Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It's not exactly native to Utah, but it sure finds a home here often. It's most commonly seen in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons during days of heavy snowfall and holidays, although in recent years it seems to rear its head every weekend.
It's massive and cumbersome. It can span miles, leaving gas tanks empty, children crying and tourists fuming.
It's the often miles-long line of glowing red taillights that plagues the canyons on busy days, sometimes going up, sometimes going down.
Locals call it the red snake.
Over the past year, data suggests the red snake comes out during the offseason, too. Six of the 10 busiest days in the Cottonwood canyons outside of Salt Lake City — home to the "greatest snow on earth" — have occurred since Sept. 25, according to Utah Department of Transportation data.
During the weekend of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' general conference, an average of 10,000 cars each day drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon. On busy ski days, when traffic sometimes comes to a standstill along Wasatch Boulevard, even backing up onto I-215, that same canyon will see between 6,000 and 7,400 cars.
It's unclear if that's a reliable sign of what's to come this winter. A combination of general conference, Snowbird's Oktoberfest, Park City's Wine Festival and the stunning fall foliage likely resulted in a perfect storm of traffic over that weekend.
But whether you talk with resort employees, backcountry advocates, traffic officials or your typical Utah skier, everyone is gearing up for a busy winter in the central Wasatch.
"It seems like it will be busy. I think everyone is anticipating that," said Mark Staples, Utah Avalanche Center director. "For whatever reason, I'll let everyone else figure that out. But there are a lot of people in the mountains."
Lessons from a record-breaking year
The winter of 2020-21 was record-breaking for all of Utah's 15 ski resorts, which collectively saw 5.3 million skier days, according to data compiled by Ski Utah.
A skier day is defined as one person skiing or snowboarding at a resort during any part of a day or night.
It's an increase of 176,325 skier days from the previous record, set during the 2018-19 season
Alison Palmintere, director of communications for Ski Utah, doesn't expect the trend to change, noting that as the pandemic simmers, people who spent the last winter at home might book that ski vacation they held off on last year.
"It seems like people have the travel bug back and are looking to make ski trips again this year," she said.
And with the increasing popularity of the Ikon and Epic passes — Ikon from Alterra, Epic from Vail, and both giving customers access to many resorts around the country — Palmintere said "people will want to hit more than one resort."
But she also said having more kids back in school and less people working remotely could cut back on the crowds resorts saw last season.
Traffic in the canyons has long been the subject of debate. In the spring, UDOT will recommend one of two proposed solutions in Little Cottonwood Canyon — an 8-mile, $592 million gondola or a $510 million widened road and enhanced bus service.
Data from UDOT shows a steady increase in traffic over the last five years. In January 2019, the canyons averaged 9,452 cars each day, the highest monthly average for daily traffic ever recorded. Numbers tapered off in 2020, largely due to the resorts abruptly closing. But in December 2020, the average jumped back up to 8,329, an increase of 488 from December 2019 and second-highest average recorded for that month.
"There's a lot of factors that play a role, but any way you look at it over the last two or three seasons, the popularity just continues to grow," said John Gleason, spokesman for UDOT.
Part of that growing popularity means traffic isn't isolated to holidays or powder days anymore — parking lots are filling up and traffic delays are now common on weekends regardless of conditions.
"The last few years have really been an indicator that people aren't necessarily looking for those incredible powder days or holiday weekends, we're seeing that backup and long red line of brake lights and vehicles that are trying to get up on pretty much every weekend," Gleason said.
Palmintere's main takeaway from last year? Get creative. Carpool, avoid the resorts during peak times and try to ski during the week.
"Last year was a really good example of how we can spread out skier days," she said. "Even though we had a record-breaking year skier visit-wise, we didn't really break any (daily) records."
Predicting traffic is a 'crapshoot,' but experts still expect a busy winter
It's impossible to predict whether this winter will be busier for resorts than the year prior.
