers and riders no doubt posed a challenge for the state’s northern resorts. It didn’t help that many of the guests were making their season debuts and dealing with ski areas’ COVID-19 protocols for the first time. Hiccups happened. Yet, for the most part, resorts knew this day would come and declared victory in their dual goals of providing powder to the people while also keeping them safe.

“It was good to see how everything would work when we got a great storm [and] when it was a weekend. And overall, people are still having a great time out there,” Solitude spokesperson Sara Huey said. “It’s winter and it can be a challenge to find outdoor recreation in the winter. And with the pandemic, you want to spend time outdoors, especially if you’re seeing people who are not within your household. And skiing offers that and the ability just to see people coming together, having a good time. It’s really what Solitude’s about. And I would call the weekend a success for that reason.”

Those who had to endure long waits at seemingly every turn may disagree with Huey’s assessment. That said, many of the hassles of skiing a powder weekend can be lessened with a little advance planning and by building some flexibility into the day.

How to avoid the crowds

First, stop and remember this isn’t a typical ski season. This is a season hamstrung by coronavirus protocols. Lift and food lines will both look and be longer due to social distancing. Buses and cars will carry fewer people, leading to more of them on the road. Human interactions will be awkward. Pack your patience.

Second, line mitigation can begin at breakfast. Utah’s resorts have really upped their social media game. Through their home accounts or separate “alert” accounts, most ski areas actively post road and parking lot closures, lift openings and other need-to-know info on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Snowbird even has its own app that shows run status, lift wait times and web cams.

Utah’s Department of Transportation and the Utah Transit Authority also post regular road- and bus-related updates on their social accounts. That won’t necessarily keep resort visitors from being caught in the canyon after a wreck like the one that closed Big Cottonwood for hours Sunday afternoon, but at least they’ll know they should pick up a to-go burger before getting on the road. Along similar lines, having proper snow tires — those with the three-peak mountain symbol — on all cars will help reduce drive times both ways. On days when the traction law is in effect, UDOT officials will turn away anyone trying to go up a canyon without proper tires or chains.

A more old-school trick skiers and riders still rely on is simply to leave early or come late. Most resort parking filled by 9 a.m. last weekend. So, getting to the resort early is no longer so much about securing first chair as it is about avoiding being redirected to a remote shuttle lot. An option for anyone who isn’t an early riser is to arrive after noon. Parking spaces typically begin opening up then, after the first-chair folks have gotten their fill, and the traffic tends to be minimal.

Perhaps the best option, though, is the one Molly Davis chose after her experience at Snowbird last weekend. She swore off skiing Saturdays.

Swearing off Saturdays?

Davis, 25, bought her first pass to Snowbird this year. She had been making near weekly trips there from her home near Cottonwood Heights and was impressed with the short lift lines and lack of crowds, even on weekends. She thought those might be due to the resort’s new policy of requiring parking reservations, which it implemented this fall as a form of crowd control. Or, maybe it was because people were afraid of catching the coronavirus.

Turns out, it was more closely linked to the lack of snow.

“The lines were insane,” she said.

On Saturday, it took her 40 minutes to make the typically 15- to 20-minute trip up the canyon. Then it took another 30 to 45 minutes to load onto a lift at the base. She estimated she faced about the same wait at all the on-mountain lifts she rode as well. After just four runs in the span of four hours, she and her friends gave up and went home.

Snowbird can blame COVID-19 for some of its woes. It has instituted perhaps the state’s most stringent chairlift loading policy this season to counter the spread of the virus. Only people in the same party are allowed to load together (singles and doubles cannot glom onto a larger group) which leads to many more chairs with vacant seats.

The subsequent backlog may have been exacerbated, spokesperson Sarah Sherman said, by a lack of terrain open early Saturday. The resort received 16 inches of snow overnight and wasn’t able to open at least a third of its terrain — accessed by the Peruvian and Mineral Basin lifts and the Aerial Tram — until between 10 a.m. and noon.

Even Park City Mountain Resort, the nation’s largest ski area, felt the squeeze of reduced acreage. It’s what Nicholas Zetterstrom, 30, of Heber City singled out as the main culprit for long lines Saturday as well as earlier in the season.

“It’s way too crowded for how many runs are open,” Zetterstrom, a snowboarder, wrote in a Facebook message to The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’m an experienced rider and it’s getting a bit annoying having to dodge a lot of riders who don’t respect the mountain, camping in the middle of runs, cutting people off. It’s been frustrating.”

In response to the pandemic and the correlated increased interest in outdoor activities, PCMR instituted a lift-access reservation system this season to maintain spacing on its slopes. With little natural snow, though, visitors who got in were restricted to less than half of the ski area’s terrain. When 14 inches of snow finally came Saturday, it took half the weekend to pull off the many tasks that go into prepping an area for guests, including performing avalanche control and putting up hazard and boundary markers.

“Our mountain operation teams have been working non-stop this season to make snow and open up new terrain,” PCMR spokesperson Jessica Miller said in an email, “and we were all very happy to see Mother Nature step in this weekend to lend a hand.”

By mid Sunday, the resort had opened up 60 new trails and its Jupiter lift. It also had no line at its Eagle chair, which accesses intermediate and advanced terrain. Plus, the sun popped through the snow flurries to produce a beautiful bluebird powder day.

Alston left the Tooele Valley at 6:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday so he could experience it. He reached The Canyons side of PCMR in time to grab a good parking spot, which left him about an hour and a half to sit in his truck until the lifts started turning.

The powder, he said, made the wait worth every second.

“We’re kind of deep in the season now, and you know what to expect, and [guests] should be, like, having a lot of patience,” Alston said. “And we’ll all eventually get on a lift and get to the top, you know? We’ll all get there.”