Boulder resident Tom Gowan wound his way up Eldora Road at 1:45 p.m. on a Sunday in early February, looking forward to some afternoon laps at the ski resort. But upon reaching Nederland High School, a few miles from the resort parking lot, he encountered a road blockade. At the direction of the traffic control crew, he proceeded back down to Nederland until enough resort parking spots became available to reopen the road to the ski area.
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” he said. “I tried to follow the parking updates, and last time it worked coming in at 12:30 p.m. But apparently not this time.”
Gowan’s experience is typical for many Front Range residents looking to ski at the popular local resort – whose motto and selling point has long been, “Closer to you.” With increased visitation, limited parking and just a two-lane county road leading into the ski area, accessing Eldora has become a source of frustration for Boulder County locals.
Parents report getting turned away from parking, despite having pre-paid for ski lessons for their kids. Bottlenecks crawl up and down Shelf and Eldora roads, filtering vehicles into the parking lots at painstakingly slow rates. On especially heavy weekends or powder days, some employees have reported nearly two-hour commutes to the resort from Boulder.
What’s the plan? 800 new parking spots, for starters.
Aware of the growing congestion issue, the resort plans to build a substantial new parking lot this summer and is already evaluating parking and transportation policies for next season. To combat congestion in the current season, Eldora’s marketing department is encouraging alternative transportation options and pushing a robust communications campaign focused around best times to visit. The local ski community seems to agree that these current initiatives are not solving the problem.
Many Eldora guests will welcome the news of 800 new parking spots from the parking lot expansion project. Construction is scheduled to begin as soon as May, depending upon weather conditions, and would increase existing parking capacity by a significant 50 percent.
The bulk of the new parking spots will be constructed uphill of the existing Bear Lot, and will be accompanied by a new entrance to the two upper lots. The hope is to filter vehicles into the resort more efficiently. A limited number of spots are also expected to be added near the resort’s nordic center.
The project, already approved by Boulder County and funded by Eldora’s parent company, Powdr Corporation, should be a go, barring any unforeseen permitting issues.
While the expanded parking will no doubt alleviate some roadblocks like the one Gowan experienced, allowing more visitors to park at the resort could exacerbate arrival and departure congestion on the two-lane roads.
Longtime Nederland resident Angel Facchin worries about this for herself and other locals. She doesn’t ski, but still deals with heavy congestion in and around town, especially on weekends. “As a Ned local, commuting through Eldora traffic this year is hell,” she says.
In order to gain approval for the parking lot expansion, Boulder County required Eldora to meet a number of conditions. Among them were expanding free shuttle offerings and enhancing communications regarding public transit, two metrics the resort has already met. Another requirement was implementing a $10 single occupancy vehicle surcharge, a fee that was delayed due to Covid-19, but which will likely be implemented next ski season.
Many skiers are in support of such parking fees, or anything that will reduce congestion for that matter. Some guests are advocating for the return of parking reservations, a system implemented last season by the resort in order to meet state-mandated limits on the number of skiers at the resort.
Eldora Marketing Director Sam Bass says that the resort is considering bringing the reservation system back for next season, but that it’s just one of many possibilities for addressing traffic congestion. Other possible solutions include creating separate paid and free parking options, or creating a paid advance reservation system.
Bass says that while no new parking policies will be introduced this season, resort management is hoping to release guidelines for next season as soon as March, so the public is well informed by the time ski passes go on sale.
Eldora pushes for public transit
In the meantime, resort leadership says they’re doing what they can to alleviate issues for this year’s skiers and riders. A big part of their strategy is pumping out communications on Twitter, Eldora’s website and via text message regarding when is a good time to visit the resort.
On the whole, weekend mornings are the toughest time to get parking at the resort, and Bass discourages vehicle arrivals between 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on most Saturdays and Sundays.