Trends suggest it could be, although many in the ski industry warn against using last winter as a model for what's to come — with daily COVID-19 cases hitting record levels in December 2020, skiing emerged as a safe way to recreate outside and people flocked to the mountains. Most ski resorts abandoned their push to promote carpooling, and bus ridership dropped. Single-occupant cars flooded the canyons, and on many weekends the towns of Alta and Brighton were forced to turn people away due to a lack of parking.
Season pass sales offer a small window into how busy the winter could be, but resorts are usually tight-lipped when it comes to numbers.
Alta Ski Resort said sales are "a little bit up," with communications manager Andria Huskinson telling the Deseret News season pass numbers have "been on an up-trend the last couple years, but nothing much."
And a September report from Vail pointed to a 42% increase in passes sold and a roughly 17% increase in sales dollars compared to the same period in 2020.
"We saw strong unit growth from renewing pass holders and significantly stronger unit growth from new pass holders," Vail CEO Rob Katz said in a press release.
Other ski resorts declined to comment on pass sales.
The emergence of the Ikon and Epic passes, both of which now dominate the industry, is often blamed for the growing crowds at ski resorts. Spend some time up either Big or Little Cottonwood canyons, and you're bound to see a sticker of the "Ikon" logo with a red dash through it.
It's a sentiment common in ski communities around the country, with "Stop Ikonisizing Aspen," "Ikon't ski" and "Trump has an Ikon pass" stickers popping up.
While the Ikon or Epic passes could be a factor, most resort representatives say that it's the state's growing population — Utah is the fastest-growing state in the country, per census data — and the increasing popularity of skiing that have created long lines and traffic jams in the canyons.
"The valley is growing dramatically, and I think more people are skiing in general," said Huskinson, noting that traffic is getting increasingly worse on holidays, when the Ikon pass is blacked out. "It's a combination of all of those things, it's hard to pinpoint ... the traffic in the canyon isn't just because of the Ikon pass, even though a lot of people think it is."
Resorts have made recent changes to mitigate congestion in their parking lots — Alta is moving to a reservation system on weekends and holidays, Snowbird is allowing skiers to reserve parking for a fee, Solitude has implemented paid parking with rates adjusted to promote carpooling, and the town of Brighton is restricting parking along serval stretches of road in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
And while past trends in some ways serve as the best forecast for traffic and crowds this season, predicting how busy the resorts will be is a little like predicting the weather.
"It's kind of a crapshoot," said Huskinson.
More traffic in the canyon means more traffic in the backcountry
People flocked into the backcountry in 2021, possibly a result of the crowds at ski resorts.
The nonprofit Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, which tracks trailhead use, reported a 20% increase in traffic at some of the more popular backcountry trailheads. Staples said the Utah Avalanche Center saw a "dramatic" rise in web traffic. And ski shops along the Wasatch Front were frequently sold out of backcountry gear.
"We're really concerned about safety as more and more people are enjoying the sport," said Brad Rutledge, co-founder and board member of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance. "There's more people at parking lots, trailheads and trails."
"More and more people are learning about avalanches, more and more people are taking our classes and using our products," said Staples, noting that avalanche centers around the country saw an increase in web traffic and people signing up for classes. "It's a good thing. It means they're watching conditions and getting more educated."
But the lure of the backcountry and its increasing popularity creates some difficulty for the Utah Avalanche Center, whose ultimate goal is to keep people safe through education.
A crowded backcountry can create a dangerous backcountry — for instance, a group may trigger an avalanche, whether by accident or intentionally, that could endanger a separate group farther down the mountain and out of sight.
And with more people new to the sport, it's likely more people are going into the backcountry without the proper training.
"The solution is rooted in education," says Rutledge. "You put yourself at risk, your party at risk, and the rest of the people on the mountain at risk if you lack the proper education."
"Hopefully everyone has a sense of how their actions might affect other people out there — or how other people might affect you," Staples said. "We're not the backcountry police. We're here to help. But there's an amount of personal responsibility, I think, to be aware of others."