Utah Little Cottonwood Canyon (Alta/Snowbird) driving tips

silverback

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The resorts open tomorrow and, with all the press about the new tram and potential tolling and restrictions, I’ve been thinking more about the drive up to Alta and Snowbird. Hopefully these tips will speed up the process and maybe even slow UDOT’s roll.

-ON THE WAY UP-

THE ENTRANCE TO THE CANYON:

Where Wasatch Blvd (Hwy 210) intersects Little Cottonwood Rd (Hwy 209) at the base of the canyon is what I’m calling the beginning. There is usually an electrified sign here repeating rules, traction tire requirements etc. There is also sometimes a police officer here checking tires. If you are a local, consider getting your tires checked and sporting a window sticker. It speeds up the inspection process. They are easy to get at most tire stores.


If you don’t have snow tires / all-wheel drive you should not try to enter the canyon here when traction devices are required, you should use a park and ride and take the bus. Don’t wait for the police to turn you around, don’t get part way up and spin out, don’t even drive all the way to this intersection. Remember it might be clear for part of the way and really slippery later or it might be clear on the way up and snowy in the afternoon.

THE ROAD UP:

Entering the canyon, the road is three lanes. Two up and one down. The one on the right is a merging lane. Zipper merging is required in Utah. That means DO NOT MERGE until the merge lane ends (approx. a quarter mile up from the intersection), then take turns. Don’t slow down to try to merge in early, or dive slowly in the empty lane leaving a bunch of space in front of you, drive quickly to the merge point at the end and take turns. If you are in the left lane at a crawl and someone correctly uses the mostly empty right lane and speeds by you, don’t get the rage and try to cut them off or give a one finger salute. Even though they might seem rude, they are doing it correctly.


The speed limit on the canyon road is 40mph. If some combination of you, your car and your tires is incapable of maintaining 40 mph most all of the way up the hill, please take the bus. Most rental cars’ tires are not capable of effectively driving up these canyons, even if the car has all wheel drive. Combine that with drivers that aren’t familiar with their cars or snow driving technique, and you get a dangerous, slow, mess. If you are in a rental car, you should probably just use the park and rides. If it is snowing hard and you can’t safely maintain 40mph, still keep a reasonable pace. Cars crawling at <5mph or stopping in the road makes it harder for everyone. Momentum is your friend in the snow, especially going uphill. Starting and stopping on a slick road going uphill can be challenging, even with good snow tires so keep moving.

About 5 miles up the canyon, there is a passing lane. If there is a car or cars behind you when you get to the passing lane, even if you have been driving 40 mph+ up the canyon, immediately move into the right lane and DON’T SPEED UP! People who have been following you up the hill at 30mph shouldn’t have to go 70mph to get around you. When/if you pass someone, immediately move over into the right lane so others can pass you without having to slow down and ride your bumper. Yes, even if you are going faster than the limit. This isn’t canyon specific but it is frustrating to follow someone up the canyon on a dry day going 25-35 mph all the way only to have them speed up to 60+ at the passing lane.

AT THE TOP:

When you are ready to leave the road at an intersection or parking access roads, try to maintain your speed until you are out of the travel lane if it is safe. The Gad entrance at Snowbird has a short braking lane before the turn, use it to slow down if possible. Don’t slow to 5mph in the travel lane then make the turn. It starts a chain reaction that slows hundreds of cars down canyon.

The speed limit drops to 30mph at Snowbird and 25mph as you enter Alta. These speed reductions are there for a reason. People are entering the road, walking on the road, etc. Police often patrol with radar here btw.

THE WAY DOWN:

Be careful when passing and again, if being passed, don’t speed up. Passing lanes on the way down tend to end in a sharp corner. Dropping speed going downhill while turning is a recipe for trouble. Get your braking done in a straight line before the corner and don’t force a passing car into a difficult traction situation right in front of you.

The long downhill can fry your brakes and cause them to fade. If possible, downshift and use engine braking.
 

noobski

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Nice reminder.

