- SlopeLab Ratings
- Alta Mountain Stats
- Alta Ski Area Overview
- Alta Trail Map:
- Alta Terrain Overview
- How is the snow at Alta?
- Where is Alta?
- When is the best time to visit Alta?
- How are the crowds at Alta?
- Further reading
Alta Ski Area Overview
Alta is a place whose magic is hard to define.
It’s not the biggest mountain. Nor does it have the most lifts.
(In fact, Alta only has six lifts on the entire mountain, strategically placed not to bring you to the goods, but to preserve powder and reward those adventerous skiers willing to explore.)
But there is one metric which easily defines the mystique of the second oldest ski resort in the country. Alta receives the highest quality and most consistent snowfall of anywhere in North America.
To be honest, I’ll admit I never really “got” Alta. In fact, on my first visit, I really only pulled the trigger on the trip because the dates conveniently lined up with an all expenses paid flight, courtesy of my employer.
And yet, all it took was my first drive up the perilous Little Cottonwood Canyon road, ascending higher and higher into snowier and snowier mountains, for everything to make sense.
Alta is for skiers. The name makes that clear – Alta doesn’t define itself as a destination, a resort, or any other luxurious moniker. No, it’s “Alta Ski Area” and the marketing tagline doubles down on the commitment. “Come for the skiing. Stay for the Skiing.”
Did we mention snowboarding is strictly forbidden at Alta?
Yea, Alta management and the locals take their sport (and preservation of snow for that sport) seriously. After all, this is the birthplace of powder skiing, and the mountain’s history and emphasis on skiing oozes from every nook and cranny. Good lucking finding them all!
Alta Trail Map:
Alta Lift Info
|Lift||High Speed?||Vertical Rise (ft.)|
Alta Terrain Overview
If Alta’s snow is it’s main allure, the terrain is an extremely close second.
In it’s relatively small 2,200 acre footprint, Alta packs in more hidden lines than just about anywhere on the planet.
At first glance, the trail map looks like the mountain could be skied in a day or two, and yet, many skiers spend a lifetime trying to uncover all of its secrets. So relax, and take your time, because the mystery is all part of Alta’s charm.
Alta for Beginners:
For all of Alta’s allure towards the advanced and expert skiers, Alta’s beginner terrain sits quietly underrated.
That’s partly because of the terrain’s location, far removed from the rest of the mountain in the lowest corner. For beginners though, that’s actually a notable advantage. Since Alta’s beginner lifts (Albion & Sunnyside) service green and blue runs exclusively, beginners are free to enjoy their part of the mountain alone.
That said, beginner terrain at Alta is still pretty limited, and due to the lift layout, beginners will never get the chance to experience the top of the mountain.
Alta for Intermediates:
For intermediates, Alta serves up a respectable amount of terrain.
The heartbeat of the intermediate’s trip to Alta will no doubt stem from the Collins lift. From here, intermediates can ski Mambo or Main Street all the way down to the mountain base. These runs are 2,000+ continuous vertical feet of uninterrupted groomer zooming. Fantastic!
Collins also provides access to one of the most approachable intermediate powder experiences to be found anywhere. After dropping in on Main Street, intermediates can veer skier’s left towards the Ballroom bowl. This area represents wide open bowl skiing at a choose your own difficulty level – the farther you continue to traverse, the steeper it gets.
Alta’s other two main lifts also shuttle skiers to intermediate options; however, they aren’t quite the same intermediate perfection found off Collins.
Off the Sugarloaf lift, Devil’s Elbow, Razorback, and Rollercoaster are all fun blue groomers. However, they’re a little on the narrow side, so letting the speed fly might not be a wise option on a crowded day.
The Supreme lift likewise includes a few great blues, although each run in this area is somewhat plagued by slow, flat runouts back to the chairlift.
Overall, intermediates at Alta certainly have some solid options, but they may also find themselves longingly wishing they could tackle the fantastic advanced/expert runs that engulf Alta blues on all sides.
Advanced Terrain at Alta:
Alta begins to reveal it’s best side for the advanced skier.
An ability to ski advanced terrain unlocks what may be Alta’s defining feature – The High Traverse.
The High Traverse is a long, often single file ski path cutting along Alta’s main mountain ridge. It can be a bumpy and adventurous ride, and on a powder day, pretty chaotic. Skier’s should make sure they’re confident before venturing off!
