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Gone are the days when Clark Nielson would make Saturday plans to ski the backcountry with his friends and tell them he’d just meet them at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
This winter, for the devotees of a sport cherished as much for its frugality as for being a good source of exercise and adventure, that kind of behavior would be nothing short of extravagant. Because this year just about everyone driving up to Alta on the weekends can expect to pay $25 just to park.
Alta Ski Area revealed in April that it would be charging everyone except certain passholders and staff to park in its lots. Then last week the Town of Alta took any remaining free parking off the board when it announced that spots along the north side of Highway 210 and in any of the lots it controls will also require a permit on the weekends.
The plan has rankled people in all corners, from backcountry trekkers to resort skiers, from homeowners to business owners.
“There’s no question it’s going to be inconvenient for everybody,” Alta mayor Harris Sondak told The Salt Lake Tribune.
“I’m not touting this as a great solution,” he added. “This is the best solution that we’ve been able to come up with.”
At the center of the issue is a parking shortage.
Why is Alta charging for parking?
The Town of Alta is at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon, squeezed between the Lone Peak Wilderness and the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Its population has doubled in the past 10 years, from 200 to 400 residents, reflecting the growth of the Salt Lake Valley as a whole. Those residents need places to park. So do the increasing number of people making the 12-mile drive up the canyon to access the snowy playgrounds that abut the town. The ski area has been heralded as one of the best in the world in terms of snow quality and terrain. And just outside its borders, Grizzly Gulch holds some of the most beginner-friendly cross country trails on the Wasatch Front in addition to serving as a gateway to more challenging terrain.
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The canyon had become so congested in recent years that the Utah Department of Transportation is weighing two major projects that could provide some relief: building a gondola or widening the road to allow for a dedicated bus lane. And those ideas came about even before the pandemic. Last winter, fewer people carpooled or took buses for fear of contagion. At the same time, outdoor recreation — and downhill and cross country skiing in particular — experienced a surge of interest from people weary of sheltering in place. People began arriving earlier and earlier, which interrupted snow plowing and road-clearance work in the town. Those who arrived later risked making the drive for nothing. Ski area spokesperson Andria Huskinson said she was part of a crew who had to turn people away from the resort for 12 straight weekends because of a lack of parking.
“There’s just more demand than what we can accommodate in the town of Alta. And that includes all the parking of Alta,” Huskinson said “And backcountry skiing’s gotten more popular, so more people are coming up on the weekends to do that. And so they use that parking, too. And so we just had to do something because we can accommodate more people on the ski hill, but our parking has always limited us.”
Alta ski area management sought to expand its parking this summer. But its lots are on U.S. Forest Service land and the agency denied that proposal for not being consistent with its management plan. The ski area also was not allowed to only let its customers park in the lots, another idea it had floated.
So, on to Plan C — as in charging.
When are parking permits required at Alta?
From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays (including all of the winter break week), Alta ski area will be charging $25 for a parking permit. The permits must be purchased online from the Alta website and will be required from Dec. 18 until the end of the season. No permits can be bought on-site.
The permits will be required for most visitors, including those with an Ikon pass. Alta and Alta-Bird passholders; Gold Card, Powder Card and 10-day passholders; and those in the military or who have the family package will not be required to pay. Discounts will be given to those who purchase single-day tickets through the Alta site.
Ski area general manager Mike Maughn said during an Alta town council meeting Wednesday that the reservation system is necessary because, unlike Solitude, which was the first Utah resort to charge for parking, Alta has no place to put cars once the lots are full.
“There’s going to be some growing pains. There’s always growing pains when you change stuff,” Huskinson said. “But I do think … people won’t have to come and be in the parking lot at 6 in the morning just to know they’d get a parking spot on a sunny day.”
The Town of Alta had little choice but to follow suit, Sondak said, especially since the ski area controls 90% of the parking in the town.
“We are scrambling to respond,” he said, “because if we didn’t, our 200 spots or so would be the first ones filled all the time.”
That would mean no spaces for many residents, lodge guests or even the mail carrier.
The town’s plan varies slightly from that of the ski area. It will require a permit from 8 a.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Monday at all of its lots, starting Dec. 17 and ending next spring.
After issuing permits to residences without on-site parking, to four of the lodges and to a handful of organizations that have traditionally used the lots, including the UTA RideShare, the town has about 20 surplus permits. Sondak said it has not yet been decided if those will be available to the general public or how they will be distributed.
Half of the money gained from the permits will be used to pay Interstate Parking, which will be running the program for both the town and ski area, Sondak said. Most of the rest will be used to pay for raises for Alta’s police officers and dispatch.
Where do backcountry skiers fit into Alta’s parking plan?
With season passholders, townsfolk and the lodges gobbling up all the permits, though, one of the biggest groups of users is feeling left out in the cold: backcountry skiers and snowshoers.
Annie Christensen, 31, of Salt Lake City is a backcountry, resort and Nordic skier who put in about 100 days on her skis last season. She said as a backcountry skier, she felt attacked by a blog post Alta published on its site detailing its fight to create more parking. Now she feels frustrated that she will have to plan weeks in advance to access the forest service lands around the town on a weekend. And even that is only because she can afford to pay the $25 fee.
“While Alta has every right to monetize the parking lots they maintain for in-bounds resort use, the parking areas that service the public lands trailheads should be off-limits,” she wrote in an email. “Requiring paid reservations at these public lands trailheads will limit public use and will make spontaneous weekend backcountry use impossible.”
An alternative does exist, however. The UTA Ski Bus will run daily routes to the resort, at a cost of $10 round trip, starting Dec. 12. However, the first bus of the day has traditionally not arrived at Alta until just before 8 a.m., and a spokesperson said the UTA is not likely to add more buses due to a driver shortage. So, anyone wanting to do dawn patrol will be out of luck.
The other, even cheaper option, is to carpool. With five people in a car, the cost drops to $5 per person — or free if they arrive after 1 p.m. People have already launched Facebook groups to coordinate rides, while others are linking up through apps like Pastimes.
That’s why Nielson, a 30-year-old Utah native who lives in Sandy, isn’t upset about the change. He said he’s known something drastic needed to be done to persuade people to start carpooling and using alternative forms of transportation to get up the canyon. And, he said, this just might be it.
It’ll change his habits, at any rate.
“I hope that what it really means is when there’s three people that are all going to go on a tour together, that they get one reservation and they meet at whoever’s house is closest,” he said. “And that’s now three cars, you know, into one. And hopefully it means that we can go up at 10 or 11 o’clock instead of at 7 or 8 o’clock.”