There's also occasionally black ice going down a day after a storm.
 

pchewn

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These driving suggestions will work on most ski area mountain roads, not just Cottonwood Canyon. But you will never get enough people doing this to make the traffic flow well. There's always going to be THAT ONE GUY.....
 

noobski

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These driving suggestions will work on most ski area mountain roads, not just Cottonwood Canyon. But you will never get enough people doing this to make the traffic flow well. There's always going to be THAT ONE GUY.....
Or that one rental car.

I think there should be a local ordinance / law for car rental companies in ski-country that any SUV you rent must have appropriate seasonal tires. I generally have to rent and I won't leave the rental car company without good/inspected tires. Enterprise and Hertz have historically been good about that for me, but I watch people drive off never checking tires thinking they a 4WD or AWD and so no need to check. There's cars with 35k miles on them and never a tire change.
 

Matt Merritt

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I'll be headed to Utah in a couple of weeks for a day each in BCC and LCC and have booked a Tahoe from Enterprise. Can anyone advise what code, if any, I should look for on my rental's tires to make sure they're safe and legal for the canyons?
 

Andy Mink

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The resorts open tomorrow and, with all the press about the new tram and potential tolling and restrictions, I’ve been thinking more about the drive up to Alta and Snowbird. Hopefully these tips will speed up the process and maybe even slow UDOT’s roll.

-ON THE WAY UP-

THE ENTRANCE TO THE CANYON:

Where Wasatch Blvd (Hwy 210) intersects Little Cottonwood Rd (Hwy 209) at the base of the canyon is what I’m calling the beginning. There is usually an electrified sign here repeating rules, traction tire requirements etc. There is also sometimes a police officer here checking tires. If you are a local, consider getting your tires checked and sporting a window sticker. It speeds up the inspection process. They are easy to get at most tire stores.


If you don’t have snow tires / all-wheel drive you should not try to enter the canyon here when traction devices are required, you should use a park and ride and take the bus. Don’t wait for the police to turn you around, don’t get part way up and spin out, don’t even drive all the way to this intersection. Remember it might be clear for part of the way and really slippery later or it might be clear on the way up and snowy in the afternoon.

THE ROAD UP:

Entering the canyon, the road is three lanes. Two up and one down. The one on the right is a merging lane. Zipper merging is required in Utah. That means DO NOT MERGE until the merge lane ends (approx. a quarter mile up from the intersection), then take turns. Don’t slow down to try to merge in early, or dive slowly in the empty lane leaving a bunch of space in front of you, drive quickly to the merge point at the end and take turns. If you are in the left lane at a crawl and someone correctly uses the mostly empty right lane and speeds by you, don’t get the rage and try to cut them off or give a one finger salute. Even though they might seem rude, they are doing it correctly.


The speed limit on the canyon road is 40mph. If some combination of you, your car and your tires is incapable of maintaining 40 mph most all of the way up the hill, please take the bus. Most rental cars’ tires are not capable of effectively driving up these canyons, even if the car has all wheel drive. Combine that with drivers that aren’t familiar with their cars or snow driving technique, and you get a dangerous, slow, mess. If you are in a rental car, you should probably just use the park and rides. If it is snowing hard and you can’t safely maintain 40mph, still keep a reasonable pace. Cars crawling at <5mph or stopping in the road makes it harder for everyone. Momentum is your friend in the snow, especially going uphill. Starting and stopping on a slick road going uphill can be challenging, even with good snow tires so keep moving.

About 5 miles up the canyon, there is a passing lane. If there is a car or cars behind you when you get to the passing lane, even if you have been driving 40 mph+ up the canyon, immediately move into the right lane and DON’T SPEED UP! People who have been following you up the hill at 30mph shouldn’t have to go 70mph to get around you. When/if you pass someone, immediately move over into the right lane so others can pass you without having to slow down and ride your bumper. Yes, even if you are going faster than the limit. This isn’t canyon specific but it is frustrating to follow someone up the canyon on a dry day going 25-35 mph all the way only to have them speed up to 60+ at the passing lane.

