The Case For Connecting Our Ski Resorts
This is a two-part series debating the pros and cons of connecting our canyons. This is the article FOR connecting our canyons. To read the article AGAINST connecting our canyons click here.
After spending the night at the idyllic Alta Lodge, you find yourself ready for another day of skiing, dining at some of the top restaurants in the world, and immersing yourself in cultural experiences native only to Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.
You get ready for your day, hit the snow, and effortlessly glide from your slopeside hotel to the chairlift at Alta Ski Area. This is where you spend a few hours skiing over glittering landscapes and breathing the crystalline air as your body swoops over the frozen earth―you’re captivated by the undeniable sensation that this is the closest you’ll ever feel to flight.
Then, in the afternoon, you stumble into a local coffee shop: you sit for an hour, sipping a mug of mulled cider, chatting with the locals about the weather, and where you should eat for dinner. You find yourself lost in the moment, laughing hysterically with the new friends you’ve made. Finally, you exchange contacts before getting ready to go back out into the snow.
You ski from Alta to Solitude Mountain Resort before finishing up your day in Park City for dinner at Handle, where you linger over crispy olives and sunchoke tostadas. As you pore over your meal, you can’t help but think about how you spent your day skiing over perfect, untouched powder.
The glistening runs seemed to go on forever, and in this case, it’s almost as if they really did. This is what Utah would look like if all six ski resorts in the Wasatch Mountains were connected. This is what the Wasatch Mountains could be—a winter sports dreamscape unlike anything else in the Western Hemisphere.
Doing so could transform the economy, improve the environment, and give more access to skiers of all abilities. And that’s the dream of ONE Wasatch: a concept that would unite six major ski resorts across the Wasatch Mountains, creating the largest contiguous ski experience in North America.
Bringing Europe to Utah
As the Financial Times explains, the Alps account for about 43 percent of global ski visits each year thanks to a ski area that spans France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. There is no denying that the linked ski resorts are a major draw for those who wish to ski their way through Europe. If implemented, ONE Wasatch would do the same.
The plan would connect six Utah ski areas: Park City, Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, Deer Valley, and Brighton (and also the towns of Park City, Brighton, and Alta), allowing skiers to ski through all six areas in one day―potentially with one lift ticket. Skiers would have access to over 18,000 acres of ski terrain and enjoy a ski experience culled together from numerous destinations.
Uniting all six resorts would be made possible by connecting Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons, connecting Big Cottonwood Canyon to Park City, and dropping the rope between Deer Valley and Park City. This would create year-round access to all parts of the Wasatch Mountains, effectively modernizing Utah’s ski economy by providing inter-resort ski connections.
Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah explains that ONE Wasatch “would be something new to the United States, but not something new world-wide, as the model is already widely used in Europe.” He goes on to say that this model would allow individuals to ski between towns, between ski villages, and between ski areas, giving skiers a sustainable, Alps-inspired adventure right here in the United States.
Rafferty goes on to explain the depth of this opportunity: “The main reason we like the concept of ONE Wasatch is we think it would be an improved and unique experience for the five million-plus skiers that come to Utah―that’s been our main focus. A lot of the guests that come and ski in Utah stand at the top of the Park City ski area and look over and see Solitude or Brighton, or they stand at the top of Solitude and think, ‘Hey, can you ski over there?’ Well, currently you can’t, but someday, maybe.”
And by skiing through towns and villages, individuals would be able to make contact with more restaurants and local shops than ever before. As a result, these local businesses would flourish, and contribute to the booming economy that’s already a part of Utah’s culture. “From a marketing perspective, having something that is unique to your area is always a benefit,” says Rafferty.
“We had a record year last year, but we still do only a third of the business that Colorado does. So, having something that keeps Utah top-of-mind, and having something that keeps Utah new and exciting would be amazing.”
Preserving our environment
“I look at ONE Wasatch as long-term sustainability for the ski industry in Utah,” says Rafferty. “A huge component of that is the transportation aspect. Putting somebody in a van and having them drive down one canyon and up another canyon when they could be doing it on their skis makes so much more sense today than it ever has.
“Today, more than ever, we need to be thinking about ways to move people into, out of, and between our resorts in ways that don’t involve rubber-wheeled vehicles,” says Rafferty. “Europe has been an innovator in mountain transportation for over a century. What can we learn from them, and thoughtfully put in place here, will mitigate our current traffic issues and serve generations of mountain lovers for the future.”
It’s true: connecting resorts would certainly reduce vehicle traffic. “When you’re in Park City, you’re eight miles from the town of Alta. I don’t have to tell you the benefits if you’re living in Park City. If I want to drive from Park City to Snowbird and Alta, that’s a 45-minute drive,” Rafferty explains.
