More than 30 years ago, my parents brought me to Alta, Utah, for a family vacation. Whether their motivation was teaching me to ski or enjoying a couple of days while their kids were in ski school (the most likely scenario), I continue to thank them for making the introduction.
Alta is a relatively small and less flashy ski town compared to those you traditionally hear about. It’s located at the top of Little Cottonwood canyon, just up the road from its neighbor Snowbird, and home, as they say, to the best snow on Earth. And they’re not wrong. Every year, Alta is one of the most dependable spots for snow, and lots of it. Not to mention, some of the best maintained terrain, and a top-of-the-line ski school established by Alf Engen, one of the original giants in the ski world. Just ask the locals, who consistently make the trek up the canyon after particularly big storms.
Alta is for skiers only, and one of only three resorts in the nation that can make that claim (snowboarders are welcomed down the road at Snowbird). Located just over 30 miles (a 45-minute drive) from Salt Lake International Airport, Alta is not only easy to get to, but easy to fall in love with. Here are a few tips before you book your own trip. I guarantee it won’t be your last.
Where to Stay
Alta Lodge was the town’s first hotel and is still standing (and thriving!) almost 80 years later. Situated right near the base of Wildcat, the Alta Lodge provides its guests with the perfect location for ski-in/ski-out access so they can maximize time on the mountain. Over the years, the Alta Lodge has expanded from its original size, (now boasting 59 rooms) but it has preserved both the history and beauty of what has drawn guests there for decades. Depending on their room choice, guests can step outside on to their own private balconies for a spectacular mountain view of the ski-runs they plan to attempt that day or warm up next to their own private fireplace. Perhaps most impressive, the Alta Lodge’s commitment to families; family-owned since 1959, the lodge offers an outstanding kids’ program, providing a separate kids’ dinner, transportation to ski school and appealing activities (think: sledding, arts & crafts and movie night) for children to enjoy time without their parents…and vice versa. Above all else, Alta Lodge guests revel in the community atmosphere, using the lobby and the time-honored Sitzmark Club to connect with old friends, make new ones, and then return year after year, bringing the next generation with them.
All accommodations include a hot breakfast and a four-course dinner. Lunch is served daily and open to everyone.
Alta’s Rustler Lodge
The Rustler has long been the destination for skiers visiting Alta who seek all of the amenities and service one would expect at a five-star resort, while maintaining the spirit of a quaint mountain town. Originally built on the site of Alta’s first General Store, The Rustler is perhaps Alta’s most well-known and most-visited hotel, with 85 rooms – from the least expensive dorm-style accommodations to luxurious suites, overlooking the majestic Wasatch range. The rooms are furnished in a comfortable mountain aesthetic featuring art from local Utah artists. And although the Rustler offers modern perks (complimentary wireless and DirecTV access) to keep guests connected to the present, it’s evident they value the past; photographs of skiers from the Alta’s storied history line the wood-paneled walls and emphasize the importance of both community and soul of the ski town that has managed to retain its old-school charm.
After a day on the mountain, the lodge’s convenient ski-in/ski-out access allows a seamless transition from ski-mode to spa-mode. Most evenings, guests can be found in rejuvenating Eucalyptus steam room or briefly braving the cold to soak in the outdoor heated pool. Like its neighbor down the road, guests very rarely stay just once, and the Rustler’s commitment to exceptional service proves that luxury can be found at over 8,000 feet.
All accommodations include a daily full breakfast buffet and a four-course dinner. Lunch is served daily and open to everyone.
The newest addition to Alta lodging is the Snowpine Lodge. While the original Snowpine Lodge, built in 1941, was the oldest building in the canyon, version 2.0 is anything but. Their restaurant and bar (Swen’s and The Gulch) are located on the main floor, with unforgettable views, and are open both for overnight guests, and those looking for a la carte dining options. The Stillwell Spa is the largest in Alta, featuring six treatment rooms, an indoor grotto and an Oxygen Bar for those who find themselves in need of some extra O2 in the Little Cottonwood Canyon altitude.
In order to harken back to its history, the original building is deeply embedded within the new construction; repurposed as a fully equipped game room, and aptly named “The Nest,” it features an arcade, ball-pit, Ping-Pong and other amenities for kids, and kids at heart, within the time-honored stone walls. Guests at the Snowpine can also enjoy ski-in/ski-out access and extensive decks which seem reach out towards the mountains, complete with firepits and games like cornhole which will keep people outdoors after skiing, even in the chilliest of temperatures.
Guests can choose from multiple lodging options in order to customize their stay. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily and open to everyone.
Where to Ski
Beginners and intermediates would be wise to start at Albion Base and begin their day on the Sunnyside lift. From there, skiers can choose between leisurely laps on the beginner side of the mountain or heading up towards Supreme and Sugarloaf, which offer everything from mellow groomers and tree-skiing to expert terrain. Devil’s Castle, named after the iconic cliffs above it, is accessible via the Sugarloaf chairlift and on a powder day, well worth the short hike.
Those familiar with Alta, or looking for a more challenging, adventurous day should head straight to Wildcat Base, and head up the Collins and Wildcat lifts. The High Traverse provides many opportunities for skiers drop down into some of the steeper runs, or you can take it all of the way over to Alf’s High Rustler (“High Boy” as it’s known to the locals), which will certainly earn you your Alta bragging rights.
