Monday, February 26, 2024
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Parking lots

by JOSH McDONALD
Local Editor | February 6, 2024 1:00 AM

MULLAN –– The snow may be great at Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area, but it may be tough sledding if you’re not among the first people there.

The 2023/24 ski season has left a lot to be desired, but when the snow does fly it brings out a crowd, which can make simple things – like finding a parking spot – a big issue. 

In late January, following a week of heavy snowfall, the parking lot at Lookout was beyond full and people began parking along the side of the road, including on the shoulders of Interstate 90, along the exit, and across the overpass (resulting in more than a few vehicles being towed, especially on the Montana side).

The past few years have been great ones for the local ski hill, as solid snowfalls in the winter, and the completion of various expansion projects in the warmer months have made it a destination for regional powder hounds. 

Matt Sawyer, the director of market for Lookout Ski, understands this and wants to make sure that folks have as much information as possible when they decide to make a trip to the Idaho/Montana border. 

Sawyer believes that the parking issue was indicative of what he described as a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions. 

Those conditions being heavy snowfall, mild temperatures, as well as a pent-up demand to get out on the slopes after the slow start to the winter. 

Add in the first week of Lookout’s long-running free ski school and you have a recipe for chaos. 

As the staff at the mountain watched the parking lot fill and the problematic parking begin to take shape, they tried to communicate with the public that they were full and attempted to turn people away before they got too far into their commutes – but it was too little too late. 

“Were people disappointed? Certainly,” Sawyer said. “Especially for those who made a drive up from CDA, Spokane, Missoula, or even further. For a large number of our guests, it was their first time on snow this winter. Those guests that arrived early were treated to pretty good conditions.”

While it is Sawyer’s opinion that the issue is indicative of several outside factors, several people took to social media to discuss the situation – stating that the parking issue has been consistently getting worse over the recent years, especially as the mountain has become more discovered by people outside the region. 

Parking is one of the few shortfalls that the hill has, something that Sawyer openly acknowledged when discussing the matter. 

“We do want people to know that we have been constructing more parking spaces each summer,” Sawyer said. “ We also ask reasonable minds to consider the topography. It's not easy to just build more parking where we are located, and everyone knows that building up would be very costly. Many guests choose Lookout because we present a pretty nice value equation, even with all the expansion we have undertaken over the last few years. We don't want to mess too much with that key component. It may not be all that comforting to know, but crowds form at many other ski areas around the country, for many of the same reasons.” 

But it’s not just Lookout who could do better, many people try to take advantage when and where they can – which can lead to other people having to go without. 

Sawyer mentioned that some people will take up multiple parking spaces with their single vehicle to give themselves space to unload as well as flexibility when departing the parking lot – They could also follow the parking instructions given to them by the mountain’s staff when they arrive. 

One of the more common suggestions that Sawyer hears is the idea of adding a shuttle service and developing a parking area in a nearby town, like Mullan or Wallace, and then shuttling people to and from the hill. 

Lookout already has a fleet of shuttle vehicles that they use in the summertime for the Route of the Hiawatha – why couldn’t these be utilized in the winter? 

Sawyer recognizes this idea as a practical one, but there are a lot of factors to consider 

“Our shuttle busses that we operate on the Hiawatha might seem to some to be an easy solution,” Sawyer said. “But Americans enjoy their freedom and want to come and go on their own schedule. They likely wouldn't want to commit to taking a bus unless the lot was already full, or close to it and that was their only option.”

For now, on those busy weekends after a healthy snowfall, Sawyer and his staff will do their best to make sure as many people can enjoy Lookout as possible.  

He also encourages people to jump in with their friends and carpool – but make sure you do it early. 

“We advise guests to carpool, to park closer to the vehicle in front of you on weekends, we don't want to go to paid parking,” Sawyer said. “Know that our staff will be doing their best to park people a little closer together on busy days. Also know that space frees up as some of our early risers start to leave the area between 11 a.m. and noon.” 

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