In Defense of Gondolas for the Great American Outdoors

26 March 2015 | Episode |

I love gondolas!

In the light of the recent and ongoing controversy around the proposed gondola project at the edge of Grand Canyon National Park I thought it would make sense to dive a bit deeper into why I love gondolas.

Look, I understand this is not a popular opinion, and after having lived for almost 15 years in this country, I am used to picking unpopular standpoints many times, trust me.
But, you know what, more often than not, I ended up being right.
This might be another time my view is correct, but only time will tell.

Here’s the story:

The Escalade and the Tusayan projects illustrate the complicated and often opposing forces buffeting the Grand Canyon: tribe against tribe, park administrators against well-financed developers, and conservationists against forces looking to open up hard-to-get-to places to a wider public.

From the official project’s website:

Grand Canyon Escalade is being designed to enable public access to the majestic Grand Canyon while minimizing adverse environmental impacts and preserving historical, cultural and religious areas on or in the Canyon.

Of course, people are in an uproar, like Brendan Leonard over at Adventure Journal, who  adds fuel to the fire:

Like I said, I know you guys are busy with the Develop the Grand Canyon project, but I think Mt. Rainier could be a great opportunity for your next gondola effort, assuming this canyon thing works out for you. And after that, you can eliminate the “drive-by experiences” by building gondolas to the tops of all of America’s most famous mountains—Mt. Whitney, Mt. Hood, Denali—and maybe even a moving walkway into the middle of Yellowstone National Park.


I can wrap myself around understanding all the various challenges and accept the  different view points, but  I am getting tired of the simplified and short-sighted view points presented in many outdoor magazines. We get it, you’re preaching to the choir, and it’s popular to take the stand that all land must be preserved as wilderness, untouched and only accessible to the physical able and those who can afford it.

I grew up in the foothills of the Alps. I’ve spend my summers hiking trails, sleeping in huts and climbing ‘Via Ferratas’. I’ve seen development in beautiful places, places where people have lived for many centuries. Balancing people and the environment is always a challenging thing, but I have seen it done correctly.

The immensely beautiful documentary on Neflix called  “The Alps From Above: A Symphony of Summits(links directly to Netflix, not sure if this will work if you’re not logged in) explains many of those challenges and how they can be met, if people are deeply caring about the land.


But, just because it’s challenging, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible,  or that it shouldn’t be done, especially if it can be done responsibly.

Gondolas are low impact at a reasonable cost

Compared to other forms of transportation development, gondolas are a great way of transporting people into remote areas with a low-impact footprint at a reasonable cost.

Gondolas give people great experiences

Gondolas turn into tourist attractions, and open up the outdoors for people who otherwise wouldn’t come.
How many families choose Disneyland over Yosemite as their number one dream destination? Want to know why?
It is due to the popular concept of the power of 10 in place-making:

“At the core of the Power of 10 is the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there.”

Gondolas create new view points, both physically and mentally.


If we want people to support the outdoors, respect nature and understand the balance of populated urban areas (our every day lives) and our preserved wilderness areas, we need to let them experience it. Not everyone has the ability to hike for miles to gain this experience or pay expensive guide services to carry them there.
Have you become frustrated with the democratic process and the general lack of understanding of climate change in our society?
Might it be due to the fact that most voters, and most people in charge for that matter, have never seen a glacier, or have never seen wildflowers in bloom on a wind swept ridge? Have never seen a mountain goat family or had a chance to stick their feet into stream of cold water fed by glacier run-off.
If people never get to have these experiences, how would they know or care to protect those precious places?

Am I wrong in thinking that the reason Europeans are more respectful to nature and have a deeper understanding of climate challenges is because they have better access to their environment?

Gondolas create new access points into the outdoors


An average hiker can only hike a certain amount of miles. And multi-day hikes are not in everyone’s scope.
Without gondolas, hikers have to travel from their trailhead many miles to get into remote areas.

Gondolas don’t just create destination in itself, they open up new areas for exploring that previously required multi-day trips.
Imagine taking a gondola into the wilderness, stay at a hut overnight and make that your basecamp. New trails can be explored, new trips scheduled, and new experiences made.

All this leads to my main point:

What I love about gondolas is that gondolas open up the outdoors for more people than just hard-core adventurers.

Last Summer, I spend a few days in Whistler, B.C. and even after the Olympic Games travelled through town, I didn’t get the feeling that the area around the town was over-developed or destroyed by people. In fact it felt exciting and incredibly inviting.  Hiking paths were well-marked, and the big Peak 2 Peak gondola opened up the entire high country for hiking and similar exploring, something that would’ve been impossible for me with two little kids.


When America’s greatest idea was conceived we needed to protect the last wilderness areas from exploitative businesses, that aimed to cut the trees down, roll over the pristine landscape and “claim it as theirs”.
However, it’s 2015, and I believe that there are new opportunities for businesses and people who own the land adjacent to National Parks to make use of it. Why not create new tourist attractions and with that employment opportunities.

But the success of the skywalk — which, like the Escalade, was the product of an alliance between an Indian tribe and an outside developer — has signaled that these kinds of projects are both possible and profitable. Some of the same developers who worked with the Hualapai on the skywalk are now working with the Navajo on the Escalade.

Yosemite National Park is opening up some rivers for kayakers:

The park will now treat kayaking and canoeing as “another way to travel through the landscape,” says American Whitewater’s California Stewardship Director Dave Steindorf. The plan considers river segments as “water trails” or backcountry routes, opening new segments to boating for the first time.

Instead of always pointing out, in an overly hyperbolic way, the challenges and difficulties of more people visiting the great outdoors, let’s consider the positive possibilities of getting more people in the outdoors could bring.

And let’s acknowledge our own bias.
So often I have met people on the trails who were annoyed by other people’s presence.   They want to  keep “their” best trails secret, hoping that fewer people are climbing “their” favorite mountains or visit “their” beaches.

Remember that it’s not your trail alone, it’s not your wilderness alone.

We can’t claim that the great wilderness is just for your own enjoyment.


All pics taken a few years ago when visiting the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain in the Alps. Expect the Grouse Mountain gondola picture, of course is from Vancouver, B.C.

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