Want to ski in the Cottonwood Canyons? Get ready for some traffic.

Most Cottonwood Canyon resorts will require paid reservations. Carpooling, an improved Ski Bus and other shuttles are alternatives.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers and snowboarders line up for the ski bus along Wasatch Blvd. near Big Cottonwood Canyon as the Salt Lake Valley gets covered in snow on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Even Stephen King couldn’t come up with some of the psychological tortures Bret Monsler and other skiers and snowboarders have experienced recently while trying to get into the Cottonwood Canyons on a powder day.

There’s the aggravation of sitting in traffic for an hour and a half to complete the 15-mile drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon, only to be turned around because Brighton Resort’s parking lot is full. The monotony and paranoia of driving circles around a packed lot hoping to spy a pair of backup lights — and the anxiety over getting there in time to snag the empty space. Then there’s the intense FOMO felt at a bus stop when Ski Bus after Ski Bus whizzes by, each packed so tightly with riders that they don’t dare open their doors.

“Last year,” said Monsler, who lives in Sandy, “it was such a horror story.”

No sequel is expected this year, however. Both the Utah Transit Authority and individual resorts along the Wasatch Range have implemented changes in parking and transportation operations. Those initiatives, combined with the efforts of groups like the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and Visit Salt Lake to organize shuttles, might just take the dread out of getting into and out of the mountains.

Get comfortable with paid reservations

Brighton’s parking problems have been bubbling up for a few years now.

When Solitude Mountain Resort became the first ski area in the state to start charging for parking in 2019, some would opt to park for free at Brighton instead. That, combined with its penned-in location at the top of the canyon and a steady uptick in visitation across the industry post-COVID made finding parking increasingly difficult.

Add in the record snowfall the state experienced last season — which took even more spaces off the table as plow drivers ran out of places to put new snow — and the cut of a Ski Bus route serving the canyon, and those troubles finally boiled over. The town of Brighton started issuing parking tickets that cost more than a lift ticket. The resort’s social media channels told people not to come.

“I wouldn’t call it a total free-for-all,” said Monsler, who usually opted to avoid the drama by skiing at Park City Mountain instead, “but somewhat.”

This year, people heading to Brighton in the morning will know there’s a spot waiting for them. After watching other resorts in the area deal with similar problems through reservations and/or paid parking, Brighton opted to adopt both. Reservations will be required daily from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and will cost $20. Brighton passholders — but not Ikon passholders — will park for free as will carpools with three or more people.

Solitude will also add weekend reservations this season until 11 a.m. Between then and 1 p.m. and during weekdays, reservations will not be required, but visitors will still have to pay to park. The rates will be $20 on weekdays and $35 on weekends, though carpools of four or more are free. No reservations or fees are required after 1 p.m.

In Little Cottonwood Canyon, Alta Ski Area will continue to require reservations on weekends and early mornings. They will be needed Friday to Sunday and holidays until 1 p.m. ($25) and daily for anyone arriving before 8 a.m. ($15) between Dec. 15 and March 31. Neighboring Snowbird, meanwhile, is sticking to its hybrid model. Guests can make paid reservations or pay for parking upon arrival, but much of the parking near the resort is free.

In addition, free, no-reservation parking will continue to be available on the south side of State Route 190 and SR 210. However, fines for illegal parking have increased greatly, from $25 last year to $75-125 for the 2023-24 season.

Brighton spokesperson Jared Winkler said the intent is to alleviate frustration, not squeeze skiers and boarders for more money.

“Our goal is to try to make it to where people can get up here, they can get the parking spot that they expected and have the day that they paid for,” he said, “versus just getting let down immediately — from being stuck looking for a parking spot and getting turned away. So hopefully, hopefully this helps.”

Elsewhere in the Wasatch, Park City Mountain will require paid parking reservations until 1 p.m. at its Mountain Village lots, within the town. Parking at the Cabriolet lot at Canyons Village will be free until it fills. Paid parking options are available at upper Canyons lots. Meanwhile, Sundance Resort will charge for parking in all lots on the weekends with optional paid parking on weekdays. Reservations are not required.

