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  1. #1

    Default An eagle-eye view of I-80 in Utah, January 09

    Winter travel in the Mountain West is a regular topic here so I thought it useful to post some current observances here.

    I am on day one of my family's annual ski/snowboarding vacation to the Park City, UT area. Our most gracious host provides us with ridge-top accomodations overlooking I-80 at a point between the Jeremy Ranch and Kimball Junction exits. This stretch of I-80 carries 100% of the traffic between Salt Lake City and environs (SLC) and Park City (PC), which includes 3 major ski areas with an aggregate of over 10,000 acres of ski terrain. The daytripper traffic from SLC to PC is heavy, as is commercial and noncommercial Interstate traffic.

    Just west of my view is Parley's Summit, where I-80 rises to some 7,500' of elevation as it passes through the Wasatch Range, where peaks reach +11,000'. Parley's is the "crux move" enroute from SLC to PC. I-80 is 3 lanes in each direction from the outskirts of SLC all the way to and over Parley's, going back to 2 each way at the Jeremy Ranch exit. The total length of 6 lanes on each side is some 15 miles.

    We arrived yesterday at 10:30 local time and our sons were eager to do the "ski free the day of arrival", a neat program where your boarding pass is your lift ticket for that day. We picked up an SUV and hurried them directly to Park City Mountain. On the way up (and it's only about 10 miles from the airport to the mouth of Parley's Canyon, where the 3,500' ascent to the Summit begins), we got into snow immediately upon entering the canyon. The level at which it was sticking to the road was at approximately 5,000'. It took about 1.5 hours to drop them off, hit the grocery store, and have a quick lunch, and my wife and I returned to SLC to pick up rental gear and discount lift tickets (what can I say, I'm Scots-Irish). On the way back down, the rate of snowfall had picked up considerably and we were able to make only 45-50mph going down. The "snow on the road" elevation had decreased to just over 4,000'. Within just over an hour, say starting at 3:30, we headed back up out of downtown SLC (and here, Mark, is an unabashed plug for Canyon Sports in SLC. Sorry about that).

    The snowfall had started in the valley floor as we arrived at Canyon Sports and in only 30 minutes had covered our car and was sticking on the streets. It was a good inch-an-hour rate of snowfall. Traffic was moving slowly as we headed back up. At the mouth of Parley's, we encountered the first wave of plows headed down. The Utah DOT now uses just two plows, en echelon, to clear all 3 lanes. Each plow has "wings" out to the side, tandem axles, and chains on both rear axles. For a truck lovin' redneck like me, it's an awesome sight. We reached the approx 5,000' level and encountered a second wave of plows headed down. Moments later, we got behind the plows headed up. The plows necessarily had all uphill lanes blocked but were traveling 40-45 mph. As I anticipated, they summited the pass and plowed the east side to Jeremy Ranch, then turned around. As they exited, we saw a 4th pair of plows entering I-80 headed back to SLC. Clearly the MO was to keep 4 pair of plows in continuous motion on both sides of the pass all the way from SLC to just outside of PC. I doubt there could be more than 20 minutes between passes at any given point.

    The point of this narrative is this: Interstate highways in the Mountain West are lifelines for local and regional economies. Extraordinary efforts are required and mounted to keep them moving. Yes, there was snow on the roadway in each direction, but neither chains nor 4WD was required. As it got dark, thousands and thousands of skier vehicles departed PC and headed back over Parley's to SLC. Traffic in that direction never appeared to get below around 35 mph.

    As I look over the highway currently, at 7:30 am Tuesday, traffic seems to be moving at normal speed, likely the result of all night UTDOT plowing and salting. This entire event brought between 8 and 16" of snow over a 12 hour period, and the temprature never got above about 20 degrees.

    So, keep your eyes open, drive carefully, keep legally-required gear on board (most often chains), be aware travel speeds can slow down during an event, and be aware travel apeeds can actually stop for brief periods. But, don't shy away from highway travel in the Mountain West just because it might snow. It's GOING to snow, but you're going to be fine.


    {Adding a link here for a day trips article that includes information about the Park City Route. As an aside, I usually approach Park City from the south -- and that route is nearly always a bit icy....}
    Last edited by Mark Sedenquist; 01-06-2009 at 11:54 AM. Reason: added link to SLC day trip routes

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    South of England.

    Default Nice of you to check in, thanks.

    Hi Foy, great report that I am sure will be of use to other users of the forum.

    I hope you and your family have a great vacation.


  3. #3


    Thanks for the great update - I felt momentarily as if I were there myself!

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jan 1998
    Las Vegas, Nevada

    Default They call me Swivel-Neck -- when fancy trucks are on a roll

    Quote Originally Posted by Foy View Post
    ... Each plow has "wings" out to the side, tandem axles, and chains on both rear axles.
    Excellent observation! I love watching professional plow teams in action and really liked this report. Thanks for sharing.


