Parking in purgatory
More cars, not people, causing traffic issues, resort says

Parking in purgatory

A solo skier makes the trek back to his car in the Gelande parking lot at the end of a day at Purgatory Resort. Parking has been a bit of an issue at the resort as more people choose to take individual cars./ Photo by Missy Votel

Jonathan Romeo - 01/19/2023

Parking – or lack thereof – has caused complaints this winter season at Purgatory Resort, north of Durango. Many guests have reported longer than normal wait times to get into lots this year, resulting in a traffic mess on busy days.

The situation at Purgatory reached a bit of a fever pitch Jan. 2, one of the season’s first big powder days, which happened to coincide with the tail end of Christmas break and a holiday, with many people and families off work for the observance of New Year’s.

But Dave Rathbun, general manager of Purgatory, said the parking issues are not a result of record numbers of people flocking to the mountain. Instead, it’s a result of guests taking individual cars to the resort.

“We have more cars – not more people – than the resort can handle, and everyone is trying to get here at the exact same moment,” he said. “That’s why you see giant backups. That’s the crux of the issue.”

Purgatory, of course, is not alone. Ski areas across the country are concerned about crowding as the sport grows in popularity, populations increase in mountain towns and people continue to take their own cars instead of carpooling or using public transportation.

“Many, if not most, Colorado Ski Country USA resorts are working hard to make the guest experience a great one from parking lot to slope,” Sarah Beatty, spokeswoman for the nonprofit trade association representing 21 Colorado resorts, said.

Rathbun said the issue first started in the early 2000s with the advent of Power and Buddy passes. Beforehand, most visitors were family units or groups packed into a van, which helped resorts accommodate more guests with lower demand for parking.

Now, with more season pass holders, more people are coming solo to the mountain at their leisure. In addition to that, mountain communities have seen an influx of residents, further stressing resort infrastructure.

Parking is the most visible manifestation of these issues. An unofficial count at Purgatory saw most cars arriving had just one or two guests, Rathbun said. With up to 6,000 people visiting Purgatory on a busy day (according to the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office; Purgatory does not release its visitation numbers), the 1,700 parking spots at the resort fill up quickly, to say the least.

Planning for anticipated future growth, Purgatory in the early 2000s developed a master plan that included additional parking. This past summer, for instance, the resort added about 60 parking spots in the Lower Columbine lot.

A larger project that would add 200 spots on 2 acres south of the resort between the Gelande parking lot and the Nugget Mountain Bar was delayed after running into permitting issues with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

A CDOT spokeswoman said the agency is working out the details with Purgatory, and an access permit will be issued at an undetermined date in the near future. Rathbun, too, is confident the project will start in the spring and be ready by next winter.

Still, Purgatory is running out of actual physical space to expand parking along the tight Highway 550 corridor. And, just as important to note, continually expanding parking won’t resolve the issue of more cars and more traffic as a result of continued growth.

So, resort officials are looking at alternative solutions.

For starters, Purgatory routinely sends out messaging, including emails and social media posts, asking visitors to carpool. “It borders on spamming people, because we’re trying to hammer this message home,” Rathbun said.

Also, the resort offers incentives. On busy days, only cars with at least four people are allowed at the Village lot, nearest to the base area. During the holiday season, Purgatory opened a half hour earlier, at 8:30 a.m., to spread out arrival times. And, Purgatory developed an app that allows people to see traffic and parking availability in real time.

“We’re trying every tactic we can find,” Rathbun said. “But there is no silver bullet.”

One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle is a planned shuttle from Durango to Purgatory. Years ago, the City of Durango used a portion of the lodgers tax to fund a shuttle from town to the mountain, but that service was discontinued when the city reallocated that money for the downtown trolley. (Purgatory does offer a shuttle to its hundred or so employees.)

Now, plans for a guest shuttle are back on the table. Sarah Hill, director of the City of Durango’s Transportation Department, said the city is in preliminary talks with Purgatory about the service, but it’s unclear when that might be up and running.

“We’re highly motivated to figure it out and come up with something,” Rathbun said.

So is most of Colorado and the West. On Jan. 6, for instance, Eldora Mountain was forced to turn people away, because there was no parking. On top of expanding parking, Eldora plans to institute a fee for single-occupancy vehicles.

A-Basin, in 2019, pulled the plug on its partnership with Vail Resort’s Epic Pass. “We are pretty darn full on weekends, and we don’t need any more people,” A-Basin’s Alan Henceroth told the Colorado Sun. “Our parking is our pinch point.”

David Rossi, director of communications for Summit County, home to four ski resorts, said in an interview with The Durango Telegraph that the traffic issue is having a negative impact on the overall skiing experience. Buses help, but with most people choosing to drive their own car anyway, it’s still bumper-to-bumper on the roads.

“Summit is definitely ground zero for traffic hell,” Rossi said. “And a lot of local leaders are worried we’re killing the golden goose.”

It’s going to take a huge, multi-agency response to lessen the problem, Rossi said, and the perfect answer, if there is one, remains unclear.

“I try to be eternally an optimist,” he said. “But when you can walk from one end of town to the other faster than driving, you know there is a traffic problem.”

(Pro tip from Colorado Ski Country USA’s Beatty:?“pack your patience” with an après bag for parking lot parties to wait out the traffic. Just, you know, make sure you designate a DD.)

On Jan. 2, all these issues came to a head at Purgatory as people off work or not in school headed up to hit the slopes for a powder day.

Guests reported people were being turned away, because parking was maxed out, forcing drivers to park illegally along Highway 550 and adjacent Forest Service roads. Some guests even reported ticketed and/or towed vehicles.

However, that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case.

Both Colorado State Patrol Capt. John Trentini and CDOT spokeswoman Lisa Schwantes said they were not aware of any tickets issued at Purgatory this season for illegal parking or any vehicles that required a tow. 

Trentini did say, though, that it’s not uncommon for officers to place a tag on vehicles, notifying the owner they have 48 hours to move the car or face a tow.

Rathbun, too, said Purgatory never turns guests away, and instead suggests they use the skier drop-off area for passengers, and then cruise the lots to look for spaces.

Regardless, while Durango obviously (and fortunately) pales in comparison to the I-70/Front Range issue, Rathbun said part of the solution to Purgatory’s parking dilemma is realizing and changing expectations. Though Purgatory’s visitation this year is about average compared to the past few years, the town saw an influx of new people during the pandemic. The increased traffic to the mountain, he said, could just be part of the new normal.

“When everyone is trying to be in the same place at the same time, you either have to come up here earlier, or wait a little later, and take a chance finding a parking spot,” Rathbun said. “That’s the reality; that’s where we’re at.”