One day last February, a simple lack of parking denied access to the four resorts in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons—Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, and Solitude. The two-lane roads closed to uphill traffic, and skiers and snowboards that hit the snooze button missed a day on snow. Every parking space in the canyons was flat out occupied. “That was the first time I can remember that happening,” says Ski Utah president Nathan Rafferty. “The ski areas weren’t too crowded. And that’s an important distinction. There was plenty of room on the hill, but no more parking.”
Elsewhere the solution would be easy, if shortsighted: add more parking. And Solitude did indeed add 75 parking spaces this past summer. But the Little Cottonwood resorts can’t, and some would say shouldn’t, pave their way out of the problem. The ski areas and the evermore-popular backcountry terrain around them reside in the Salt Lake City watershed. And parking lots and automobiles don’t play nice with watersheds. Statewide, Utah resorts experienced a 42 percent increase in skier days since the 2002 Olympic Games. So the question becomes: How do you get the growing skier base to the hill?
Over the years there’s been steady talk of trains and bus service and the like, but in late September, an unexpected proposal came from the Canyons (on the Park City side of the Wasatch) and Solitude (in Big Cottonwood). In their plan, a tram or chairlift would bridge the Wasatch ridgeline, beginning near the top of Dream Peak at the Canyons and running over the range to the lower Solitude entrance in Big Cottonwood Canyon. “Both areas have overnight lodging and both areas have cars exiting the resort every morning to drive to the other one,” says Mike Goar, managing director at the Canyons. Traveling between the two resorts would take five and a half minutes by tram or 12 minutes by high-speed chairlift—a small fraction of the 50-minute-plus drive time in winter. “We both believe that our customers are looking for more of an alpine adventure than what one single resort can provide,” says Dave DeSeelhorst, general manager of Solitude. The Canyons expects to begin the approval process in the next few weeks, according to Goar.
The proposal is billed as a way to take cars off the road by the thousands, decreasing the production of greenhouse gases and moving people in a safer way.
Carl Fisher, the executive director of Save Our Canyons, however, is concerned by the proposed infrastructure. “The associated development that comes with interconnecting and bringing more people into the headwaters of our watershed needs to be the forefront concern,” he says. Fisher also suggests that the resorts are billing the interconnection as a transportation solution in an attempt to tap into public funds.
The debate is just getting started, and op-eds in the Oct. 17 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune from Fisher and Ted Wilson, director of government affairs for Talisker (owner of the Canyons), suggest a resolution will not come easily. More immediately, the Utah Transit Authority recently launched a commuter bus service from Salt Lake to Park City, with services set to expand in December. The Ski Service bus already runs to resorts in the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. Current studies are underway to evaluate other options for improving transportation in Salt Lake County. And TRAX, a light rail system around Salt Lake City, is scheduled to include the airport before 2015, raising more possibilities for the future.
For Rafferty, a train ferrying people from the airport directly to resorts is not out of the question. “The bottom line is the resorts do an incredible job delivering the experience when you get to the ski area,” he says. “But for a local or destination skier that’s only part of their day. They still have to get to and from the ski area, and that experience is rapidly deteriorating.”
To that order, the proposed tram—and the theoretical train—is a step towards the European model of connected ski resorts accessed by public transportation, a shift that proponents think could catch on in the Wasatch. In Europe, skiers decrease their carbon footprints without missing out on their powder turns, taking a train all or part of the way to the resort. From there, lifts and trails connect resorts, or even countries, and base areas become exhaust-free walking villages. “A multi-resort ski circuit is very common in Europe, but there really aren’t any in North America,” says Goar. “Whether the other [Utah] resorts join in or connect at some point remains to be seen. But I can say that I think it’s a good idea and it’s got great potential.” —Olivia Dwyer