When I ask other ski fanatics, “What’s your favorite American ski hill?” an awful lot of them give the same answer.
Care to guess what answer that might be?
If you guessed Alta, you win the prize. So what makes this old-fashioned ski area (area, not resort) that is sans glitz, sans glamor, sans grand hotel/casino/jigunda spa; that’s infamous for lockdowns, and that’s situated at the dead-end of an avalanche-prone Utah road so beloved?
Let us count the ways …
1. Light, dry, deep snow
For many, it comes to a three-letter word: pow. The powder at high-altitude Alta is the stuff of legends. Light and dry, deep and abundant, it fills the powder-day dreams of experts and aspiring experts alike.
2. Home to many ski legends
When it comes to ski legends, Alta also shines.
Alf and Sverre Engen. Junior Bounous. Dick Durrance. These powder mavens, instructor gods and technique gurus came to Alta, stayed at Alta and kept hungry skiers loading their plates at the Alta smorgasbord year after year after year.
3. Legendary ski lodges
Many ski legends stay at a third Alta attractant, Alta Lodge. Now in its 76th year, it’s hosted the exceedingly smart, rich and glamorous in its distinctly unglamorous digs since 1940. In Alta: A People’s Story, Duane Shrontz accurately wrote that the Lodge was “what has symbolized Alta over all the years: a place of warmth and friendliness where people return year after year.”
Just a short schuss from Alta Lodge are other legendary ski lodges: Peruvian, Rustler, Snowpine and Gold Miner’s Daughter.
4. Bold history
Some have been here since Alta was a mining town, not a ski town … which brings up another reason so many worship at the Alta temple — a bold and bawdy history.
When silver was discovered at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the 1860s, tiny, isolated, snowbound Alta swelled like a liftline on a fresh powder day. It went from zero to 5,000 in no time … and a rough ‘n ready 5,000 it was. These were miners and whores, claim jumpers and card sharks, boozers and shooters. At the start of Fourth of July celebrations in 1876, they couldn’t raise the flag because a very dead man was swinging from the pole. His presence didn’t even slow down the boozy celebration, though there was some grumbling that it inconvenienced the flag ceremony. “To make matters worse,” it was written, “the flagpole was broken as they attempted to get the stranger down, with the result that the event had to be cancelled.”
Many western ski areas were built on old mining towns, but few were so filled with what the Utah Mining Journal called “unrighteous galoots.” The town was so galoot-rich that the Alta jail stood three stories high and came with rooms for dancing and lectures.
5. A snowy haven for celebrities
Ski fanatics haven’t been the only ones drawn to Alta. Among the celebrities who have skied here: Lowell Thomas, Ray Milland, Pierre Trudeau and Errol Flynn.
Flynn got off to a bad start. Though he’d never been on skis and was kinda’ out of shape (the dissolute life he led was also a thing of legend), he insisted on skipping the learners’ hill and starting his Alta experience at the top of the mountain. By the time he finally reached the bottom, the man was an exhausted wreck. How exhausted? They had to bring him down in a toboggan.
6. Something for everyone (Well, almost everyone)
And then there’s the mountain, itself. Though best known for its steeps and deeps, Alta has slopes for first-timers (who might want to take a lesson instead of going all Errol Flynn), powder hounds and aspiring dare-devils. It has something for everyone.
No, not quite everyone. If you’re a snowboarder, Alta is not for you. Or rather, you are not for Alta. Along with Mad River Glen in Vermont and Deer Valley in Utah, Alta is still a snowboard-free zone. A discrimination lawsuit is slowly working its way through the courts.
So, Alta is the mountain of choice for ski fanatics, skiing legends, Hollywood stars and history buffs. It’s the jewel in the fervent skier’s mountain crown, the Thor among their gods, icon among their icons.
Alta is the stuff of legends. See Alta lift tickets.
Jules Older’s ski book ebook SKIING THE EDGE is co-written by legends in their own right: Leslie Anthony, Mike Finkel, Lori Knowles, G.D. Maxwell, Moira McCarthy, Roger Toll, Kristen Ulmer and more, more, more.