  5. #5
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Western/Central Massachusetts

    Default Nice report

    Quote Originally Posted by Foy View Post
    The point of this narrative is this: Interstate highways in the Mountain West are lifelines for local and regional economies. Extraordinary efforts are required and mounted to keep them moving.
    The best luck you can have when driving in the winter is to be on the highway about 3-5 minutes after these vehicles have passed and to be making a short trip. A nice clear path all the way. Those Interstate plow vehicles sure put the local plow guys' 4x4 pickups to shame.

    As I look over the highway currently, at 7:30 am Tuesday, traffic seems to be moving at normal speed, likely the result of all night UTDOT plowing and salting. This entire event brought between 8 and 16" of snow over a 12 hour period, and the temprature never got above about 20 degrees.
    That's a pretty good rate of snowfall. Now I hope you put all that new powder to good use!

  6. #6

    Default Update

    Our cellphone and iPhone radar (one of my sons has inherited the "weather watcher gene) both showed heavy snow all day long just west of our position at PC today. Ditto to the north along the Wasatch range. Within just a few miles of leaving PC headed "home", it was apparent a good 6-9 more inches had accumulated during the day.

    We had a great day at Park City Mountain Resort, making "first tracks" by arriving at 0830 for a 0900 lift opening time. We wisely quit at 2pm (parents) and 3pm ( early 20s sons) since we have many more days of skiing and snowboarding before us.

    I-80 was mostly clear (a bit of slush between the wheel tracks) until we reached the Jeremy Ranch exit. Traffic was running 60-65 mph in the late afternoon when we transited.

    The great part of the weather today is the heavy snow north of here. Tomorrow we take a "mini Road Trip" to Powder Mountain, some 2 hours north. I-80 east of PC and I-84 seem to have escaped most of last night's and today's snowfall, so when we depart at 0630 we should be clear and dry (and dry is an important aspect of Road Tripping out here, as spray on the windshield is enough of a constant companion I normally buy two gallons of fluid upon arrival--enough for just a week). The really best part is Powder Mountain is one of the rare resorts where the lodge, etc, is at the TOP of the mountain, at around 8,800'. They're reporting 12" in the last 24 hours and the road conditions are reported to be "red" for the access road from Eden, UT. I can't wait.

    More later,


  7. Default

    I was actually in SLC until today.

    Yeah, even in the Salt Lake Valley, it snows considerably. Say what you will about the Utah DOT cleaning I-80. Once you hit Wyoming, though, you're on your own. 2 inches of snow and 30mph winds, and odds are I-80's getting closed.

    But, what can you expect for a state that's roughly 300 miles by 400 miles and has a population smaller than the city of Cleveland, Ohio.


  8. #8

    Default Interesting observation

    Yes, we regularly see the overhead electronic signboards warning eastbounders of I-80 closures in WY.

    It's interesting that your observations about I-80 in WY comes up. Recently there was some passionate debate about the relative merits of I-90 vs I-80 as routing for cross-country travel. A fairly new regular here, johnny99 I believe it was, had pretty much the same observations about the I-80-Wyoming segment's combination of high elevation, open plains, winds, and drifting snow even though overall snowfall might be light. I submit that, other things equal, I-90 is a good choice due to relatively low elevation, only three fairly short distance modest elevation passes, and the fact that I-90 passes through all of Montana's "major" cities. I have added the WY I-80 webcams to my daily wintertime routine of looking at I-90's Montana webcams. It looks to me that MT is getting Lookout Pass, Homestake Pass, and Bozeman Pass completely cleared within hours of the passing of a major event, and I've seen few indications that tractor-trailer and noncommercial traffic has been stopped altogether.

    We'll be having a look at a short stretch of I-80 over to the I-84 junction starting at 0630 today. Will update if any interesting weather features are present. Right now, at 0545, it's clear at the surface, but the wind's howling. Could be some drifting.


  9. Default

    I'd definitely take I-90 if I were going from the east coast to Seattle or Portland.

    I-80 in Wyoming is at or over 6,000 feet for its entire trip (almost). Happy Jack Summit east of Laramie is 8400 feet. And the wind is brutal. Add in cold temperatures, and it causes havoc on I-80.

    As someone told me once, "It snows in Wyoming once, the rest of the year it just blows around."

    Not too far from the truth.


  10. #10
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Melbourne, Australia


    This whole thread is throwing a spanner in the works for me. :(

    The last week of May, or the first week of June, I was planning to drive from Alliance NE to the Rock Springs / Green River WY, before heading on to Twin Falls and Stanley ID, via Ketchum.

    Now, if I had not read this thread, I would have headed there in blissful ignorance, and taken what ever I found in my stride.

    Somehow, knowing all this beforehand, is taking the adventure out of my travels.

    Lifey who takes it all as it comes

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