Alta Ski Area
Alta (office 801/742-3333, snow conditions 801/359-1078, www.alta.com, $69 adults, $36 children 12 and under, $88 Alta-Snowbird pass) has a special mystique among skiers. A combination of deep powder, wide-open terrain, charming accommodations, and the polite but firm exclusion of snowboards make it special, as does its clientele. Many Alta skiers have been coming here for years—it's not uncommon to share a lift with a friendly 70-year-old who, upon debarking the lift, heads straight for the steepest black run.
Do not come to Alta expecting to do anything but ski. There is no shopping, no nightlife, no see-and-be-seen scene.
Unlike Park City's resorts, there are no housing developments surrounding Alta or Snowbird, which gives them a feeling of remoteness. The lack of development around Alta is largely due to the late Bill Levitt, owner of the Alta Lodge and mayor for 34 years, who fought developers all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dogs are not permitted in the town of Alta, unless they receive a special permit. Appeal to the powers-that-be at the town offices, if necessary.
The little town of Alta owes its original reputation to rich silver veins and the mining camp's rip-roaring saloon life. Mining started in 1865 with the opening of the great Emma Mine and peaked in 1872, when Alta had a population of 5,000 served by 26 saloons and six breweries. Crashing silver prices the following year and a succession of deadly avalanches ended the boom. Little remains from the old days except abandoned mine shafts, a few shacks, and the cemetery.
By the 1930s, only one resident was left, George Watson, who elected himself mayor. Watson ran a small tourist business known as the Alta Scenic Railway, providing rides in the canyon on a jitney, a car mounted on the old railroad tracks. In 1938 he deeded 1,800 acres to the U.S. Forest Service. (There is some present-day speculation that Watson didn't ever really own the deeded land, but he did take advantage of the tax breaks he got by handing it over.)
Ski enthusiasts brought Alta back to life. The Forest Service hired famous skier Alf Engen to determine Alta's potential as a site for a future ski area. In 1939, Alta's Collins chairlift became the second lift in the United States; detractors complained that the $1.50 per day lift tickets reserved the sport just for the rich. (Some of the original Collins single chairs are still around; look for them in the Wildcat Base parking lot near the Goldminer's Daughter.)
For a closer look at Alta's colorful past, check out the Alta Historical Society's exhibit at the local community center/library, across the road from the Snowpine Lodge (801/742-3522).
Terrain and Lifts
The first thing to know about Alta is that it's for skiers; snowboards aren't allowed. And, even though it's right next door to Snowbird, it feels totally different. Whereas Snowbird feels big and brawny, Alta has an almost European quality. To keep the slopes from becoming too crowded, Alta limits the number of skiers allowed. (It's rare that anyone is turned away; this mostly happens during the holidays and on powder-filled weekends.)
Alta's season usually runs mid-November-April. Average total snowfall is about 500 inches per year, and snow levels usually peak in March, with depths of about 121 inches. Lifts include two high-speed quads, a high-speed triple, four slower chairlifts, and several tow ropes. Even though Alta has the reputation of being an experts' ski area, there's a fair amount of very nice beginner territory. (Beginners should note that the Sunnyside lift, which accesses mostly green trails, is free after 3 p.m. daily.) Of the 116 runs, 25 percent are rated beginner, 40 percent intermediate, and 35 percent advanced. The longest run is 3.5 miles and drops 2,020 feet. Skiers should keep their eyes open as they ride the lifts—porcupines are a common sight in the treetops here.
A good strategy for skiing Alta's 2,200 acres is to begin the day skiing from the Albion Base on the east side of the resort, perhaps even warming up on the mile-long green Crooked Mile run near the Sunnyside lift before heading up the Supreme lift to fairly steep blue runs and some of Alta's famously "steep and deep" black runs. Later in the day, move over to the Wildcat side, after the sun has had a chance to soften the snow there.
Holders of the Alta-Snowbird pass can cut over to Snowbird's Mineral Basin area from the top of Alta's Sugarloaf lift. The cut-across is not difficult, and Mineral Basin is a fun place to ski.
Women take note! Alta's informal and friendly "Ski with the Girls" program welcomes low-intermediate to expert skiers at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays. Ride the Watson or Collins lift to meet the group at the Watson shelter.
Alta's Alf Engen Ski School (801/359-1078) offers a wide variety of lessons; rentals and child-care services are also available. Guided snowcat skiing (and snowboarding) in the Grizzly Gulch backcountry is available for expert skiers and boarders with lots of off-trail experience. Five runs cost $200; call the ski school to reserve a spot.
Rent cross-country skis or purchase a trail pass ($10) from the ticket office at the base of the Wildcat lift, near the western end of groomed cross-country trails. These trails, groomed for both classic and skate skiing, are not the world's most exciting—they essentially parallel the tow rope that runs between the Wildcat and Albion lifts—but they're a good place to learn cross-country techniques or get your legs in shape at the beginning of the season.
More ambitious cross-country skiers can head up the unplowed summer road to Albion Basin. Snowcats often pack the snow. The road begins at the upper end of the Albion parking lot, then climbs gently to the top of Albion Lift, where skiers can continue to Albion Basin. Intermediate and advanced skiers can also ski to Catherine Pass and Twin Lakes Pass. Cross-country skiers may ski the beginner (green) Alta trails.
