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Photo courtesy of Eldora Mountain Resort

Is Overcrowding the New Normal at Colorado Ski Areas?

So many people are skiing and snowboarding in Colorado that last weekend, parking lots at multiple resorts hit capacity, and cars were turned away. Is it the tragedy of the commons, the mark of booming business, or both?

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It was the perfect storm—not just for snow quality, but for congestion. When several inches of snow fell across the Front Range and high country on Friday, January 11, skiers and boarders made quick plans to head for the slopes over the weekend. So many people had the same idea, in fact, that local resorts hit capacity in their parking lots and cars were turned away.

At Eldora, the lots were completely full on Saturday just after 9 a.m. and a roadblock was put in place at Nederland High School, where Boulder County police officers directed cars back the way they came. And the parking crunch wasn’t just at Eldora. Those who didn’t have a crack-of-dawn start on the I-70 corridor also encountered tapped out lots at Arapahoe Basin and Keystone. For skiers and boarders, especially those who work a traditional Monday through Friday schedule, it’s more than a little frustrating to sit in several hours of slow-moving traffic all for naught.

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But as Colorado’s population soars and skiing popularity increases, heavy weekend visitation to the state’s resorts is becoming the new normal. Traffic on I-70 is now a constant (rather than occasional) event, and crowded lots are an expectation. Still, millions of skiers and riders are heading to the high country every year.

It’s too early to tell what 2018-19 figures will look like, but over the past five years, about seven million people annually visited mountains in Colorado Ski Country USA’s network, which does not include Vail-owned properties like Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail, and Beaver Creek. Vail Resorts does not break out individual numbers for each locale, but estimates suggest an additional five million skiers and riders annually frequent those mountains, as well—making the Colorado total somewhere north of 12 million.

Furthermore, more skiers and snowboarders are arriving in the state. Between July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, nearly 80,000 people moved to Colorado, recent census data suggests. Since 2010, the population has grown by nearly 700,000 residents.

“People are moving to this state because of our access to outdoor recreation,” says Chris Linsmayer, public affairs director for Colorado Ski Country USA. “Skiing is a huge part of that in the winter.” 

And of course, as Linsmayer notes, the popularity of skiing comes with inherent challenges for local mountains. “Our resorts are trying their best to be accessible to as many people as possible,” he says. “Part of that conversation is about parking and parking challenges, but also ways to encourage carpooling and high-occupancy vehicles to allow guests to get up to a resort.” 

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But just because traffic is heavy and lots are full does not mean the mountains themselves have hit capacity. Linsmayer says that there’s more room on the slopes than in resorts’ lots. So the major issue then is addressing vehicular density.

Carpooling is one option, and some resorts offer preferred parking for full cars. Eldora, for instance, has been proactive in offering alternatives for skiers and riders. Just 21 miles from Boulder, the mountain provides first-come, first-served parking upfront for vehicles with three or more passengers. Additionally, the mountain provides free RTD bus passes from the downtown Boulder Transit Center on certain peak days. Eldora’s official twitter account also provides real-time parking updates for people who are making their way to the slopes.

In early December, Eldora announced that skiers and riders who were not Eldora pass-holders would be charged a $20 parking fee unless they had three or more people in their cars. But swift outrage from locals led the mountain to rescind that policy before it even took effect. Brent Tregaskis, Eldora’s president and general manager, released a statement at the time noting that “Without paid parking on peak days, we expect we will have to continue to turn guests away due to overcrowding again this season.”

Keystone, which has dealt with similar overcrowding this season, “offers dedicated up-front parking in the Montezuma Lot for guests traveling with families of four or more passengers per vehicle,” according to Russ Carlton, the resort’s communications manager. Keystone also encourages local skiers and riders in the Silverthorne area to utilize public transportation, but the resort does not have any transportation partnerships for Front Range skiers. The mountain does, however, utilize a dedicated Twitter account that provides parking updates on peak visitation days. A-Basin also uses its Twitter account to notify visitors when lots are full, but the mountain did not return 5280’s request for comment regarding specific initiatives to address congestion.

So far, the Centennial State has seen big early-season storms and timely snowfall, which has likely added to the rush to hit the slopes. But as cars bottleneck on I-70 and lots fill up across the state, it’s hard not to invoke the tragedy of the commons—a situation where individuals act in their own self interest and make it difficult to share a single resource.

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It’s also hard not to recognize that the industry is booming. Back in 2015, Colorado Ski Country USA and Vail Resorts partnered on a study that showed Colorado’s ski industry generates $4.8 billion of economic impact annually. Since then, it’s likely that the industry has only continued to grow. “There is strong demand for skiing in Colorado,” Linsmayer says. “That’s a great thing for our industry.”

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