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Travel: Alta is for skiers and families

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We are holed away at Alta Ski Area in Utah as the wind and snow howl, the only visibility the distant light of the snowcats grooming the 36 inches of snow from the latest storm…and more is expected the next day. The kids are nervous; they’ve never skied conditions like this. When we arrived, tales were flying from real-life storm chasers of epic powder and the previous day’s “interlodge” where people were required by law to stay indoors as avalanche crews blasted the hanging faces of Little Cottonwood Canyon. One thing is for sure: these kiddos will never forget their first time attempting Alta’s legendary powder.

Many years ago, I worked as the publicist for Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort but here’s my secret: I always preferred skiing its next door neighbor, Alta. Located 45 minutes from Salt Lake City International Airport, Alta is literally a mountain with a skier’s soul and is one of the fewest remaining resorts that bans snowboarders. It’s also one of the oldest ski areas in the country, opening its first lift in 1939 and continuing to evolve while staying true to its roots: deep, unadulterated snow without the fancy bells and whistles. Alta is for purists who don’t care about 5-star accommodations and the nightlife; its magic happens during the day. 

Alta is also surprisingly family-friendly. Beginner and intermediate terrain make up 65 percent of the 2,200 skiable acres. If you’re in the remaining 35 percent expert camp, a joking acronym for A-L-T-A is “Another Long Traverse Again,” a nod to the epic terrain and steep chutes that is only accessible via hiking. 

My family was not able to ski during that first visit. The snow kept pounding and the canyon was closed. Not only were we legally required to stay inside (regular Interlodge) but there was another layer of intensity when we couldn’t go near any windows and doors (Maximum Interlodge). We were disappointed but if you’re going to get snowed in, I highly recommend doing it at Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge where we indulged in the Top of the Lodge restaurant’s cinnamon pancakes with cream cheese whipped cream and had ping pong and pool tournaments in the recreation room, vending machine raids and family challenges in the weight room.

We would eventually return to ski Alta two other times and here are a few things every family should know. 

The Lay of the Land

You’re not in Aspen anymore, Toto. What you won’t see at Alta: Snow bunnies, snowboarders, fur collars or chairlifts that seat more than four people. What you will see: Fluffy, light dry Utah snow. Five rustic lodges. New timers. The “Wild Old Bunch” old timers who’ve skied here more years than you’ve been alive. This place is as heaped in stories and history as its annual 551 inches of snow.   

Alta has two base areas: Wildcat and Albion, and a rope tow that allows you to traverse between the lifts and lodges. Hint: going up (Wildcat to Albion) is a bit tougher than going down. At the Albion Base, you’ll find everything you need: the ticket office, ski school, cafeteria and  Alta Java, a great place to get your morning caffeine fix or homemade biscotti, waffles, fresh made local pastries and lemonade. 

In a broad sense, the resort can be divided into five areas: Supreme, Albion, Sugarloaf/East Blady, Collins and Wildcat.  As a family, we mostly skied off the mid-mountain Sugarloaf Lift (with access to  intermediate and advanced terrain) and the Supreme Lift’s nicely ungroomed blue terrain, challenging blacks and a hike-to in-bounds area with a backcountry feel. Rumor has it this is the most beautiful part of the mountain and we believed it until we stood atop the Collins chair and gawked at Mt. Superior.

If you’re a family of beginners and low-intermediates, stick to the Albion Base’s Albion and Sunnyside lifts with gentle green terrain and where the Children’s Adventure Center, day care and learn-to-ski programs are located. Advanced skiers should base their explorations from the Wildcat Base, using the Collins or Wildcat lifts that accesses some of Alta’s most challenging terrain.

Two Resorts, One Day

If 2,200 acres isn’t enough, buy the One Ticket upgrade, that lets you also ski Snowbird’s 2,500 acres. The resorts share a common ridgeline that stretches a couple of miles from the top of Sugarloaf Pass to Baldy Shoulder with awesome intermediate terrain as well as powder-filled playgrounds only touched by skiers with the dual pass.  The main gate connects the resorts at Sugarloaf Pass atop the Sugarloaf Detachable Quad on the Alta side and via the Baldy Express high-speed quad on the Snowbird side.

Alf Engen Ski School Isn’t Just for Kids

Not all ski schools are created equally but you’re off to a good start if you name yours after Norwegian ski jump legend Alf Engen. Renowned as one of the best in North America, it offers a variety of classes, workshops and private lessons for all ages and ability levels. Nearby is a non-ski daycare for kids 6-weeks to 9-years old that is run by a private, state-licensed operator.

Bode was thrilled with his experience as a Level 6 skier where he learned how to fine-tune his parallel skiing while working on pole plants on more challenging terrain like wide open powder bowls Ballroom and Greely’s on the flanks of 11,068′-foot Mount Baldy

My husband Jamie and I opted to cram in as many runs as we could that morning and rewarded ourselves for our hard work [at play] with Watson Cafe’s delicious burgers, voted Utah’s best 100 percent grass-fed Utah beef burger.  That afternoon, we signed up for their Advanced and Expert Off-Trail Workshop. This 2 1/2 hour lesson is just $85 and we had a great time getting our butts whipped into shape by seasoned off-trail coach, French-Canadian Sylvie. Not only did she give us a fantastic mountain tour of lesser-known areas but she redefined our limits while helping us with our form. And apparently our need for speed.

I later proudly boasted to Jamie: “Sylvie said I’m a very disciplined skier.”

“That’s just ski instructor speak for really slow.'”

Lodging

There’s no better access to Alta than their five unpretentious ski-in, ski-out lodges, each has a distinct character and includes breakfast and dinner.

Goldminer’s Daughter

We stayed at Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, a solid choice for teens with a recreation, weight room, hot tub and steam room in the basement. If you’re looking for accommodations with more formal activities, many families opt for Alta Lodge and Ruster’s Lodge.  During peak season, they offer free apres ski kids’ programs with supervised play in a game room, some reading or crafts time, peer-to-peer dining, evening movies and even a magician.

Since there’s not much nightlife, guests linger longer in the surprisingly upscale and gourmet hotel restaurants. This communal atmosphere (along with floor-to-ceiling glass windows) makes for a memorable, family-friendly atmosphere. Many who stay at Alta are loyal, returning guests so we felt like we were crashing a reunion…but by the end of our stay, we felt very much a part of it. 

 

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