Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon is home to some of the best skiing on the globe at Alta and Snowbird, as well as some of the worst—and fastest-growing—ski traffic in the mountains. That’s why, in 2018, the Utah Department of Transportation dug into the largest traffic study ever done on the area, vetting some 124 proposed concepts to help alleviate the issue over the next decade or so.
Last month they narrowed it down to two solutions: widening the current highway to four lanes to incorporate more bus service, or installing a gondola from the base of the canyon to both of the ski resorts.
As one would imagine, both proposals have their supporters and detractors, but one thing the two concepts have in common is their massive price tags: an estimated $592 million for the gondola and $510 million to widen the road and add bus service.
The folks behind the gondola are GondolaWorks, a conglomerate of ski industry stakeholders from Snowbird, Alta, Ski Utah, and Powdr Corp, among others, who say that the imminent need is relieving congestion in LCC. According to GondolaWorks, 7,000 vehicles go into the canyon daily, producing 70 tons of carbon. What’s more, the highway into LCC is the most avalanche-prone in the U.S., with 64 active slide paths.
See Where the Gondola Could Be Installed
If built, the eight-mile gondola would be the longest of its kind by far in North America, with Whistler Blackcomb’s Peak 2 Peak gondola the closest comparison at 2.7 miles. The gondola is being touted by supporters as the environmentally friendly option that gets cars off of the road and addresses the avalanche risk that often closes the canyon for long periods of time.
Gondola riders would board one of 30 cabins, each of which can hold 35 people, ultimately transporting 1.050 people per hour. The ride to the resorts via the gondola would be 27 minutes to Snowbird and 37 minutes to Alta.
“The issue at hand is the number of vehicles in the canyon,” opined one gondola supporter on bus-proponent Wasatch Backcountry Alliance’s Instagram page. “The vast majority of vehicles in the canyon are used to access the resorts. Solve the biggest problem first. Gondola has light footprint (no widening roads), gondola does not have to stop during high snow, gondola does not create roadkill, dust, noise, ‘brake smell,’ or traffic jams.”
Detractors counter that there’s no guarantee that a gondola will get cars off the road below, and that it’s more likely to become just another way to cram more people into the canyon. They also worry it will become a tourist attraction, further endangering the canyon ecosystem. People also argue that the gondola serves the resorts, not the rest of the users of the canyons, as there’s currently no option to get off aside from at the base areas.
The bus proposal includes widening the highway to four lanes with the intention of greatly increasing bus service from Salt Lake City to the ski resorts. Buses would ride on peak-period shoulders in LCC and would depart every five minutes, totaling 24 buses an hour during peak times. Each bus would have a capacity of 42 people, transporting 1,008 people per hour.
“Buses all the way!! It’s a no brainer,” wrote one gondola opponent via WBA’s Instagram page. “The gondola doesn’t serve backcountry skiers, or other riders who want to get off NOT at the resorts. The gondola only serves the resorts.”
Bus opponents say that this doesn’t solve the problem of avalanche closures in the canyon and is not as kind to the environment as the gondola , all while still not guaranteeing to get more cars and air pollution out of the canyon.
Not surprisingly, this is a very complicated issue that needs to be looked at from every angle. WBA created a seven-episode podcast series, The Uptrack, deconstructing the issue and inviting a bevy of knowledgeable guests to weigh in. Listen to it here.
One thing everyone agrees on is that capacity is the real issue here, and that neither bus service nor gondola access address the underlying issue over potential overuse in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“We’ve been avoiding this capacity issue,” said the WBA’s Brad Rutledge in The Uptrack podcast. “We should be careful about what we built if we haven’t thought through what this might turn into, if we don’t consider the consequences of what this might become.”
UDOT is not expected to make a decision until after the upcoming 2021-’22 season, so watch this space for updates.