Normally, waking up to the sound of artillery and explosions at 6AM does not augur well. In Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, however, it is a welcome soundtrack. It means there is enough new snow to pose serious avalanche risk, and that the ski patrollers are making it safe for us to enjoy the fresh snow by the time the lifts start turning. Little Cottonwood Canyon is home to Alta and Snowbird, two of the best ski areas in the world. The unique microclimate here dumps around 500 inches of high-quality snowfall annually onto some spectacular terrain.
Alta is the older of the two ski areas and remains old-school in most every way. Snowboarders are not allowed, and the ski area only recently started installing high-speed lifts (Breckenridge installed the first such lift more than 25 years ago). There is no resort at the base area, just a handful of ski lodges that have been around a long time and have distinct characters. The lodges offer dorms for those looking to stay up canyon as close to the skiing as possible for as little money as possible. A system of rope tows transports skiers from the lodges to the base of the lifts. Once on the mountain, you can expect to spend more than a little time traversing or hiking to access the best terrain. Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, a similarly old-school, no-frills ski area — was my favorite place to ski when I was growing up so I was naturally drawn to Alta. It also looked like the perfect place to build my ski fitness before heading to Verbier, Switzerland.
I escaped Washington, DC just ahead of another paralyzing winter storm and flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I discovered one of the major selling points of Alta and Snowbird: they are less than an hour from the airport. You could easily fly here early in the morning and have a nearly full ski day, then have another full ski day on your day of departure if you book an evening flight home. You really do not need a rental car up here, and it is far cheaper and easier to let the nice folks at Alta Shuttle drive you up the canyon. Shortly after entering the canyon, you will likely see ice climbers tackling a long, frozen waterfall on the right side of the road. You also pass Snowbird on the way to Alta. A few minutes later, we arrived at the Snowpine Lodge just in time for a delicious dinner. Still on East Coast time, I fell asleep before 9PM.
It didn’t snow overnight my first day at Alta, but it started snowing by mid-morning, adding a nice layer of soft snow to the hard packed base. My guide, Art, gave me a tour of the mountain. We started out on Wildcat Lift, an old double that runs along the boundary with Snowbird, and then worked our way over to the Collins, Sugarloaf, and then Supreme lifts. Here’s a photo from the Sugarloaf Lift, looking over towards some of the terrain served by the Supreme Lift. Visibility got worse throughout the day, and I could not read the terrain at all unless we were skiing in the trees, where the contrast helped.
Alta doesn’t look like a large mountain from my base at the Snowpine Lodge, but it is actually quite large, with entire sections of in-bounds terrain served by the Sugarloaf and Supreme Lifts hidden behind the terrain visible from the base. After Art and I parted ways, I met up with my friend Kaleb and we skied a bunch of fun terrain off the Sugarloaf and Supreme lifts, including a quick hike into Catherine’s Area (on the far left of the Alta Trail Map). Kaleb is an expert skier and it was fun to watch him rip up some of Alta’s legendary terrain. I called it a day around 2PM to save my legs for the forecasted powder day.
I woke up to the sounds of avalanche control work and Interlodge Restrictions on February 13 — a real powder day. I was supposed to meet Art at the base of Wildcat Lift at 830AM for another early morning session before the lifts opened to the general public, but the Interlodge Restrictions held me at the door until then.
I raced over as soon as they were lifted and we barely made our allotted window. On the way up the lift, a ski patroller yelled up to us “90 seconds!” and we covered our ears as the explosives she had dropped detonated and triggered a small slide down a section of the Wildcat lifeline. You can hear the big guns firing in the background as we take our warm up turns down Stimulation.
Art then led me through some of the best powder stashes I’ve skied anywhere. If you listen carefully, you can hear me laughing about how good it is.
We got first tracks on Eagles’ Nest and did a bunch of runs on West Rustler, where the snow was excellent.
The only downside to those runs was that we had to hit the High Traverse over and over again. And then ski through some heavy, wet snow towards the bottom of the mountain. When my legs felt like they were going to fall off, Art coaxed me into one more run, which turned into two more epic runs, culminating in a blast through the trees under the Collins Lift. After a quick lunch at Watson’s, I threw in the towel and headed back to the lodge just as the clouds were breaking, revealing the first bit of blue sky I had seen since I arrived. Alta must be a stunningly beautiful landscape on a true bluebird day.
Alta and Snowbird are an easy 45 minute drive from the Salt Lake City airport, which is served by all the major airlines and is a Delta hub. There are nonstop flights available from just about every major city in the United States. You don’t need a rental car while you are in Little Cottonwood Canyon, so you can save money and let Alta Shuttle ($72 roundtrip) drive you from the airport to your lodging.
Where to Stay
At Alta, you have a choice of lodges, each with a different reputation and vibe. Most places offer a range of sleeping arrangements, from a bunk in a dorm to a standard hotel room with private bath. Based on my conversations with folks on the lifts, Alta Peruvian Lodge attracts a younger crowd (20s and 30s) and has a fun apres ski scene that goes late into the night. I stayed at the Snowpine Lodge, which was renovated recently and has a talented young chef turning out delicious dinners. All of the lodges are ski-in, ski-out.
On the Hill
It really pays to get up early and be one of the first people off the lifts, particularly on powder days. You can increase your chances of scoring first tracks by booking an early bird private lesson ($110) from the Alta Ski School. The early bird grants you access the lifts before they open to the general public and is a great way to get in some fantastic runs in virgin snow. I did this two of my mornings at Alta and it was well worth it.
Follow the locals. There is an entire crew of regulars at Alta who work at the lodges and ski during the day. They know how to find the best snow on the mountain at any given moment.