Snow-loving families know Little Cottonwood Canyon shelters the hardcore charms of Alta, a classic mountain resort which celebrated its 75th anniversary in the 2012-2013 winter season. Within a 45-minute drive of the Salt Lake City Airport, this valley of the Wasatch Range finds snowboarders (along with loads of skiers) taking one fork to Snowbird and skiers going straight up the canyon to Alta. The choice is yours.
Gotta’ Love Alta’s Hardcore Ski Bums
You’ll find strong opinions about each resort among skiers. Since the Alta resort is only one of three left in North America that doesn’t allow snowboarders (nearby Deer Valley and Vermont’s Mad River Glen are the other two hold-outs), skiers appreciate that the tree-lined slopes are not carved up by board tracks. The powder stays longer on powder days, and there’s no need to duck riders practicing their 270s overhead.
Many fans feel that Alta is cozier, too — it is not nearly as slick and modern as Snowbird — but you’ll never feel you’re under-dressed either. This diehard skier aesthetic helps Alta retain a loyal following of grandparents, their kids and their grandkids, all of whom were raised on these hills.
Alta has two bases, Wildcat and Albion, and a rope tow (talk about tough!) that allows you to traverse between the lifts and lodges at each one. There’s also a lot of backcountry terrain, and this wilderness experience is what the resort is best known for.
In the areas that you have to hike to, it’s natural to find lots of fresh, light, dry powder and fewer skiers. All of the mountain’s 2,200 skiable acres are diverse and well maintained, offering plenty of beginner and intermediate terrain, plus challenges galore for advanced skiers.
Alta’s Facilities for the Skiing Family
Alta’s seven lifts serve a mountain that is more compact than Snowbird, so keeping track of the kids may be a bit easier. As you can imagine, there’s are a lot of toddlers in harnesses out on the slopes, and the Alf Engen Ski School offers solid ski learning programs from ages 4-years through 12. As in all things Alta, tradition rules and families will find the ski instruction, with its focus on snow ploughs and mastering the base area bunny slope, more old-fashioned than at many resorts. The Alta Children’s Center on mountain is open to provide non-ski daycare for kids 6-weeks to 9-years old and is run by a private, state-licensed operator.
In contrast to the modern purpose-built, condo-hotel-lodge facilities at Snowbird’s densely concentrated base, Alta is spread around a non-town, with about six relaxed lodges and a number of unpretentious condominium units scattered up the valley.
There’s no nightlife to speak of, so families hang around the lodge after a remarkable day on the slopes, happy to share trail tales with other hardcore skiers. There’s a lively afternoon tea with contemporary touches like a Tea Press for herbal brews and fresh cookies. After dining family style (breakfast and dinner are included in all rates at Alta hotels), you get to know your lodge-mates pretty well. Since many families return at the same time each year, camaraderie develops that we, as newcomers, felt comfortable to join.
Alta’s Lodges & Hotels for the Family
Among the housing options, Alta’s Rustler Lodge (801/742-2200; 10380 E State Highway 210, Alta, UT 84092) is the most modern and upscale. It has a very good restaurant slopeside, well… it’s reached by a small chair lift, and the mountain’s only real swimming pool. The service is attentive and having a heated locker room right off the slopes makes for comfortable gear-stashing at day’s end.
The circa-1939, chalet-style Alta Lodge (800/707-2582, 801/742-3500; 10230 E. State Hwy. 210, Alta, UT 84092) is older but has loyal fans, friends of ours among them, who return year after year, and treasure it for its homey and intimate atmosphere. With just 57 double rooms (some connect), and no TV (but times do change, there’s WiFi throughout and a video lounge), families can choose between the classic motel-style lodge or larger, newer rooms with big glass slope-view walls, fireplace and balconies. Alta Lodge does have a self-serve sauna and two jacuzzi tubs with a slopeside view. Since the Lodge represents many generations of add-ons and rebuilds, there are maze-like stairs throughout, making it especially challenging for the mobility impaired.
In both lodges, there is a separate kids’ table for peer-to-peer dining, and evening movies in a common lounge. The apres ski kids’ program consists of supervised play in a comfy game room, some reading or crafts time, dinner and then a movie.
Goldminer’s Daughter (800/453-4573, 801/742-2300; 10160 E. State Hwy. 210, Alta, UT 84092) is another basic option in the valley with an excellent restaurant. The lobby and breakfast room share a mountainview atrium that’s great to wake up to; our room was only adequate but it’s well located for access to both mountains and has suites sleeping five as well as dorm beds.
Trip Planning Details for an Alta Family Snowsports Vacation
Alta (801/359-1078) is located in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Snowbird, Utah 84092. Since the repeat guest rate among those who find old-fashioned really refreshing hovers around 80%, you have to book early for an on-mountain room. Rates vary greatly from $-$$$$$ depending on unit size and season. Keep in mind that hearty breakfasts and gourmet dinners plus some snacks, morning coffee and afternoon tea, etc are included in rates, and the hotels pride themselves on a farm-to-table ethic using local produce and meats, with dishes like elk, duck and the locally-caught trout.
The local town of Alta (888/258-2840) has its own promotional service and can steer you to other lodging options in the valley. There are great early season and spring ski deals available at area lodging as well.
In comparing Alta and Snowbird, I happen to like the way both mountains suit different moods, and love not having to choose between them. Skiers can get an AltaSnowbird One Pass lift ticket that provides access to both mountains and their combined 4,700 skiable acres, but the snowboarders in your clan will have to stick to Snowbird. The choice provided my family a richer and more exciting ski experience.
So, is Alta right for your family? We asked friends with a 12- and 10-year-old, repeat visitors who adore the place, how they would describe it: “Alta is funky, sure, but mostly, it’s just old-fashioned, kind of out of step and out of time with everywhere else. We love that.”
In contrast, Snowbird recognizes that not everyone in the family may be into snowsports, and offers alternative off-slope activities. The choice is yours.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.