Instead, the resort encourages guests to take public transit. They see it as a two-for-one benefit: a way to address the growing transportation problem while also furthering Eldora’s eco-friendly objectives. “Driving should be a last resort,” says Sustainability Manager Hunter Wright.
Chief among these options are the RTD public buses that run from Downtown Boulder Station to the ski resort. Buses can deliver as many as 55 guests to the resort in little more time than it would take a personal vehicle to drive the same route.
On weekends, parking at the downtown Boulder station is free, and Eldora employees hand out complimentary round trip bus tickets onsite to anyone who doesn’t already have a pass. Doing so is not without cost to the resort. Bass says he maxes out the company credit card buying up to $60,000 worth of RTD tickets for visitors each season.
In addition, Eldora also runs free shuttles to and from the resort on weekends departing from the Boulder Justice Center. Rides run on alternating hours from the RTD buses. To incentivize public transit options, Eldora employees are given an additional hour’s pay for each day they ride public transit to work.
Buses and shuttles are equipped to store skis, and they drop off riders next to the prominent Alpenglow lift. Guests who want to change into ski gear on arrival at the resort are welcome to stash a backpack in one of the lodges at no cost, or rent a locker for a small fee.
“Powdr and Eldora feel like investing in alternative transportation is a long-term benefit to the community,” Wright says. “I think it helps us to create change in behavior and the culture of how people move from place to place.”
‘Eldora is their ski area.’
But among the public, alternative transportation options receive mixed reviews. One rider, Derek Cozzens, says he waited in line for hours waiting to get a spot on one of the RTD buses. When he finally did get on, there were no seats left and he stood in the aisle for the entire 50-minute ride up to the resort. Others say the buses and shuttles don’t run frequently enough, run late, or aren’t feasible with kids who have difficulty carrying their own equipment.
“I have a young child, and the total unreliability of the buses make them a nonstarter,” says Longmont resident Morgan Stanfield. “My kid just doesn’t remotely have the emotional stamina to endure huge crowds of people, multiple disappointments, and hours of waiting, especially while we’re lugging stuff and he’s dressing in exhausting, heavy gear.”
Stanfield appreciates that snow sports can be incredibly beneficial for both psychological and physical wellness. But having family members with mobility and psychological disabilities, she worries that an unreliable bus service and lack of parking would make skiing at Eldora nearly impossible for individuals with these challenges.
Meanwhile, Boulder resident Merridee Manchego Ryan has also had difficulty with RTD, but says that the Justice Center shuttles are a different story. She often takes the shuttle on the weekends with her seven- and 13-year-old sons. Usually arriving at 10:30 a.m. for the 11 a.m. shuttle, the trio has yet to have an issue getting a seat. She purports the shuttle is never late and takes just 40 minutes getting from the Justice Center to Eldora.
Recognizing that there is no “one size fits all” solution to the transportation challenges, the resort also encourages carpooling. Some days, Wright and other employees hand out hats, neck gaiters, or hot chocolate vouchers to guests who arrive with three or more in a vehicle. Wright says it’s part of her approach to “surprise and delight” guests who make sustainable choices.
In the end, the transportation problem isn’t unique to Eldora. All over Colorado and other Western states, ski resorts are grappling with how to handle increased skier traffic, with no silver bullet solution.
And each possible fix requires rigorous analysis from all angles. Bass notes that reservations , for example, could go a long way towards addressing parking problems, but may not be the most equitable solution. “A reservation system that’s app based favors tech savvy people, and maybe not senior citizens or those who aren’t watching reservations open like a hawk,” he says.
But whether an advocate for a reservations system, paid parking, or public transit, one thing is clear: Eldora team members and Front Range residents alike care deeply about this modest ski resort.
“When you get up to Summit County, you’ve got 10 resorts. But people in the northern Front Range think of Eldora as their ski area. They feel this emotional attachment and sense of ownership over it,” Bass says. “We know we have a responsibility to be stewards of this resource that people care about.”