Sports x Wasatch: The Situation in Little Cottonwood Canyon


Sophie Felici

A snowboarder at Alta, Utah after the first snow of the ski season on Oct. 23, 2022. (Photo by Sophie Felici | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Max Valva, Sports Writer


Located in the Wasatch Mountain Range, Little Cottonwood Canyon is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state of Utah. Known to locals as an adventurer’s playground, the canyon contains several of the area’s premier ski resorts. For years on end, the traffic up the canyon has been a issue in the skiing community. Avalanches, collisions and cars sliding off road while driving in the canyon during winter can not only be unpleasant for tourists, but dangerous as well. The Utah Department of Transportation has been working on cost-effective solutions for years now, but in 2020 the department came up with a game-changing solution that will forever alter the future of the canyon.

The solution: an air gondola. Common in many European ski resorts, the air gondola provides a long term solution that will provide safe transportation across Little Cottonwood Canyon — it would stretch eight miles, making it the longest in the world. The lift would begin at the base of the canyon and reach all the way to Alta Ski Resort. Each lift cabin would be able to hold up to 30 passengers and operate with sustained wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour. Being in the air, the gondolas would be able to avoid avalanches on the road that have previously left skiers and boarders snowed in. The idea will not totally eliminate road travel up the canyon, however, it will decrease the amount of traffic.

The production of the air gondola was decided this past August after a two-year-long debate between that or having a bus system. This debate was a very prominent one in the skiing community, as there were convincing arguments for both sides. Although at first glance, the bus idea seemed cheaper, the proposed system would have meant the construction of new bus lanes and the purchase of winterized buses, an estimated cost of $510 million. The gondola, in comparison, would cost more to build, at $592 million, but came with a cheaper plan of maintaining operations. While the bus system was a good idea, the gondola eventually became seen as the better option as decided by UDOT.

Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah on Dec. 28, 2019. (Photo by Abby Blackett | The Wasatch Magazine)

The final decision on choosing the gondola over the buses came down to environmental factors. An environmental impact study began at the start of 2018 to determine which method of transportation would be more beneficial for the environment. UDOT partnered with Utah Transit Authority and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service for the research. The study relied heavily on the long-term environmental effects as well as the public perception, as the communities’ input was a huge piece of the decision.

The team responsible for coming up with the idea for the air gondola even made a website titled Gondola Works, which highlights several of the benefits of the proposed plan. On the website, there is a detailed description of the positive effects a gondola would bring to the canyon and videos to help explain the use of the gondola.

The main focus in wanting to come up with a transportation plan was for the winter season, however, the use of the gondolas will be year-round. The maintenance for the gondola will also be cheaper during the summer months as not as many people will be traveling through the canyon. This is big news for mountain bikers as gondolas will be an easy method of transporting their bikes compared to the bus system.

However, there are still some fears in the local community. Many in the Greater Salt Lake area believe that ski resorts in the area will be more crowded than ever. Getting to the “Greatest Snow on Earth” has always been easier than most other resorts across the country, being less than a one-hour drive from the Salt Lake Airport. They believe that adding a brand-new flashy gondola will add to the already tourist-heavy skiing and make it harder to enjoy for locals. Some even see it as a marketing ploy to generate more income. Students for the Wasatch, a group of University of Utah students who are against the gondola, have held events to raise awareness for protecting the affected lands, among other objectives.

While the news has garnered mixed emotions, it may be several years until we see the final product. But for some, after years of trekking up the canyon through all sorts of conditions, it will be worth the wait.


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