Winkler said a few years ago, its customers would have raged against reservations. Now they’re asking for them. Mosler is proof of that.

“I think we’ve kind of run out of options here,” he said. “I mean, I would prefer to pay as little as possible to enjoy our sport. But this is one of the things we’ve got to do. Utah’s got growing pains and that’s part of it.”

UTA offering surge protection

Speaking of pains, the UTA and its Ski Bus riders felt plenty of them last year.

A record snow season and record resort visits piled like an avalanche on top of a transit agency already hobbled by staff shortages. UTA had announced route cuts that by some estimates would slice 75% of ski services, including the entire 953 line up Little Cottonwood Canyon, before the season began. Then, when the snow and riders kept coming, it had to scramble to find solutions as people waited, at times for hours, for a bus to the mountains. To get a seat, they had to board near the route’s origin near the Trax blue line. For many, that meant driving west to go east and adding a half hour or more to their overall travel time.

The 2023-24 season was shaping up to be nearly as vexatious after UTA told resorts in April that it expected a similar driver shortage this winter. Since then, though, the agency, the resorts and a few interested organizations have come up with some stopgaps they hope will make ski trips a little smoother.

Most notably, the UTA will be offering “surge service” on powder days and as often as possible when bodies and boards start to stack up at bus stops. The agency tried that tactic last year with little relief. This year is different, said Carlton Christensen, UTA’s board chair. The agency is paying drivers to be on call. Plus, it has pushed resorts to clear a smoother path for buses to make routes faster.

Additionally, several of the resorts are now paying for the UTA to provide separate shuttles for employees — in addition to the vanpools — which frees up more Ski Bus seats.

“About half of our passengers are actually employees of the ski resorts,” Christensen said. “So that’s how they get to work. And the resorts are very dependent [on that]. In fact, their concern last year was not a concern of, ‘How do we get skiers up there?’ It’s: ‘How do we get our employees up there?’”

Ski Bus service into the Cottonwood Canyons is scheduled to run from Nov. 26 to April 13. The resorts pay the fare for both Ikon and individual resort season passholders. Otherwise the fare is $5 each way.

“I believe we’re in a stronger position,” Christensen said, “and that people that come to get on a bus would have a reasonable expectation of getting a ride up the canyons.”

A few shuttle services have also popped up to help alleviate the pressure on the Ski Bus.

The Cottonwood Connect Ski Shuttle caters to out-of-town visitors but can be ridden by anyone who books a reservation. Run by Salt Lake County and Visit Salt Lake, it stops at several hotels and park-and-rides on its way to and from the canyons. It will operate Friday to Sunday and holidays from Dec. 22 to April 14. Prices have not yet been set, but last season it cost $10 each way. Wasatch Backcountry Alliance also offers a shuttle to and from Alta every Saturday. Reservations are required and, though it is free, donations are accepted.

In addition to the Cottonwood Canyons, UTA Ski Buses also service Powder Mountain, Snowbasin and Sundance.

Monsler said ease of parking ranked highly among several factors that convinced him to buy an Epic Pass. Most days, he said, he can park for free at the Canyons Village and be strapped into his snowboard before he’d be halfway up one of the Cottonwood Canyons. Getting there without a vehicle is considerably more difficult — albeit free.

No designated Ski Bus exists to take skiers and boarders from the Salt Lake Valley to the resorts in Park City. Anyone wanting to take public transit will need to board the 107 bus — the easternmost stop of which is at the University of Utah Medical Center station — to Kimball Junction. After arriving at the Kimball Junction Transit Center, catch a High Valley Transit bus to Park City Mountain’s Canyons Village or Mountain Village or to Deer Valley Resort’s Snow Park Lodge. When the roads are clear, the route to Canyons Village from the university is estimated to take an hour and a half.

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