The Ultimate Guide to Alta, Utah
Written by Jack Lee • Last updated Aug 16, 2017
When Utah coined the slogan “Greatest Snow on Earth” they probably meant Alta. The no-frills ski area, tucked deep in Little Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City, averages over 500 inches of the stuff annually! Its elevation and dry air make it some of the lightest and fluffiest powder you can find anywhere, and it serves it all up on some of the best terrain in the west.
“Alta is for skiers,” its website says – and they mean it: one of the oldest ski areas in the country and steeped in history, it has steadfastly resisted the snowboarding tide. Despite years of controversy and even court cases, Alta remains one of three places in the United States that are skier-only (the others are nearby Deer Valley and Vermont’s Mad River Glen). Sometimes, boarders will come down after crossing over from neighboring Snowbird, but won’t be allowed onto Alta’s lifts. To be honest, for many locals and returning visitors, it’s part of the appeal.
Alta consciously refers to itself as a ski “area” instead of a resort. You won’t find the fashionable crowd and their shops or nightclubs here, but instead a family-friendly community of locals and visitors – many who come back year after year – who are all about the skiing. Come to Alta for the snow, return for the variety of terrain and the vibe.
Alta covers 2,200 acres of terrain and has 2,020 feet of vertical – not particularly impressive compared to the likes of Vail, Big Sky, and Park City. But with terrain and snow like Alta’s, it’s definitely a case of quality over quantity! It may not be quite as rugged as Snowbird, but that doesn’t mean it’s tame; there’s still plenty of cliffs to huck, steep chutes to charge, and glades of trees to ski through while still offering up plenty of terrain for everyone else. Word of caution: Alta lumps extreme terrain which would be classed as double blacks or triple blacks into a single black rating – so brace yourself!
Despite the well-earned reputation for powder, Alta does own some snowmaking equipment, but that’s just to make sure the lower mountain runs are ready for opening – after that, Mother Nature and lake effect from the Great Salt Lake take over. That said, Alta and neighboring Snowbird usually see more snow than Park City – sometimes almost twice as much in a single storm! Much of the terrain is north facing, which helps preserve the legendary powder. Of course, some of the locals swear the lack of snowboarders also keeps the powder in good shape, but that’s one you’ll have to decide for yourself!
Alta has two main base areas, Wildcat (the first one you see as you arrive and closest to Snowbird) and Albion (at the “far” end of the canyon). Wildcat is where most of the advanced and expert skiers start the day, while Albion is where you find the beginner terrain. You can cross between the two by riding up and skiing over, or by taking a transfer tow between the two base areas at the bottom of the mountain.
Alta shares Mt. Baldy with Snowbird (which does allow snowboarders), and together the areas offer 4,700 acres. Intermediate skiers can cross over via the gate at the top of Sugarloaf into Mineral Basin while advanced skiers may decide to ski the steep terrain off Wildcat directly into Peruvian Basin. An Alta day pass can be upgraded to allow access to Snowbird lifts on the same day.
When to Go
Alta’s season usually begins in early December, but for best snow coverage – especially in advanced and expert terrain – consider going between early January and mid-March. This also keeps you clear of the Christmas vacation rush, when the mountain is crowded and rooms tend to be more expensive. Later in the season, there’s usually a powder storm or two in April and it’s easy to follow the sun to find the best conditions at different times of day. By the end of the season, it’s common for temperatures to get over 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which isn’t all that great for the snow, but does make for some pleasant outdoor eating and après!
Alta is less expensive than most of the major US destination resorts, with an adult full day ticket coming in at just under $100 and discounts for multi-day passes, afternoon passes, children 12 and under, and seniors over 70. Any single-day ticket can be upgraded to include access to Snowbird for $30 but make sure you go hard to get the most bang for your buck!
If your trip is long enough and you think you’d like to ski both Snowbird and Alta, consider a Mountain Collective pass. You’ll get two days at each area, and 50% off each additional day. If you have some other trips you’re considering in the same season, the Mountain Collective Pass also gives you two days at several other resorts around the world.
Liftopia offers discounted tickets to Alta, and you can often find discounted tickets at local ski shops and Smith’s supermarkets. You might also consider the SCS (Ski City Super) Pass especially if you’re staying in Salt Lake City. You can purchase anywhere from 3 to 10 days of skiing or get 1 or 2 day passes as part of some hotel packages, and can use the passes at Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton. In addition, you get free transportation on the public light rail and busses to get to the ski areas, and rental discounts starting at 20% at participating shops. We also have some great ski packages if you're thinking of traveling to Alta.
Alta generally even gets slightly better snow than Snowbird and its fresh powder generally lasts a bit longer - but you have to work/climb a bit to get it.
This is a skiers mountain. Highly recommended for experienced skiers who care more about the skiing than they do the apri-ski.