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‘Everybody’s excited’ about Utah’s early snow. But will travel be an issue this season?

SHARE ‘Everybody’s excited’ about Utah’s early snow. But will travel be an issue this season?
Ashton Mateny, of Orem, finds fresh snow in the trees at Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.

Ashton Mateny, of Orem, finds fresh snow in the trees at Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

The snowstorms that have pounded Utah's mountains couldn't have come at a better time in the year for Utah's 15 resorts, says Nathan Rafferty, the president and CEO of Ski Utah.

The mixture of moisture and cold air from the storms helped resorts maximize their snow manufacturing operations, so they could tack onto what Mother Nature provided. This helped Utah ski resorts open earlier than usual this year. Brian Head Resort's opening day on Nov. 4, for example, marked the fourth-earliest start for Utah's ski season on record.

Brighton Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort followed suit, moving up their opening dates to last week because of the strong snow figures in the mountains, while Snowbird Resort and Snowbasin Resort moved their opening dates to this Friday to open on the same day as Alta Ski Area.

In Snowbasin's case, the resort is celebrating its earliest opening date ever in its 83 years of operation.

Park City Mountain Resort is also scheduled to begin operations this week, opening on Wednesday.

"People get grumpy when it doesn't snow early in the ski season, and there (have been) a lot of happy people the past few weeks," Rafferty said, speaking at Ski Utah's annual ski season opening conference on Monday. "We're happy to bring that momentum along with us."

Utah's other eight resorts open either in December or haven't announced an opening date yet, as of Monday.

  • Deer Valley Resort: Dec. 3.
  • Nordic Valley Resort: Dec. 9.
  • Sundance Mountain Resort: Dec. 9.
  • Eagle Point Resort: Dec. 16.
  • Beaver Mountain: TBA.
  • Cherry Peak Resort: TBA.
  • Powder Mountain: TBA.
  • Woodward Park City: TBA.

There are a handful of reasons why some resorts will open later or have yet to announce their opening date. Emily Summers, the spokeswoman for Deer Valley Resort, explained that the Park City resort tends to open later in the season than other resorts regardless of early conditions. It traditionally eyes an opening date on the first Saturday of December, which is the case this year.

"That's initial, and we do that because we're committed to offering kind of the best on-mountain and off-mountain guest service experience possible," she said. "So when we open, we want to make sure we have a really solid base, a lot of terrain — the most as possible — open and are fully staffed to handle what we're expecting."

This year's snow means that the resort will likely have more terrain available on Dec. 3, Summers added.

It's a different story at Eagle Point Resort in Beaver County, though. Darin Day, a spokesman for the resort, said it has "favorable" snow conditions but it doesn't have the staff ready to open at the moment. Given its location in remote southern Utah, the resort has turned to employees from South America on exchange visitor visas just to meet customer demand.

And the demand is there.

"(People) are ready to go," he said. "We're all excited — everybody's excited."

A much better start

Ski Utah holds the event every year around mid-November, spotlighting the state's resorts and the conditions in the mountains. This season's early ski season produced a noticeably different vibe compared to last year's conference.

Utah's snowpack is listed at 313% of normal for this time of the year, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service data collected Monday afternoon. This figure is also about three times higher than it was this time last year. It also took until mid-December for last year's statewide snowpack to reach the level it is at right now.

"This is probably our best start, we're thinking, since 2004," Rafferty said. "And, knock on wood, we're going to keep rolling into a great ski season."

People ride the lift at Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday.

People ride the lift at Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Alta is one of the areas that's received the most snow so far, receiving nearly 8½ feet of snow already for a base of 51 inches, said Andria Huskinson, the resort's spokeswoman. The base is about double where it was during its opening day last year.

"It is a winter wonderland," she said of the conditions at the resort right now. "We're going to have a lot of terrain open."

The state received tons of mountain snow in October 2021 but a warm, dry spell toward the end of the month into November 2021 made it impossible for resorts to take advantage. Rafferty explained that the snow wasn't usable, meaning that resorts had to wait for another strong wave in December to get going.

Labor shortages and other issues tied to the COVID-19 pandemic led to all sorts of other issues for resorts to deal with. Despite all of these constraints, the 2021-22 season produced a record-breaking 5.8 million skier visits.

"Last season was as difficult as it was successful. We had challenges with snow. we had really significant challenges with labor — and all those things seem to be looking a lot better this year," Rafferty said. "(It's) still not perfect but getting better."

He added that he isn't willing to project how many people will hit the slopes this winter; however, he does expect those eager to hit the slopes will be happy once they're on them just from the storms so far.

"I will project that we are going to have a lot of happy skiers and snowboarders this year," he said. "If we have the same numbers as last year, I would be thrilled. This snowfall is certainly going to help that a ton. It was amazing that we set that record last year with below-average snowfall, so I think we're going to be in really good shape this year."

Dealing with traffic

That's not to say there aren't some concerns heading into this ski season, such as the employee situation at Eagle Point.

Another issue might be traffic at some resorts. Utah Transit Authority, which is dealing with its own employee shortages, announced in September that it would reduce its ski bus service this winter because it doesn't have enough drivers to handle the regular schedule. This may mean more traffic, especially in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons this year compared to last winter.

The Wasatch Mountains' first ski weekend — before ski bus service starts — offered a glimpse into the possible traffic concerns. The excitement over the early snow quickly led to logistical mayhem, especially in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Skiers and snowboarders strap in and take photos before taking a run at Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday.

Skiers and snowboarders strap in and take photos before taking a run at Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Jake Brown, the Cottonwood canyons roadway operations manager with the Utah Department of Transportation, said there were at least 6,000 cars that traveled into two canyons every day this weekend to enjoy the snow at Brighton and Solitude.

"We don't have room to park everybody up there," he said. "Roadway parking got out of control. The resort parking lots were full and it just becomes sort of mass chaos out there. We had a lot of people parking where (there was a) sign saying 'No Parking,' and we had a lot of people parking on the shoulder but straddling the white line coming into traffic."

UDOT is behind a plan to overhaul Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic through a gondola and expanded bus service but that's a long-term project. Brown said it's important that skiers take the bus — even if there are fewer available buses — on busy days or carpool to help avoid parking issues.

"If we get a lot of snow, we're going to expect a lot of people up the canyons," he said, adding that UDOT may use uphill restriction at times if the traffic is bad enough this winter.

On the bright side, the early snow likely means that more resorts can open and there will be more days for people to ski and snowboard at the resorts.

More snow would continue to make it possible for skiers to spread out their trips to Utah's resorts and lessen the demand at times, Rafferty said.

"We'll see things spread out rapidly this next week," he said, referencing four resorts opening later this week. "Things will get back to normal pretty quickly."