In general, the farther you ski down the traverse, the more advanced the terrain becomes. Solid black skiers should love the first few lines – named Race Course, Sunspot, and Columbine. These runs show off the wide open powder bowl skiing Alta is famous for!
Suitable advanced terrain also lies underneath the Wildcat lift, one of the last remaining slow, two seater chairlifts on the mountain. The runs underneath Wildcat can be scoped out from the chair; what you see is what you get.
Notable advanced terrain off the Sugarloaf terrain includes Sugar Bowl and Cecret Saddle. The Sugarloaf chair also sports a SlopeLab favorite – the off-piste bumps and trees around Chartreuse, just skier’s left of the liftline.
Lastly, advanced skiers should strongly consider taking Supreme and fitting in a hike-to-experience towards Catherine’s area. Catherine’s is accessed via a short, 5-15 minute gradually uphill march. Because of the hike and northern facing terrain, Catherine’s area tends to hold good snow conditions longer than nearly other part of the mountain.
Expert Terrain at Alta:
Alta is a rite of passage for the Expert Skier. Tucked away off the beaten path (usually, that path is the famous High Traverse) lies all sorts of sneaky steeps and chutes. Skate far down the High Traverse, pick a line, and chances are, you’ll find yourself tilting near 40 degrees of steepness in no time!
The longest and most iconic of those steeps is unquestionably Alf’s High Rustler. “High Boy” faces the mountain village, which means the famous run stares down visitors from the moment they arrive. Alf’s High Rustler is 1,000+ non-stop vertical feet of consistent 35-40 degree pitch, making it a run every expert should check off their bucketlist.
For a similar, yet even steeper experience, experts can peel off the Traverse early and head skier’s right over the ridge, where the Gunsight chute awaits. This is probably Alta’s second most famous steep run. If Gunsight wasn’t enough, and you’re craving an even more technical entrance, check out Eddie’s High Nowhere just next door.
If you’re the type who wants to earn your turns, you can always make the 30 minute hike from the top of Collins to Mount Baldy’s 11,068 foot summit. Here, breath taking views of the Wasatch mountain range await, not to mention the legendary Baldy Chutes. These chutes range from Main Chute, a “relatively” easy 40 degree screamer for 700 vertical feet, all the way to many narrow and tight couloirs, some of which require mandatory air.
These last few paragraphs only begin to scratch the surface of the expert terrain at Alta. A expert skier can spend an entire lifetime trying to find all of Alta’s best terrain. (And many try!) It’s all part of the allure!
How is the snow at Alta?
How’s the snow at Alta? What a silly question…
The snow at Alta is, to put it simply, better than any other location in the Western Hemisphere. And maybe even the entire world.
That’s because the mountain lies in what may be planet earth’s greatest powder trap.
You see, Alta sits at the final stop of Utah’s most notable mountain canyon. As a result, winter storms spend hundreds of miles traveling through Nevada and Western Utah desert, before rolling over 100 miles of the state’s Great Salt Lake. There, the storms storms pick up tons of moisture from the largest standalone lake in the United States, before funneling into Utah’s narrow Little Cottonwood Canyon. The storm’s sudden collision into the mountains creates enough pressure for the clouds to burst, unleashing Utah’s world famous desert-dry powder snow.
And at the very dead end of that narrow canyon? There lies Alta, ready to collect more snowfall than nearly anywhere else on the planet.
This effect is reflected in Alta’s circus-like snow totals. The mountain receives, on average, well over 500 inches of snow a year, and years when the mountain totals 700 inches of snow can and do happen.
To put that level of snowfall in perspective, nearly 1 out of ever 4 winter days at Alta sees over 6 inches of snow. That’s enough that between mid-December to April, Alta receives an average of two feet of snow per week.
As a result, planning an advanced trip to Alta represents your best bet for not only good skiing conditions, but legitimate powder days as well. And without question, more than anything else, this chance for fantastic snow conditions is the defining factor that makes Alta Ski Area such a special place.
Where is Alta?
Despite its isolated Swiss Alps feel and record breaking snowfall, Alta is located just 45 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City.
For the destination skier, it’s an unbeatably convenient arrangement. Combined with the SLC airport’s frequent flight options, visiting skiers can easily sneak in half days of skiing on the same day as their arrival or departure.
