Insider Guide: Alta
Just by its name -- Alta Ski Area – you can tell that you’re skiing “old school.” The famed powder mountain is one of the oldest in the country, opening in 1939, and much is the same today -- including an average of 500-plus inches. The Wasatch Range is first to grab Pacific storm snowfall after the Sierra Nevada. The trip across the desert sucks the moisture out, so famous Utah fluffy powder typically arrives atop Little Cottonwood canyon below 10% water content.
"Casual" vibe abounds, like free cubbyholes in the base lodge. Still, no snowboards allowed. Runs top off at 11,000 feet with 2,500 vert on 2,400 acres -- only 15% greens. Backcountry among most popular in the West. Alf Engen Ski School rated one of the nation’s best, especially for powder skiing. In the Ikon family, Alta also shares ticket (skiing only) with neighbor Snowbird, and Solitude and Brighton sit just over the crest in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Land at Salt Lake airport in the morning, and ski or ride in the afternoon. Wide choice of shuttles, rentals, buses and private cars. Light-rail TRAX gets to Sandy, at base of the canyon. Know that canyon congestion can be daunting, especially on powder days. Consider the bus.
Three ski-in ski-out classics await: Alta Lodge (opened 1940), Peruvian Lodge (1947), and Rustler Lodge (1948). Goldminer’s and Snowpine a bit newer. A limited number of condos and townhouses up near the mountain. Overnighters get all the freshies if the road is closed due to avalanche. Down below, the town of Sandy is full of VRBOs, hotels, and motels.
The hearty fare on the hill at Watson’s Shelter on the front, and Alf’s Lodge on the backside. Watson's also ups the ante with four-course midday meals at Collin's Grill. Down below, basic menus during the day, but the fondu flames fire up every evening at European-style lodges. For local feel apres-ski, hit up the Peruvian Lodge Bar (aka P-Dog). Below, Salt Lake has it all -- with a plethora of brewpubs as liquor laws have loosened.
Two cirques side by side, carved by last glaciation period, produce Alta's headwalls, hanging valleys and steep gullies. Blues on the north-facing front under 11,000-foot Mt. Baldy roll gently down the middle. But up on the sides, that's where Alta made its name. Be ready for long traverses to get to iconic steeps Sunspot or Alf's High Rustler on skier's right, or Ballroom to the left off Collins high-speed.
Take a vintage Wildcat double chair for a trip up into the original Alta of gullies and sudden drops in the trees. Head hard skier’s left off Wildcat and stick near the boundary rope. All it does is get steeper, cliff-ier and longer the farther you go.
Or traverse over to the backside for an array of untrammeled steeps in Greeley Bowl and under Devil's Castle, or gnarly cliffy drops off the Supreme lift (a hike off the top gets you to Brighton Mountain). The gentle long cruisers under Albion lift -- only greens on the hill -- run all the way to the base. Beginners get a late-afternoon deal for novice-only tickets.