Traffic piles up along with powder at Snowbasin resort; operators explain options

Saturday , March 03, 2018 - 5:00 AM

The last week of February was unusually snowy for 2018.

As the powder piled up, so did the cars leading to Snowbasin resort, along with skier and rider frustrations. Traffic backed up along Snow Basin Road and all the way down Trapper’s Loop before the lifts even began spinning.

“It’s gotten worse this year,” said Shadow Valley resident Monica Williams of the traffic. “Last year on a Sunday morning we could leave the house at 8:30 a.m. and get there by 9.”

This season, however, Williams and her family don’t bother to leave early. They monitor Snowbasin social groups on Facebook, where they can see pictures of cars backed up along Trapper’s Loop and read complaints about hour-long waits just to park.

It’s just not worth it, she said.

Some opt to shorten the wait by parking along the highway instead of waiting in line to park at the main Earl’s and Maples lots. 

“This is dangerous because this puts people on the road when there are a lot of cars and icy roads,” said Alan McKean, who’s been skiing at Snowbasin for more than 10 years. “It is only a matter of time until someone gets hit on the road.”

Skiers and riders like McKean are especially frustrated about the Wildcat lot. It’s the first parking lot drivers see as they approach the resort and it’s almost always closed. 

“This lot would be great for a locals lot or (as) a lot where most of us would pay for this premium parking,” McKean said. “Whatever (the) reason it is, it seems like Snowbasin is not catering to locals, they prefer out-of-town skiers being funneled to the lodge to make money.” 

It’s hard to tell how much visitation has increased — or not — at the mountain resort. Snowbasin is privately owned and doesn’t provide numbers on daily use, season pass sales or where customers are coming from.

Utah Department of Transportation numbers provide a clue as to how traffic to the mountain is changing. The department counts cars going up and down State Route 226. The three-mile long highway connects with Trapper’s Loop and is the only road that currently accesses the resort (UDOT calls this road “Snow Basin Road,” although the resort name is one word, “Snowbasin”).

UDOT compiles the counts by year and creates an average daily traffic count, which shows slow but steady growth in the number of people driving to the mountain since 2004. But it’s nowhere near the volumes seen in 2001, 2002 and 2003 — years that likely saw a boost due to the Winter Olympics.

There are a few things to note about UDOT’s data. First, the numbers are just an estimate. UDOT collects its counts once every three years and it has to collect the numbers in the summer because snowplows would ruin its counting equipment.

Second, because the daily numbers are an average and an estimate, they don’t provide information on how traffic varies by day or by season.

“They take all the traffic that happens in a year, average it by 365 and that’s how they get the average annualized daily traffic,” said Vic Saunders, spokesman for UDOT Region One. “Certain times of year there’s hardly any traffic to Snowbasin, right? In the winter it’s going to be a lot more heavy.”

UDOT’s traffic data crunchers said winter traffic is probably under-represented by the figures. 

Third, the daily traffic averages double-count cars, because they measure the amount of traffic going to and from the resort. Snowbasin doesn’t currently have any overnight accommodations. There’s no other open road that leaves the resort, so it’s reasonable to assume a car will get counted once when it travels to the resort and again when it leaves.

The takeaway? Traffic is confusing, complex and anecdotal observations are hard to prove.

“People are just positive, for example, that no snowplows were out on Monday during the morning commute, because they didn't see any at a certain time and place,” Saunders said. “But I can go into our snowplow monitoring and show them while they were texting and doing other things on the road that there were indeed snowplows out on the interstate or other state roadway, usually in front of them or caught behind them in the same mess they were in.”

Samantha Kase, director of marketing and public relations for Snowbasin, says she understands customer concerns about parking and traffic, but that the resort has only seen a few days each year where parking becomes a problem. All of them, she said, were on big snow days.

“I don't believe we face any larger issue than most resorts, and it is something resorts across Utah, Colorado, California, etc. are increasingly dealing with,” she said in an email. “It is simply a volume issue, when everyone comes at the same time and it takes time for them to slow down and park.”

She encourages visitors to take UTA’s ski bus. A season-long pass costs $10 and it’s free for Snowbasin employees.  But the ski bus seems to be causing frustrations of its own.

The route from Ogden to Snowbasin proved popular when it debuted for the 2013-14 season, with 751 bus passes sold. Those numbers took a big dive the following season, with only 411 passes sold.

The ski bus to Snowbasin got another boost in 2016 when UTA began offering service from Layton, but pass sales dropped again the following year.

The reason seems to stem from scheduling — some Snowbasin patrons don’t like the limited number of buses running each day. The routes only have a few time slots in the morning and don’t return to Weber or Davis counties until close to the resort’s closing time.

For visitors like Williams, the ski bus’s limited departure times are tough to juggle with her work and family schedules.

“I don’t usually stay all day,” she said. “It’s hard when you leave at 8:15 and can’t come back until 3 in the afternoon.”

Ski bus issues aside, Kase pointed to several other efforts to improve traffic flows at Snowbasin. Last summer, the mountain operators expanded their Canyon Rim lot — the parking area near the flags as visitors turn left to go toward the main lodge and lifts. They’re working on parking several areas at a time on heavy visitation days and have added a carpool area near the front of the Earl’s lot to encourage cars with three or more visitors.  

As for the Wildcat lot, Kase confirmed that the resort only parks cars there when all the other lots are full.

“The reason for this is to avoid confusion for those not familiar to our resort,” she said. 

That’s because visitors that park at Wildcat need to ski to the base to access services like the ticket window, rental shop and restaurants. 

A lot of that confusion seems solvable by installing signs, and Kase said they’re open to suggestions by locals and long-time customers.

“We have considered many options for that lot, including paid parking for pass holders and are considering that option for the future,” she said. 

In the meantime, Kase discourages parking along Snow Basin Road, or SR 226, near the often-closed Wildcat lot.

“Parking along the road in that area is not permitted. It is a state road and anyone parking there can be ticketed if the state enforces the signs stating no parking,” Kase said. “We agree that it is unsafe and it is also illegal.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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