Alta's accommodations are excellent though pricey: Even bunk beds in a dorm room are over $100! Note, however, that room rates at most lodgings include breakfast and dinner. Rates at all the lodges are comparable, from about $110-140 for a dorm bed to $450-500 for a large room with a view; at peak times, most lodges require a several-day minimum stay. In summer, room rates drop by nearly half. Please note that there's an additional room tax of over 12 percent, and most lodges tack on a 15 percent service charge, in lieu of tipping.
The easiest way to find a room is simply to call a reservation service: Alta Vacations (800/220-4067, www.altavacations.net) can make reservations at all lodgings and arrange transportation and ski packages.
In Alta, one of the most charming and most central places to stay is the Alta Lodge (801/742-3500 or 800/707-2582, www.altalodge.com, $134 per person in bunkroom, $310-522 double), an old-fashioned ski lodge that oozes authenticity. Rates include breakfast and dinner. Alta Lodge, built in 1939, is not fancy. In fact, descending the four flights of wood-plank stairs from street level is a bit like entering a mine. Fortunately, at the bottom of this shaft, guests are greeted by a friendly dog, engaging people, and a super-size bottle of sunscreen at the check-in window. The atmosphere is relaxed and the Sitzmark Club, the lodge's bar, is lively. There are no televisions in the rooms at Alta Lodge, but a game room off the lobby has a big-screen TV and nightly videos. The lodge also has a good ski-and-play program for kids.
The most luxurious place to stay in town is Alta's Rustler Lodge (801/742-2200 or 888/532-2582, www.rustlerlodge.com, bed in dorm room $166, standard room with bath from $456), with heated outdoor pool, fine-dining restaurant, and spacious rooms. But even here, there's no pretense. Après-ski, it's common to see guests wandering around the lobby swathed in their thick hotel bathrobes. The Rustler spa offers massage, facials, full-body skin care, and "altitude therapy"; call the lodge to book an appointment.
Alta's oldest, smallest, and most rustic place to stay is the Snowpine Lodge (801/742-2000, www.thesnowpine.com, bed in dorm room $105, standard room with bath $138-204 per person). It was built as a WPA project in 1938, and its original design was a smaller version of Timberline Lodge on Oregon's Mount Hood, another WPA ski lodge. Since then, the Snowpine has been extensively remodeled, but it is still small, cozy, and a touch on the funky side. Like Alta Lodge, the Snowpine is an easy place to make friends—the lobby area, the outdoor hot tub, and the dining room are all very convivial.
The Alta Peruvian Lodge (801/742-3000 or 800/453-8488, www.altaperuvian.com, dorm bed $144, standard room from $188 per person) is another good choice, with its large heated outdoor pool and grand lobby. Like most of the other local lodgings, the Peruvian has a colorful history. In 1947 its owner acquired two hospital barracks from Brigham City, over 100 miles to the north, hauled them to Alta, and hooked them together. Though the original structure still stands, the lodge has been considerably updated and modernized.
The Goldminer's Daughter Lodge (800/453-4573, www.goldminersdaughterlodge.com, dorm bunk $177, small single bedroom $213, double $350) is close to the base of the Wildcat lift, near the large parking area, with easy ski-in, ski-out access. (All of Alta's lodgings have easy access from the slopes, but most are up-slope from the lifts, meaning that at the end of the day, you've got to be hauled back to your lodge on a tow rope.) While the Goldminer's Daughter doesn't have quite the history or ambience of many of Alta's lodgings, it's plenty comfortable.
In addition to the traditional ski lodges, there are condos available for rent. Hellgate Condominiums (801/742-2020, www.hellgate-alta.com) is between Snowbird and Alta; units sleeping 4-6 people go for $400-800 a night. Be sure to pick up groceries in Salt Lake City; there are no food stores up here.
Since virtually all of Alta's lodges include breakfast and dinner for their guests, Alta does not have a highly developed restaurant scene. All of the lodge dining rooms are open to the public; of these, the Rustler and Alta Lodge are particularly good places for dinner.
Stop for lunch on the mountain at Watson Shelter (801/799-2297, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily, $5-12), mid-mountain beneath the top of the Wildcat lift. Upstairs, Collin's Grill (801/742-3333, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily, $11-22) is a sit-down restaurant.
Alta's one real restaurant of note is the Shallow Shaft (801/742-2177, www.shallowshaft.com, 4:30-9 p.m. nightly in winter, Thurs.-Sun. in summer, $12-25), across the road from Alta Lodge. Although the place looks a little dubious from the outside, the interior has great views of the ski mountain. Along with good steaks and chops, pizza is available to eat in or to go; the wine list is as good as you'll find in Utah.
Getting to Alta Ski Area
Alta is eight miles up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Snow tires are required in the canyon November 1-May 1 (with tire chains in the car). During extremely heavy snowstorms the canyon may be temporarily restricted to vehicles with 4WD or chains; occasionally it shuts down entirely.
Parking can be difficult in Alta. Pay attention to the No Parking signs, as parking regulations are enforced.
UTA buses and Canyon Transportation shuttles service all resorts up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Alta Shuttle (801/274-0225 or 866/274-0225, www.altashuttle.com, $34 any one-way trip) runs between the airport, Alta, and Park City resorts.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition