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Canyon conundrum: Utah’s “greatest snow on earth” causing traffic problems to resorts

Jay Dash waits in bumper-to-bumper traffic up Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons to the ski resorts winter 2019. Dash said when he first moved to Utah, ten years ago, traffic was not nearly as bad as it is today. (Photo courtesy Jay Dash)

On Jan. 19 a local skier was accused of assaulting a police officer after learning the parking lot at Brighton Resort was full. The skier is currently facing two felony charges, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

With an increasing overall population and growing numbers of people looking to ski on “the greatest snow on earth,” Wasatch local and professional photographer Jay Dash said it’s no surprise that traffic has increased in the canyons.

“When I moved here 10 years ago, people didn’t really know about Utah, and now it’s one of the more recognized places to ski,” Dash said. “One of the main attractions to living here is how close you are to world-class skiing in all of the different canyons.”

Westminster College students are among those dealing with the growing amount of long waits in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to or from popular ski areas.

“Usually any Saturday or Sunday I get up [to Brighton Resort] around 12 or 1 p.m. and traffic always delays me at least an extra hour,” said 22-year-old environmental studies major Jordan Romero. “A couple weeks ago we actually got stuck up there on a Sunday, just bumper to bumper traffic all the way from the Brighton parking lot down to the S-Turns. We couldn’t depart until 6 p.m. and didn’t get down until 9, it was insane.”

Patrick Marrinan, a 21-year-old outdoor education and leadership major, said he and his friends have even tried to bribe the parking lot attendance when the lots are full.

Cat Mullin waits in a line of traffic driving up to one of Utah’s ski resorts in winter 2019. The growing population in Salt Lake City has increased the amount of time skiers spend in traffic to get to the resorts. (Photo courtesy Cat Mullin)

“They wouldn’t let anyone in so we tried to bribe the parking lot attendants with beer, whiskey, or Juuls but they were not down for either,” Marrinan said. “We parked up Guardsmans Pass and grilled for an hour, then finally made our way into the lot. It was crazy full but we finally made it on the lift so it was worth it.”

Some students said they take a more aggressive approach, looking to beat the peak crowds.

“When there’s a big storm coming in, myself and friends will leave for the canyon around 5:30-5:45 a.m. to beat the road closure, depending on the timing of it that day,” said 22-year-old economics major Jay Burrows.

According to Brandon Ott, director of marketing at Alta Ski Area, the resort has had no increase in parking since the 2002 Olympics despite continued growth.

“We’ve seen an explosion of growth at both ski areas and in the backcountry community,” Ott said.

Some place blame on local officials for not addressing the problem sooner.

“The lack of foresight from officials in the last ten years has left us with this problem, and now we are likely going to be stuck with it for the next ten years,” Jay Dash said.

Some look to mass, public transit as a potential solution but that plan also comes with downsides, said Jamie Kent, board member and past president of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance.

“Mass transit could be a solution, but the mountains might not be able to hold it,” Kent said. “Think of a restaurant. You have a safe capacity, only a certain amount of people can fit. You can’t just keep packing people in, you have to have a limit. It’s hard for the community to give up their cars, if there’s an option to drive, people will drive.”

Brandon Ott said part of the challenge is encouraging people to change their behavior and encourage them to carpool or take public transit.

“New this year, a huge portion of our Wildcat parking lot is dedicated to carpool parking (3+),” Ott said. “We’ve also seen some great wins with the ski bus this year, ski bus ridership to Alta is up 25% from last year. I definitely give huge props to [Utah Department of Transportation] to putting more bus routes in at the key times.”

To bring more awareness to the traffic issue, Snowbird is also putting together a new app. Designed to help reduce traffic and carbon dioxide emissions in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the app provides benefits and prizes to top users, according to Snowbird’s website.

Even though some measures have been taken, many say it is not enough.

“The reality is that Alta sits 8 miles from a growing city with already over 1 million people,” Ott said. “For all of us as passionate skiers and winter enthusiasts, what ideas and thoughts do you have on how we can improve the situation? It’s on all of us to try and make it better than where it’s going.”

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Davis Lentz
Davis is a 22-year-old communication major at Westminster College who grew up in Rhode Island. He enjoys spending time in either the mountains or on the water and recently discovered he likes sushi.

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