AT THE TOP:

When you are ready to leave the road at an intersection or parking access roads, try to maintain your speed until you are out of the travel lane if it is safe. The Gad entrance at Snowbird has a short braking lane before the turn, use it to slow down if possible. Don’t slow to 5mph in the travel lane then make the turn. It starts a chain reaction that slows hundreds of cars down canyon.

The speed limit drops to 30mph at Snowbird and 25mph as you enter Alta. These speed reductions are there for a reason. People are entering the road, walking on the road, etc. Police often patrol with radar here btw.

THE WAY DOWN:

Be careful when passing and again, if being passed, don’t speed up. Passing lanes on the way down tend to end in a sharp corner. Dropping speed going downhill while turning is a recipe for trouble. Get your braking done in a straight line before the corner and don’t force a passing car into a difficult traction situation right in front of you.

The long downhill can fry your brakes and cause them to fade. If possible, downshift and use engine braking.
So, basically, use common sense! Hopefully everyone will have this figured out in time for the gathering and we can all just zip up the hill!
 

Nathanvg

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Or that one rental car.

I think there should be a local ordinance / law for car rental companies in ski-country that any SUV you rent must have appropriate seasonal tires. I generally have to rent and I won't leave the rental car company without good/inspected tires. Enterprise and Hertz have historically been good about that for me, but I watch people drive off never checking tires thinking they a 4WD or AWD and so no need to check. There's cars with 35k miles on them and never a tire change.
I wish I had the link handy but I recall a study that showed that most stuck cars were NOT rental cars. Regardless, a law that required a minimum higher tread depth in winter (maybe 3/16") would still help.
e headed to Utah in a couple of weeks for a day each in BCC and LCC and have booked a Tahoe from Enterprise. Can anyone advise what code, if any, I should look for on my rental's tires to make sure they're safe and
The rental car will have M+S tires on it regardless so no need to look for a "code." What you want to look for is good tread depth. A typical tire will have 10/32 of tread new. The newer the better. Below 2/32 is illeage in most states. Other states have 4/32 or 6/32 minimums in mountain areas.

To simplify: use a quarter to see if tires are good. If you can see the top of Washington's head when inserting the quarter into the thread, swap for another car the car. Check both front and back tires.
 

noobski

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I wish I had the link handy but I recall a study that showed that most stuck cars were NOT rental cars. Regardless, a law that required a minimum higher tread depth in winter (maybe 3/16") would still help.

The rental car will have M+S tires on it regardless so no need to look for a "code." What you want to look for is good tread depth. A typical tire will have 10/32 of tread new. The newer the better. Below 2/32 is illeage in most states. Other states have 4/32 or 6/32 minimums in mountain areas.

To simplify: use a quarter to see if tires are good. If you can see the top of Washington's head when inserting the quarter into the thread, swap for another car the car. Check both front and back tires.
Interesting on the study.

Yes, this is what I do on tire measurements as well.

I've never been stopped going up, but I always have an SUV. I also try to go up super early to take my time.
 

Tony S

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This isn’t canyon specific but it is frustrating to follow someone up the canyon on a dry day going 25-35 mph all the way only to have them speed up to 60+ at the passing lane.
You must live in Maine. This is like the official state sport here, along with getting incensed at people like me trying to zipper merge.
 
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TS
silverback

silverback

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I just remembered on more tip. Make sure you know how to turn stability control off. There is a reason the manufacturers give you a switch. Going up hill on a slick road can confuse the car’s system and slow you down until you come to a stop. Sometimes you need to allow for some slip to keep momentum or start out once you are stuck. Some cars have multiple modes that allow a little more slip before activating the brakes in addition to just an on and off. Some SUVs have a snow mode that changes differential and transfer case slip.
Rentals usually don’t have owners manuals but you can Google your make/model before heading up into the snow.


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Ogg

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I'll be headed to Utah in a couple of weeks for a day each in BCC and LCC and have booked a Tahoe from Enterprise. Can anyone advise what code, if any, I should look for on my rental's tires to make sure they're safe and legal for the canyons?
Make sure the Tahoe is actually 4wd. Enterprise has separate categories for 4wd SUVs on their website.
 
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