Cardiff Fork has been the site of some controversy over the last few years between illegal yurt and cat ski operations and confrontations over crossing private lands to access public lands. It’s also a prized zone for backcountry touring with a large parking lot that fills up almost every weekend. Last year, in 2023, the landowners association declined to renew their special use permit with the Forest Service, which allowed them to access their land via motorized means in exchange for allowing public access through their property. Allowing the permit to expire, has created confusion about how the public can access the public lands in Cardiff. Additionally, the gate just above the summer parking area for Donut Falls has been locked by the Forest Service this summer for the first time in many years.
Recently, the Forest Service sent in a few surveyors to re-establish forest boundaries in the greater Cardiff Fork area to begin the long process of creating accuracy in property boundaries, which will help with clarification of private vs public lands and access. We will continue to monitor this situation closely and provide updates as the snow begins to fall.
Upper Little Cottonwood
Upper LCC is another prized zone for backcountry touring, but has undergone significant changes to the parking- and therefore access. It’s a complicated zone- a mix of ownership between public Forest Service lands, the Town of Alta, Alta Ski Lifts, and a state road. We have had numerous meetings with ALS and the FS over the years. In 2019, we were told by our local Forest Service managers that Alta Ski Lifts (ASL) could not restrict parking, because, by statute, 16 USC 497, public access to and use and enjoyment of National Forest lands is to be maintained despite any special use permits- which ASL operates mainly on National Forest (public lands) with a Special Use Permit. WBA was relieved that access to some of our most prized backcountry terrain in the Wasatch would remain unfettered. Unfortunately, in 2021/2022 the Forest Service changed their interpretation of the permit and allowed ASL to charge the public for parking. Their rationale was that because there is not an official Forest Service trailhead in upper LCC, therefore ASL can technically charge for parking. While we agree that a reservation system is needed and has proven to help reduce canyon congestion, we would like to see a system in place that more easily allows for dawn patrols, and is priced more fairly for backcountry users.
Parking issues in the Central Wasatch
As we all know, backcountry touring many times begins at or near the ski resorts, and there have been big changes to the parking programs at each resort that will undoubtedly affect backcountry users as well. We have been actively working with highway managers, the resorts, and the Forest Service to ensure backcountry access is still allowed. This is an ongoing effort, and other areas are more favorable to backcountry users than others.
In response to the congestion cluster, pay-to-play, and restricted early morning parking situation in upper LCC, we created a Saturday Shuttle service to help backcountry users access prized areas like Grizzly Gulch, Superior, the Emma’s, and Wolverine Cirque. Since 2016, WBA partnered with Utah Mountain Shuttles to put on an Annual Free Shuttle Day to help bring awareness to transportation issues and provide examples of how existing infrastructure and technology can be part of the solution. With funding support from Backcountry.com and the Central Wasatch Commission, we can offer this service every Saturday through the winter season. After a successful first season in LCC during the 2021/2022, we were able to expand and offer the shuttle in both BCC and LCC as of the 2022/2023 season.
We have been actively engaged in the discussion surrounding transportation issues in the Cottonwood Canyons. While we were optimistic that a solution would soon be underway to the transportation woes, we were disappointed to see that only LCC was being considered. We know that these canyons are connected systems and what happens in one, impacts the others. As things currently stand, UDOT released their Record Of Decision (ROD) to move forward with their plans for the world’s longest — and most expensive — gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon despite widespread criticism of the idea.
However, they did hedge a bit and intend to move forward with a phased approach including enhanced bus service, snow sheds in avalanche paths, and tolling for vehicles, with the gondola scheduled to begin construction far down the road, so to speak. We are supportive of enhanced bus service, snow sheds in avalanche paths, and tolling for vehicles, but firmly oppose the gondola. The Wasatch Front Regional Council has added verbiage stating that phase 3 needs to be evaluated based on the success of phases 1 and 2. We are actively working with elected officials to get the quantitative metrics that will define “success” so we have an understanding of how this will be measured.
WBA’s winter trailhead counter project provides the first-ever long-term record of non-motorized winter recreational use in the Central Wasatch. For years we’ve all heard variations of opinion on how many more people there are in the backcountry these days. What our data can do is to give us numbers – not perfect, but better than nothing which was the only information available before this project began. WBA’s all-volunteer project collects user numbers from infrared counters at fifteen sites in Millcreek, Big Cottonwood, and Little Cottonwood Canyons from December 1 to May 1.
In the height of COVID, we hosted digital roundtable discussions that we turned into podcasts called “The Uptrack” which focused on Transportation Solutions for Little Cottonwood Canyon. The goal was to answer our questions associated with the UDOT EIS proposals and share them with the community. WBA is planning to bring back regular podcasts to help share information within the community. Listen to our original episodes here, and stay tuned for new episodes this season by subscribing to our email list.
We have historically been a behind-the-scenes advocacy organization. We recognize the importance of a community and are making a bigger effort to foster a local backcountry community. From updates on the snowpack, master classes in backcountry travel, film festivals, member meet-ups, and more. Visit our events page to see our latest schedule.