Alta also lies just next door to one of the world’s other top rated mountains – Snowbird. The two mountains are connected by either a gate at the top of the Sugarloaf lift, a challenging chute run named Keyhole, or the free shuttle buses which run from the bases of both mountains. For a slightly more expensive lift ticket, you can be the proud owner of an “AltaBird” ticket, which allows you to ski both mountains in the same day.
How to get to Alta?
From the Salt Lake City airport, Alta sits just 45 minutes down the city highways and up the Little Cottonwood Canyon Road.
However, just because it’s close, doesn’t mean its easy.
The Canyon road is the only way in and out of Alta. The drive is uphill, on a narrow two lane road complete with switchbacks, and usually… lots and lots of snow.
As a result, the Little Cottonwood Canyon Road is one of the most avalanche prone roads in the country. With heavy snowfall (anything over a foot) your chances of waiting for the road to open until 9-10 AM increases dramatically. If that’s the case, Utah state law limits the road to 4WD or AWD vehicles only, and yes… traffic patrol does check. (Not like you won’t be hard to spot slipping and sliding in the snow!)
In rare instances, the road closes entirely, leaving the mountain an empty playground for the few lucky souls who stayed in town overnight.
Of course, you can always outsource driving responsibilities to one of the many shuttle services in the area. For a marginal fee (approximately $40 one way in a shared ride) these large 4×4 vans will transport you and your stuff straight from the airport to skiing nirvana.
There’s also the UTA Ski Bus, which has stops all throughout Salt Lake City, plus several Park and Ride lots near the canyon entrance.
Alta as a Ski town
Alta’s ski town is… we’ll call it sleepy. Here, you won’t find any chain restaurants or, to be honest, much of anything.
What you will find is Alta’s legendary ski lodges. These lodges line the base of the mountain, often located just steps from the chairlifts. Get yourself to one of these lodges, and you won’t have to worry about anything else for the rest of your trip. Most lodges include free breakfast and free dinner with your reservations, and we’re not talking cheap hotel meals either. We’re talking top-notch chef prepared cuisine!
Many of Alta’s lodges also include bars, hot tubs, and even spas onsite. It’s a truly unique atmosphere that renders a car completely useless and gives you no reason to ever step foot outside the lodge… other than to ski world-famous Alta powder, that is!
Plus, with so many ski enthusiasts all in one place, don’t be surprised to find yourself walking away with a new ski buddy!
(Check out my trip report of my first reluctant stay in a shared dorm room at Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge.)
When is the best time to visit Alta?
Most ski resorts have a very narrow answer to this question. However, on average, for any given date during the entire ski season, Alta rocks better skiing conditions than any other North American resort.
Similar to most North American mountains, Alta’s snowfall frequency peaks from mid-February to mid-March. However, due to the canyon’s elite snowfall totals, you’re relatively safe to plan a ski trip here any time between December and April. (It usually snows two feet a week during this time, remember?)
How are the crowds at Alta?
Alta’s snowbarding ban does keep the single plankers at bay, along with any groups who happen to have a boarder among them. For this reason, Alta’s lift lines are noticeably tamer than its next door neighbor, Snowbird.
That said, Alta is far from a hidden secret, and ski enthusiasts flock from all over to experience its magic first hand. Unless you luck into a Canyon Road closure while staying in one of the mountain’s base lodges, you’re unlikely to have the powder to yourself.
However, Alta does enjoy top notch snow preservation, and the mountain does a great job dispersing its skiers. In part, that’s because chairlifts are strategically placed around the terrain to keep the good stuff good. It’s a unique strategy that ensures nothing ever gets too skied out, although it does earn Alta its nickname – “Another Long Traverse Again.”
One final note about snow preservation. Not all will agree, but to us it’s undeniable. Alta’s “skiers only” policy protects the snow from the harsh scraping of a sideways snowboard. We were initially skeptical about this claim, but skiing between Alta and Snowbird in the same day left us no doubt. Whereas Snowbird’s powder is quickly churned up as rugged and unpredictable, Alta’s moguls lie perfectly spaced, exactly ski width apart. Even late in the afternoon, the powder fields hold just minor ski tracks across them, compared to the random variability found at every other major destination.