One of the great features of Little Cottonwood Canyon is that skiers have two exceptional areas at their disposal; skiers can get from Alta to Snowbird (and vice versa) on skis – although you do have to buy a separate lift ticket. For those interested in taking it to the next, next level, numerous companies offer backcountry guides and heli-skiing — with Powderbird Helicopter Skiing – is also conveniently located in Snowbird.
For rentals, ski gear and answers to any questions you might have, there are myriad options with friendly faces at each: Alta Ski Shops (at Wildcat Base, Alf’s and Watson’s Shelter) Alta Sports (at Albion Base), Powder House (at Goldminer’s Daughter, The Rustler Lodge, Alta Lodge and The Snowpine Lodge).
Where to Eat
Dining options in Alta are limited due to the small size of the town, the fact that hotel guests receive dining with their lodging accommodations, and that all Alta Hotels serve lunch to all patrons. That being said, here are a few notable spots.
Conveniently located on the mountain, directly in between the Sugarloaf and Supreme chairlifts, is Alf’s, named after the aforementioned skiing pioneer, Alf Engen. There is plenty of seating inside, but on a bluebird day, grab the seats on the deck for a mountains-side lunch with views of the imposingly beautiful Devil’s Castle. The menu at Alf’s has something for everyone (burgers, bratwurst and fajitas, to name a few) as well as local brews on tap for those who prefer a liquid lunch. After you eat, take a few minutes to peruse both the photographs on display, featuring the town of Alta in its infancy, and the vintage equipment – complete with a pair of wooden skis fitted to the wall – on loan from the Alf Engen Ski Museum. Open daily from 9:15am-4:30pm.
The Shallow Shaft
The Shallow Shaft is a free-standing restaurant, (directly across the street from the Alta Lodge) that has been serving the customers of Alta for 51 winters. Consistently awarded with “Best Wine List” by Salt Lake Magazine, the Shallow Shaft’s wine list boasts interesting and delicious varietals that are perfectly paired with a menu that is both elevated and comforting. The atmosphere is warm and intimate and offers an appealing change of scenery for those needing a night away from their typical vacation routine. And although the dining menu is consistently supplemented with unique and delectable specials, the trout cakes are an appetizer staple and definitely worth including in your dinner order. Open daily from 5:30-9pm. Closed on Tuesdays, reservations recommended.
Watson’s Shelter is a three-story building located mid-mountain, right off of the Collins lift. It opens on the earlier side for those looking to warm up with a coffee (or something stronger!) and serves lunch daily. Within Watson’s Shelter, there are three separate entities all with floor to ceiling glass windows which provide an unforgettable panorama of both Mount Baldy and Mount Superior. On the first floor, swing by Baldy Brews (Open daily from 9:15 a.m.-4 p.m.) for a selection of snacks, baked goods (made in-house daily), espresso, or their famous house special: Italian Hot Chocolate. Located on the second floor is Watson’s Café (Open daily from 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.), serving lunch daily with an extensive menu or everything from organic soups and vegan chili to sandwiches, salads and burgers made with 100% grass-fed meat…the french fries complete with their special ‘fry sauce’ are not to be missed. Collins Grill (Open daily from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Reservations recommended.) offers a more formal lunch, with a private dining room and a variety of courses on menu they describe as “European mountain bistro-grill.” The views cannot be beat, and for those skiers looking for a relaxing lunch experience, complete with slippers to give your feet a much-needed respite from your ski-boots, Collins Grill is the perfect option.
Where to Drink
Don’t leave town without making a stop at this bustling coffee bar, located at the base of Albion. Known both for their tasty espresso drinks and welcoming staff, Alta Java also specializes in treats such as homemade biscotti, made-to-order baked waffles and locally made granola which are favorites of both visitors and locals alike. Susie’s Special (named after the owner!) is a menu mainstay and one of their best-sellers, combining both a chai latte and a double shot of espresso for the pick-me-up you will likely need after a memorable day of skiing. Open daily 8am-5pm.
Eagle’s Nest (at The Rustler Lodge)
For a more relaxed and sophisticated apres-ski scene, head to the Eagle’s Nest Bar at The Rustler. Leather chairs and spacious couches provide a relaxed ambience where patrons gather around the central wood-burning fireplace and enjoy a cocktail while watching the sunset behind Alta’s Mount Superior. There’s a variety of local beers on tap, an impressive wine list (and exceptional margaritas!) as well complimentary appetizers from the award-winning Rustler Lodge kitchen.
Known by almost everyone as the P Dog, the Peruvian Bar is one of the busiest and most festive apres-ski games in town. It’s also one particularly favored by Alta and Snowbird locals, so you know it’s legitimate. Located on the second floor of Alta’s Peruvian Lodge, the P Dog is the ideal place to go to hear live music – they feature local musicians and bands on Wednesdays through Sundays – or share the day’s ski stories (and shotskis!) over popcorn and free appetizers (while they last).
Located on the second floor of The Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, the Saloon is where you can go to unwind in a casual, cozy setting. Open mic nights, game nights and trivia nights occur weekly and provide a slew of activities sure to please everyone. Saddle up to the bar for local craft beers on tap and for those looking for a post-mountain snack, order Goldminer’s famous pizza or nachos, which arrive on a plate is so big, that you’ll need to bring either your appetite or your friends.