Lifts & Terrain
Alta Ski Area Terrain
The Alta ski area in Utah has stunning scenery, especially from the top of Sugarloaf, but the scenery pales into insignificance in comparison to the ski terrain and the snow. The mountain is pristine and less rugged than Snowbird, but the Alta ski resort
terrain still has plenty of roughness around the edges, particularly amongst the many expert runs that include steep chutes and little cliffs. Thankfully the cliffs are well marked, particularly because there is no differentiation between single black and double black runs. It’s up to you to figure it out! Many experts ski Alta UT for the steeps, yet the Alta ski area also has more than ample terrain for all other ability levels.
At the top of the Alta Mountain there are sporadic trees or open alpine areas, and further down there are well spaced gladed areas. There are lots of routes that aren’t marked on the trail map. Go off-piste and there are never-ending options for lines, although you might have to traverse forever to find them.
Other than the terrain, the other highlight of the Alta skiing is the dry powder. It falls in abundance and the snow holds up much better than at the neighbouring resort of Snowbird. The volume of skiers is less at the Alta ski area, but Alta traditionalists say that it’s due to the absence of snowboarders who “push” the snow off the mountain. This is obviously up for debate, but powder preservation is definitely evident. Every fresh face of deep snow has beautifully tight squiggles of skiers’ turns that are very close to each other. Even after a weekend powder day, there are still freshies to be had, particularly if you know the secret spots or are prepared to go for a short hike.
The Alta Mountain has two base areas with facilities – Wildcat and Albion. The Albion
area has the Children’s centre and ski school which is indicative of the beginner terrain that rises from here. Most advanced and expert skiers will start at the Wildcat
base. The two base areas are interlinked by a long and tedious two-way tow rope.
Ski Alta Snowbird
and Alta ski resorts are connected by a trail between Snowbird’s Mineral Basin and Alta’s Albion Basin. If it’s windy this access might be closed, so the alternative is to catch a bus. For experts, there are also various exit points to Snowbird to the skiers’ left of the Wildcat chair lift. A joint Alta Snowbird lift pass is required to pass through the gate at the top of Sugarloaf Pass to get to Snowbird. The additional cost for the joint ticket is a little on the hefty side.
The Alta Resort has 2 detachable quad chairs, 1 detachable triple chair, 1 triple chair (fixed grip), 3 double chairs, and various surface tows. Some of the slow lifts don’t have safety bars, which is reasonably typical of US ski resorts, but is a bit scary for those not used to it. On a powder day there might be lift lines of about 10 minutes, and it can get busy on weekends, whilst on pedestrian weekdays the resort feels a little deserted.
Alta used to be known for its cheap lift tickets, but prices have increased significantly over recent years. Nevertheless the lift passes aren’t as expensive as the Park City resorts.
Alta is accessible off the the Mountain Collective pass
, which provides savings to ski Alta as well as many resorts in California, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Canada, and Valle Nevado Chile
, Hakuba Japan
and Thredbo Australia
Beginner lift tickets for the Albion, Sunnyside and Cecret lifts cost about the same as a children’s pass.
Like other Utah ski resorts
, Alta loves their motto of “The Greatest Snow on Earth” and the claim is probably well deserved. Ski Alta for the joy of both quantity and quality of powder, partly because Little Cottonwood Canyon catches all the dry snow that dumps from the Lake Effect phenomenon. A particularly sweet time to visit Alta is late Feb to early March (Utah typically doesn’t get that much powder in January), but anytime is good.
Many of the slopes are north facing which keeps the snow pristine. One exception is the runs wide skiers’ left off the Supreme lift (e.g. Challenger). One time when we visited, it was a feral icy mess.
Considering the steep pitches and the copious snow, avalanche risk is present in-bounds whilst skiing Alta, so it wouldn’t hurt for those tackling the steeps to carry avalanche safety gear
. However you feel a level of comfort because the ski patrollers are very conservative and incredibly experienced.
Ski Alta for the Beginner
Beginners’ lifts are at the Albion base on Albion, Sunnyside and Cecret, with more than enough terrain to keep beginners interested. This region is not highly trafficked by fast skiers, so beginners can learn in peace. And without snowboarders scraping up behind them, any anxiousness will be further reduced.
Intermediate Alta Skiing
The remaining lifts have a range of intermediate runs, although Wildcat is predominantly a black run lift. Alta ski area has lots of gentle groomers, some of which have whoopsie-doos (ie rollers) for a bit of fun. A few of the blue runs are not groomed so Alta is a good place to learn to ski bumps. Alta UT is also a great place to learn to ski powder as there are lots of places to pop off the side of the run and practise in the powder before returning to the piste. For plenty of space, the Ballroom is an intermediate powder bowl. The run becomes steeper the further you traverse from the Collins lift, so you can choose the pitch you like. The only downside of Ballroom is that it is probably the first run at the Alta ski area to become tracked out.
Parks & Pipes
Go to Snowbird
, or even better go to Brighton Ski Resort
in Big Cottonwood Canyon or Park City Mountain Resort
Advanced Skiing Alta
Alta skiing is a bit tricky for advanced skiers because there is no differentiation between single and double blacks, although it’s generally easy enough to scope out the milder black runs from the lifts (on good vis days!). The far reaches of the Ballroom equates to an easy black run. It is a wide open bowl with only moderate pitch. All the black runs in the vicinity of the Collins chair are placid, so long as you take a low traverse from the lift rather than the high traverse. The Wildcat and Sugarloaf lifts generally service very manageable black runs also.
The Supreme lift has supreme terrain and it’s ideal for low vis days. Avoid any of the runs close to the Supreme lift (on either side) as these are definitely nasty double blacks, with cliffs and steep narrow chutes. Out wider is easier (skiers’ left you’ll need to go a fair way out) and appropriate for advanced riders. To skiers’ right, Catherine’s area has some awesome tree runs. You need to walk up the hill a little when you get off the lift, and then traverse a fair way until you see the terrain open up into mellow powder meadows. As the runs flatten out you will need to get plenty of speed – lucky there are no snowboarders at Alta.
Ski Alta for the Expert
Even though no runs are marked as double black diamonds at Alta, there is definitely expert terrain and an abundance of it. Great pitch and great powder can be found in the East Greeley area, the Yellow Tail area, and Greeley Chutes. Off the high traverse are dozens of awesome runs, and if you can patiently continue the traverse (and see on a low vis day) and not be tempted to drop in somewhere, you get to Alf’s High Rustler which was one of Alf’s favourite runs.
Some other areas require a little work to get the steep powder rewards. Examples include Devil’s Castle (if it’s open), West Castle, East Castle (if it’s open) and the Baldy Chutes that can be hiked to from either Alta ski resort or Snowbird.
Alta Skiing For the Powder Hound
The reputation of the Alta ski area being a great powder hound destination is well deserved with bountiful snow that is well retained. The trees and sheltered gullies hide lovely powder pockets to explore. Understandably the locals are protective of their secret stashes but there are plenty of non-secret stashes, and considering the openness of many of the trees, it is easy to be creative and find a line. The locals talk about Suzy’s trees being a great powder run, which is perhaps code for “don’t tell the journalists about our secret powder stashes and trick them into thinking there is some elusive powder run”?
For more detailed information on the terrain at Alta, have a read of “The Powder Hound’s Guide to Alta”. It wasn’t written by us but considering the name it must be fantastic!
Tours That Include Alta Ski Area