Alta. Four little letters. One mythic resort. Alta is one of the cradles of American skiing and a visit to Alta can be a bit like a trip back in time – in a good way. Founded in 1938 in an old mining town, Alta is not so much a ski resort as an active, living shrine to the days when visiting a ski resort was not about shopping and not about spas. It was about skiing. Alta was built by skiers for skiers, so when you come to Alta, come to ski, period. There is nothing to distract you from skiing. Not even snowboarders. Snowboarders are not allowed on the slopes at Alta.
Our family first visited Alta in 2009. On this visit, we hit the slopes on a weekday in March, the day after a really big snow. Parking was free and a breeze. We were in one of probably 200 cars in the Wildcat parking lot and very close to the ticket office and lifts. We walked over to the ticket office, got our tickets and got in line for the Collins lift. All in the span of maybe five minutes, and that included a bathroom stop.
Now, while everything about Alta looks pretty old-school on the surface, I immediately got tripped up by their lift tickets. The tickets at Alta are radio-frequency tickets (RF) which means that you simply put them in your pocket and go through an electronic gate to get on the lift. Sounds simple enough, but I managed to get hung up on my first try. Turns out I had my local resort season pass in my coat and it is also RF (which I must say is great technology. RF lines move quickly once you’ve got the hang of them). With more and more resorts using this technology, you have to make sure you only sport one ticket at a time, or they will cancel one another out. Anyway, a nice liftie (probably counting on confused people like me for job security) helped me out and I got on the lift without causing anyone except myself too much embarrassment.
Finally we get on the Collins lift (10 minutes have passed since we left the car). Within minutes we were skiing and were delighted to discover that there were still fresh lines to carve and stashes in the trees. We rode the Collins lift several times, warming up on the fast steep groomers and then taking the traverse to Sunspot and Race Course, at least that is where I think we were. For to be perfectly honest, one of my favorite things about Alta is that when you take a traverse, you aren’t really skiing on “runs” per se, but rather choosing lines where ever they look good. Whether I can find that exact line again is questionable, but that adds to the challenge and the fun. A lot of the advanced and expert terrain at Alta is what is sometimes called “in-bounds backcountry” or “off-piste” and it is ungroomed, wild and wonderful. I think it is a bit like backcountry skiing, except there are lifts (bonus!) and the ski patrol monitors the avalanche danger for you.
After a couple of hours on the frontside of the mountain, we crossed over to the east side of Alta and found the same thing: Intermediate groomers under the Sugarloaf lift, side by side with traverses to Devil’s Castle and drops down into the East Greeley bowl. We warmed up on the intermediate Razor Back, which was fun for the boys (my husband included) as they could practice their jumping skills off some small rock faces. Quickly however, the siren song of Devil’s Castle called us to traverse. Again, no real “runs” per se, just endless wildland powder with lines for the taking. Moving over to the Supreme lift (we’ve got to try them all!) we found really steep chutes on skier’s right with more mellow advanced and intermediate terrain to skier’s left. At the end of the day, we all got a kick out of taking the delightfully old-school Transfer Tow back to the Wildcat Base area. Don’t ask me why, for I can’t explain it, but the Transfer Tow is fun and fascinating. I think it is the history thing again.
We spent two days at Alta on this trip. In addition to the stellar skiing, a really good piece of cherry pie at Alf’s Restaurant stands out, as does a group of college-age skiers drinking beer sitting on an old couch outside Alf’s. They had built a small jump out of snow and every time someone came by and went off their jump they cheered loudly. They were raucous, but good-natured, and their presence added to the welcoming at-home, family sort of feeling for which Alta is famous.
So now you know why I ski Alta. Why should you?
1. Incredibly Diverse Terrain. Alta has something for every skier in your family, regardless of skill level. There is groomed intermediate terrain off of every lift and gentle green runs off of the Albion, Sunnyside and Cecret lifts. Total beginners can ski for free all day using the rope tows, and if they are feeling confident, they can use the Sunnyside lift for free from 3:00 p.m. until 4:30 p.m., when the lifts close. If you are a parent who has ever been frustrated at having to buy a full-price lift ticket only to spend the entire day on the bunny slopes with your young beginner, Alta’s free skiing may be just the ticket for you and your child.
For families with varied skiing abilities, the Supreme Lift is perfect. The hardcore among you can dive into the steep chutes like Piney Glade, while those intermediate skiers seeking more gentle thrills can take Big Dipper and you’ll all meet at the bottom of the lift. The Wildcat, Collins and Sugarloaf Lifts provide the same sort of options. Advanced and expert skiers can traverse to their hearts’ content, choose their own lines and experience Utah’s famous steep terrain and deep powder. Intermediate skiers can find groomed runs and even venture into moguls and off-piste terrain in the Ballroom (off of the Collins lift) without feeling overwhelmed and everyone can ride back up together for the next run.
2. That Old-School Feeling. There is history in Alta and you can feel it everywhere. I don’t mean “history” in a euphemistic way – such as “look, the buildings are falling down, isn’t this historic?” But history in the inspiring, “Our forefathers skied here on wooden planks and had just as much fun as we are,” sort of way. Alta is proud of its past, and its past is, frankly, inspiring to those of us get misty-eyed thinking about the “good old days” (which we never knew), when skiers earned their turns and probably hand-carved their skis. While we wouldn’t want to go back to using that equipment, it is exciting to venture into a realm of untamed skiing, to choose your own lines, avoid natural obstacles and simply ski in a more elemental state. Yeah, I am romanticizing, but Alta inspires dreams.
Fast Facts for Families
Alta is right next door to Snowbird and you can ski both mountains in one day with an AltaBird ticket. This ticket allows you to cross over between the two mountains at the top of the Alta Sugarloaf lift (or the Snowbird Baldy Express lift).
We drive to Salt Lake, but if you are flying, the airport is approximately 45 minutes from Alta, depending on weather and traffic of course. If you catch a morning flight on the east coast, you could easily be skiing Alta by noon.
Lodging options at Alta are limited and include breakfast and dinner. You can get more information on six lodges, and book online, at the Alta website.
Salt Lake City offers a wealth of lodging and dining options in the suburbs close to Little Cottonwood Canyon or downtown in the city itself. Being small-town people, we love skiing in Utah because it gives us a chance to go the “big city.” The Little America in downtown SLC and the Crystal Inn Midvalley are both great lodging options.
The Salt Lake City Visitor and Convention Bureau is an excellent resource.The VCB sells the Salt Lake Super Pass which provides access to Snowbird, Alta, Solitude and Brighton. If you book before December 15 and stay four or more nights, your 4th day of skiing on the Super Pass is free. Discounted Alta tickets are also available in Salt Lake and the surrounding suburbs at Canyon Sports and Ski ‘n’ See. Once you have an Alta ticket, you can reload it at a reduced rate online at the Alta website.
Some of our favorite restaurants in Salt Lake include The Pie, for great pizza near the University of Utah, the Bay Leaf Cafe where my husband had the best meatloaf of his life (I try not to take it personally) and Bruges Waffles and Frites, my favorite après ski snack stop and one of the few places I have found where I can get authentic crispy, crunchy, sugary Liege waffles (gaufres) in their natural state unadulterated by fruit, chocolate or cream. Try one and you’ll understand…. Bruges also serves authentic Belgian frites and “machine gun” sandwiches (lamb sausage with frites on a baguette). You can also find their delicious waffles at Alta Java on the mountain.
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