As Utah’s ski tourism grows, locals’ needs are neglected

The world’s longest gondola is proposed as a traffic solution in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but residents oppose this project.

At 6:45 a.m. on a recent powder day, the notorious “red snake” — the locals’ not-so-affectionate name for the winding line of vehicle taillights — formed at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah, extending for miles down Wasatch Boulevard towards Salt Lake City. Adam Fleming, an employee at a local ski area, met his fellow liftees at the Park & Ride overflow lot, which was already full, and climbed into a van to join the hundreds of cars sitting bumper to bumper, inching their way across intersections and into the mouth of the canyon. That day, Fleming’s 15-mile, unpaid commute took an hour and a half. “When you’re only making $17 an hour, an unpredictable commute is insufferable,” said Fleming.


Ski tourism is on the rise in the state, and the congestion is just getting worse. The 2021-2022 season in Utah broke records for skier visitation at 5.8 million visitors, according to a report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “Five or six years ago, it would take me 30 to 40 minutes, but people weren’t lining up for miles and miles and miles to enter the canyon,” says Lucy Mower, a Salt Lake City resident. “After seven years of living in Utah and coming here for access, I find myself questioning if it’s really worth this stress.”

In response, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has attempted to find a traffic solution to accommodate peak season in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The proposed fix? An 8-mile-long gondola — the longest in the world — that would run from the base of the canyon straight to the doors of two ski areas, Alta and Snowbird, delivering 1,000 passengers per hour.

“After seven years of living in Utah and coming here for access, I find myself questioning if it’s really worth this stress.”

Skiers in the parking lot at Alta Ski Area. An 8-mile-long gondola is proposed to run from the base of the canyon to the doors of Alta and Snowbird, delivering 1,000 passengers per hour.
David Jackson

It would pass over, but not stop at, more than a dozen trailheads used by backcountry skiers, snowshoers and sledders. Visitors could still drive, but they’d pay an estimated $25 to $30 toll just below Snowbird. The cost of this $1.2-billion development will likely fall on taxpayers and would “benefit a narrow and privileged class of Utahns — those who can afford to ski and choose to do so,” said former town of Alta Mayor Harris Sondak in a public letter. UDOT received over 13,000 public comments about its decision, most expressing opposition to the gondola.

Tourist-centered development isn’t anything new: It’s happening in mountain towns across the West as residents and employees are priced out of housing while vacation rentals and second homes thrive. But the gondola isn’t a commercial development: It’s a state transportation project with mandatory fees, like the gondola ticket or a road toll, that would weigh heavier on locals than tourists. Utah ski visitors spent $2.35 billion in the 2021/2022 season. Meanwhile, the median household income in Salt Lake City in 2021 was $65,880, while 14.7% of residents lived in poverty, compared to the national rate of 11.6%. The cost of access is a huge factor for recreationists: A daily fee as low as $5 for public-land use would deter 49% of low-income people from visiting the area, compared to 33% of high-income respondents, a 2000 study in the Journal of Leisure Research found. Tickets for the gondola will likely be much higher than that.

The gondola’s critics say its primary beneficiaries are corporations and politicians. It caters to resorts like Snowbird and Alta, Carl Fisher, the executive director of the nonprofit Save Our Canyons, said: “It’s all about getting people to ski resorts, it’s not about helping the average person enjoy a day in the Wasatch Mountains.” GondolaWorks, the coalition that supports the gondola, includes Snowbird, Alta Ski Area, CW Management Corp (a development company owned by prominent state and local politicians with land surrounding the gondola base site), Ski Utah (the marketing arm of Utah Ski & Snowboard Association), and Utah Clean Cities (an environmental coalition with a UDOT board member). GondolaWorks and Snowbird did not respond to requests for comment.

Traffic winds up Little Cottonwood Canyon on a Sunday in March. The notorious “red snake,” — locals’ not-so-affectionate name for the line of vehicle taillights — extends for miles down Wasatch Boulevard towards Salt Lake City.
David Jackson

Salt Lake City and County officials oppose the gondola and favor cheaper, more flexible alternatives. In a public letter, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson pushed for a plan that included more buses, as well as things like multi-passenger occupancy incentives and traction device enforcement to keep traffic moving. Many residents see it as a threat to the incredible natural spaces nearby. Alex Burlison, a resident and climber, often visits Little Cottonwood Canyon to find solitude. “To have this massive construction humming above your head at all times will ruin the magic of the place,” he said.

 “We need more holistic regional transpor-tation solutions.” 

Both residents and experts say the problems in Little Cottonwood Canyon are just a larger symptom of Salt Lake City’s public transportation problems. In a 2021 inclusivity planning focus group hosted by Envision Utah, respondents said that the “lack of public transit makes places difficult to reach.” This year, the Utah Transit Authority reduced its bus service in the canyons, citing driver shortages. “On the first day the bus system opened, it was packed to the gills,” says Fleming. One day, “the buses were so full they skipped one of the stops. There were over 300 people waiting for a bus.”

UDOT’s environmental analysis acknowledges that the gondola would not eliminate traffic on the way to the canyons. “When you put that gondola in, you’re kicking the can down the road — you’re just moving the bottleneck,” said Danya Rumore, director of the Wallace Stegner Center Environmental Dispute Resolution Program. “We need more holistic regional transportation solutions.” Fisher noted that the plan “requires you to have an automobile to get to the base, which isn’t removing cars from the congested area.” The same red snake would form, only to end at a parking lot with 2,500 spots and a queue for the gondola.

The Transportation Department’s final decision will come in summer 2023, and many roadblocks — like securing funding — stand in the way of the project’s construction. For Salt Lake City residents, the fight isn’t over. “The public can still engage,” Wilson told HCN. “Contacting local state representatives is a critical step for those opposing.”

Hannah Singleton is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. She primarily covers outdoor sports, public lands and the environment, and holds a master’s degree in environmental studies. Her work appears in The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Forbes, SELF and other publications. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the correct title of the program Danya Rumore oversees.