“From an environmental standpoint, from a time-standpoint, it’s more sustainable to connect the resorts. I can start my day in Deer Valley or Park City and be at Solitude or Brighton by 10 AM, or vice versa… the same is true for skiing the other way, starting at Snowbird and having lunch in Park City followed by après and dinner on Historic Main Street. It just makes a whole lot of sense to have the ability to ski between these areas.
“Anything we can do to reduce vehicle traffic would help both air and water quality,” he adds. “Less cars is a goal everyone can agree upon.”
Additionally, there are some crucial safety benefits that come along with connecting all six ski resorts. “The Cottonwood Canyons,” which are currently not connected, “are seeing the majority of the traffic issues,” says Rafferty. “They’re dead-end canyons, and there are frequently issues with the canyons closing due to avalanche concerns or traffic accidents. Having only one route to exit the resort isn’t the case in Park City or any other ski area for that matter. But in the Cottonwoods there are 10 to 15 thousand people on a busy winter weekend who would be stuck if the road closes for a variety of reasons, but if both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons were connected, you theoretically could leave through another canyon.
“I think people would tell you the avalanches are a real safety concern. They can cause people to miss their flights and to miss their appointments, but what if someone has a real health issue? I’m not a safety expert, but if you have 10 to 15 thousand people stuck at the top of the canyon with no exit, that presents a real problem.
“If I ski over from Park city to Solitude, that relieves transportation. If you receive an alert on your phone that Little Cottonwood Canyon is closed, you could hop on a chairlift and slide into Big Cottonwood Canyon. The hot topic is this emergency ingress/egress.”
Clearly, connecting the resorts would create significant benefits for Utah’s environment as a whole, and also would offer unique opportunities to protect the people who live in the areas adjacent to the ski resorts. ONE Wasatch would truly allow Utah to participate in the contemporary shift towards environmental preservation and would allow the state to be an example of idealistic efforts towards sustainability.
Making a dream a reality
Already, it appears that the move towards fully connecting all six resorts is happening on a smaller scale. According to Rafferty, people currently can use the Ikon pass to ski between Brighton and Solitude (Big Cottonwood Canyon), and between Alta and Snowbird (Little Cottonwood Canyon).
“You can already ski between several of Utah’s ski areas, so the whole idea is getting easier and easier. Snowbird, Alta, Brighton, and Solitude are already connected with the same lift ticket. They’re all on the same software system too, so a pass reads at the same scanners at those four resorts.”
In addition, Park City Resort has absorbed Canyons Resort, a move that insinuates the push towards further connection. This initial connection certainly makes it seem like fully connecting all six resorts could be a reality in the near future. If ONE Wasatch is created, a skier could begin their day at Snowbird and ski all the way through Deer Valley―experiencing the cultural shifts of each resort and the many geographical undulations along the way.
According to onewasatch.com, the estimated cost to the public is $0. The concept would require $30 million in private funding to be created, much of that paid for by the resorts and devoted to lift infrastructure. Alta ski area is still looking at putting a chair lift in Grizzly Gulch, for instance, which would allow skiers to connect to Solitude.
“The funding is not the issue. There are some hoops that Alta would have to jump through to get a lift approved in Grizzly Gulch, but with their private ownership of the land, it’s just a matter of time,” says Rafferty. “Really, there has to be a desire from the ski areas to make these connections happen.
“Grizzly Gulch is a popular area to backcountry ski and I respect that. It’s ultimately a battle of land use. One group wants to use the land a certain way which is in conflict with the way another group wants to use it. And they can’t both use the land in their own desired way at the same time. It’s ultimately all about the almighty powder turn―a valuable commodity in the Wasatch.”
What is perhaps most interesting is the mention of a potential compromise to please both proponents of ONE Wasatch and backcountry skiers: a gondola that runs between the resort base areas, providing transportation between canyons without eliminating the backcountry terrain between them. The problem with the compromise is a simple one: who will pay for the gondola? If it doesn’t extend access to a resort’s ski terrain, the resort will be less likely to pay for it.
Nevertheless, Raffety thinks the compromise is a step in the right direction. “The gondola idea shows that there are options other than just skiing between ski areas. I’m not totally convinced it’s the best solution, but it’s something worth discussing.”
The implementation of ONE Wasatch in its entirety is still up for debate, though resorts are slowly progressing in that direction. As they do, Utah has the opportunity to become a uniquely efficient and sustainable international travel destination and the adventure capital of the United States. And that’s an idea that’s just as alluring to those who live in the state as it is to those who wish to visit it.