Is the Ikon Pass ruining Utah skiing? Some locals think so

Local News

Snow-covered slopes atop Alta Ski Area this morning (Courtesy of Alta Ski Area)

UTAH (ABC4) – Come ski season, the line of red taillights will stretch for miles around the twists and turns of the roads that lead up the Cottonwood Canyons. Both locals and out-of-towners alike will rise far before the crack of dawn to pull on their layers, pack their gear into the car, and head up the mountain.

Although skiing has always drawn tourists to Utah – specifically to the larger, more posh resorts like Park City, Deer Valley, and even Snowbird – recent years have seen an extreme uptick in out-of-state skiers and boarders trying out local favorites like Solitude, Brighton, and Alta.  

The Ikon Pass, a multi-resort mega pass launched in 2018, undoubtedly has something to do with it. In Utah, the pass gives access to all four resorts in the Cottonwood Canyons, as well as Deer Valley. And while the increase in clientele and exposure is keeping resorts happy, Ikon is a source of contention for the locals.

“There’s a lot of animosity that’s been growing within the local community towards the whole Ikon movement,” says Justin Pyper, a six-year resident of Brighton and owner of a local-focused merch store, called Utah Sucks, Don’t Move Here.

When the increase in visitors to Utah’s resorts is mentioned, the first issue to come to locals’ minds is usually traffic. Although the one-lane roads leading up the canyon have always created slowdowns on the weekends, locals say that the problem has only gotten worse since the Ikon Pass was introduced

“Traffic was obnoxious on powder days and stuff, but once Ikon got going, it went through the roof,” says Slade Dahlen, who has taught ski and snowboard lessons at Brighton since 2017.

And according to Dahlen, traffic doesn’t only affect resort visitors, it affects resort staff too. He recalls a specific day, two years ago, when he and a group of other employees were carpooling to the resort, and the traffic was so heavy they decided to park their car along the canyon and walk in order to make it to work on time.

“The resort can’t run if the employees can’t get up there,” he says.  

But even when the cars arrive at the resorts, there’s nowhere for them to go. The Cottonwood Canyons are narrow, which limits parking space, presenting more issues for crowded resorts.

In order to mitigate this problem, Solitude picks up the tab for Ikon Pass holders to ride the UTA Ski Bus to the mountain. According to Sara Huey, Solitude’s communications manager, guests can ride the bus to any resort in the canyons, not just Solitude.   

And as of this year, all resorts in the canyons will offer paid parking in some capacity. While this may help with the traffic and parking issues, it is a source of frustration for locals like Dahlen, who feel resorts that previously had a friendly “mom and pop” feel are now trying to nickel and dime them at every turn.

The change in resort clientele – and the increase in out-of-towners traveling to resorts that have historically catered to Utahns –  has also resulted in a change in culture that has made locals mourn the way it used to be.  

“I teach skiing and snowboarding, my goal is to get people out riding,” says Dahlen. “The problem with Ikon is that it doesn’t bring in clientele that is coming up to ski, a lot of the time. The first year, I had some lady all mad at me because we had nowhere to get a massage. It’s like, dude, we’re Brighton.”

Pyper – who has worked at Brighton’s bar – has experienced a similar sense of entitlement from out-of-state customers that, he says, changes the feel of the mountain.

“It’s changing the vibe of the mountain because you have a lot of out of towners coming in that don’t understand how it is,” he says. “We tried to play a drinking game last season where we would drink every time we saw an out-of-state plate. It lasted about 10 minutes before we decided we’d be drinking too much.”

And the culture of these local resorts may well continue to change as locals report that – while Ikon makes the mountains more accessible to tourists – the pass makes it less available to locals.

Solitude stopped selling their season pass at the beginning of the 2018/19 season, making unlimited access to their mountain only available with the purchase of an Ikon Pass. This has caused devotees of the Big Cottonwood resorts, like Pyper, to have to purchase two separate passes in order to have unrestricted entry to both Brighton and Solitude.

“If you’re someone who’s going to travel to go skiing or boarding, it’s a no-brainer,” he says. “For someone like me, or a lot of locals, we only want to ride one or two places.”

And although the increase in skiers and snowboarders at the resorts has translated to more money for resorts, it has not necessarily been the case for the employees.

This year at Brighton, pay was increased to $15 per hour for all employees except ski school instructors, according to Dahlen. Instructors also rely on tips for money, and Dalhen says that, in general, locals tip better than out-of-towners, too.

“You don’t get as many returning clients,” he says of the recent seasons. “If you have out-of-town clients that come from out of state to see you, those guys usually tip and they’re consistent, but the ones that are just popping in for the week and just need an instructor, they might tip you.”

But although the Ikon Pass has raised many issues for locals, it certainly isn’t all bad, either. For resorts, the increase in skiers and snowboarders has translated to an increase in revenue and therefore, an ability to pay for much-needed expansions and renovations.

“Ikon Pass is enabling us to plan more for the future, including expansions to accommodate more guests, more fun events, perhaps some renovations that have been needed for a while,” says Sara Huey, Solitude’s communications manager.

Resorts have also noticed an uptick in younger skiers, as well as first-time riders, which they say is promising for the longevity and future of the sport.  

“It’s really encouraging because I think that at the price point they offer, Ikon Pass creates a lower barrier to entry for people to try skiing and snowboarding for the first time,” Huey says.

And ultimately, the issue is much more nuanced than labeling the Ikon pass as “good” or “bad.” According to Andria Huskinson, communications manager at Alta, there may be more reasons than just the Ikon pass for the increased demand for skiing.

“It’s day visits, it’s people that have season ski passes, and a lot of that is because more people are traveling to ski now, based on these passes, but we’re also seeing growth in the Salt Lake Valley,” she says.

But even with the increased demand, the smaller, local resorts are needed to preserve the culture of skiing just as much as the luxury resorts. And local opinion reflects that.  

As Dahlen puts it, “I don’t need a fancy hotel; I’m here to ride.”

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