Given a winter season of brutal blizzards along the East Coast and February ice storms in Southern states that even left folks in places like North Texas cursing the snow, some spring break travelers may have warmer climates at the top of their wish lists — or just an early spring at home.
Then again, March marks the ski season’s last hurrah, and hey, all that snow is a lot more fun when mountains and ski slopes are part of the equation.
Many families seeking snowy adventures have discovered the merits of Alta, a ski resort that basks in well-deserved accolades of its burly terrain, massive snowfalls and a stoic devotion to a throwback vibe (chairlifts only, no snowboarding allowed).
But those who hit the mountain on day trips from nearby destination resorts also miss a seductive element of the Alta experience: the five inns strung like river stones along the resort’s base.
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Each of them — the Alta Lodge, Alta Peruvian, Alta’s Rustler, Goldminer’s Daughter and Snowpine — goes back decades, is independently owned and serves up a boutique experience that is rare at the base of a world-class ski mountain.
Three of the five are built into the hillside, giving the impression that they are born of the surrounding Wasatch Mountains. All have modern touches — notably broad, pellucid glass panes through which to gaze upon the ski hill — but also feature generous doses of exposed stone and beams, some dating to the original construction.
Alta sits near the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon, nine miles east of — and 4,000 vertical feet above — the outskirts of Salt Lake City. “Little” refers to the narrowness of the canyon, a kind of storm trap that delivers, on average, 500 inches of snow annually to Alta and its next-door neighbor, Snowbird.
Each of the inns serves top-rate food and, because off-site dining options are limited, all offer daily rates that include meals. (“Little” might also refer to what else there is to do in Alta besides ski.) In a nod to the oxymoronic “skier on a budget,” all the lodges have dorm beds, too.
Coming up the canyon, the first lodge is the Peruvian, tucked hard against the mountain. When I am finishing a ski day in Wildcat Bowl, a steep forest striated by powder-choked lanes, I look straight down on the Peruvian’s super-size hot tub and outdoor pool and think: If I caught just enough air, I could land amid the après soakers.
The lodge is not technically “ski in/ski out,” as it requires a short skate — or free shuttle ride — over to the lifts, but expert skiers can find routes out of Wildcat Bowl right to Peruvian’s back door. The Peruvian, which opened in 1948, was originally built from two decommissioned Army nurses barracks that had been broken down and trucked from Brigham City, Utah, after the closing of Bushnell Hospital.
Its owner, John Cahill, now 90, came to Alta from Milwaukee in 1961, “when a lift ticket was $3,” he says. He bought the lodge in 1970 and, after gradual upgrades, it feels more like a European village inn than a barracks.
The guest rooms still have no TV or Wi-Fi — all the more reason to wander to a common area and talk to someone. Today, three stories of glass face the mountain, allowing guests in socked feet to check ski conditions from numerous vantages, including a fireplace-warmed sitting room, bright wood dining room and bar.
The bar has become a hot spot (for Alta, anyway), with walls adorned by taxidermied animal heads and ski-related curios, including a hitchhiker’s sign, used frequently by a formerly carless patron, reading, “Need ride to Alta I won’t kill you.”
The next lodge, a long snowball’s throw from the Peruvian, is the Goldminer’s Daughter, which sits mere steps from the Collins and Wildcat chairlifts, and Alta’s main parking lot.
In this prime spot, the Goldminer’s serves as de facto base lodge on the west side of the resort. (Alta’s other base area is just under a mile to the east; the two are linked by a rope tow that pulls skiers in both directions along the flat basin.)
A ski patroller named Jim Shane built the Goldminer’s Daughter on the site of a 19th-century mining-era saloon after noticing that the mountain had only one public warming hut, the basic Watson Shelter.
In 1962, Shane and his wife opened the lodge with six guest rooms and 10 employee bedrooms, all sharing one community bathroom, along with a ski shop and public cafeteria. A night in the hotel, including breakfast and dinner, ran $10.
The rate has been bumped up a bit, but so has the hotel, with 90 mostly large and bright guest rooms and a glass-enclosed dining area that might offer the best view of Alta’s front-side runs among all the lodges. The Goldminer’s also has an on-site spa, ski shop and game room — and in-room TV and Wi-Fi — but, alas, the hot tub is indoors.
When Shane died of cancer in 1998, his wife sold the lodge to Ross Olson and Jennifer Life, who had worked at the hotel for a combined 35 years.
My fondest memories here are of kicking back in the large bar at day’s end and watching, through floor-to-roof windows, furious snowstorms bury the mountain. On more than one occasion I have parlayed that elation into a spontaneous night’s stay, even as my clean clothes lay in a condo 45 minutes away in Park City.
Yet one more long snowball’s throw east is the Alta Lodge, which opened, along with the ski resort, in 1939 as the first overnight lodging in town.
In the 1930s, the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association, which was working to develop Alta as a major snow sports destination, asked the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad to build a lodge there. (This request came after the Union Pacific Railroad had chosen to develop a ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, snubbing Alta.)
The railroad agreed, but it soon ran out of money. A Connecticut publisher, James Laughlin, stepped up with $25,000 to finish construction and became the Alta Lodge’s first owner. The association later became the Alta Ski Lifts company, which still owns the resort.
The Alta Lodge has grown from 12 guest rooms to 57, some with private balconies and none with TVs. (Wi-Fi, however, does reach the rooms here.)
The restaurant is renowned, partly because it is on only its second chef since 1972: Sam Wolfe, the former sous-chef, who took over in 2012 and inspires his art by skiing every day of the season.
Perhaps the best surviving feature of the original lodge is the Sitzmark Bar, a locals’ favorite for après ski and beyond.
Aside from the stone fireplace and mountain views, the Sitzmark is a hangout for some of Alta’s most accomplished skiers. Among them is the bartender, professional big mountain competitor Dan Withey, who has advised me on not only where to point my boards the following morning but also what times of day to hit certain pitches on the mountain to find the softest snow.
The lodge also caters to families, providing free ski-school drop-off and pick-up for kids, an early children’s dinner and other special activities to allow parents extra minutes of skiing, hot tubbing or beer drinking at the Sitzmark.
The town of Alta faces a season-long threat of avalanches, but not from the ski hill: Looming across Little Cottonwood Canyon Road is the 11,050-foot Mount Superior, which can send slides pouring across the highway at any time from November to May.
To mitigate this, the Alta ski patrol fires howitzers into Superior’s flanks to intentionally trigger small slides before monstrous ones release on their own. It’s been awhile since one happened, but old photos in the Peruvian lodge show the inn half-buried from a number of such events.
During big storms, Alta and Snowbird still issue mandatory stay-inside edicts, known as interlodge alerts. These can last minutes or, during rare extreme storm cycles, days.
Working up the highway and wearing out one’s arm with snowball throws is Alta’s Rustler Lodge, the most luxurious among the quintet of inns: on-site spa and ski shop; free stretching classes; large, heated outdoor pool; dedicated chairlift to bring guests up from the rope tow; and spacious, modern guest rooms, including suites to fit families.
The Rustler also boasts something none of its competitors can match: a general manager who doubles as Alta’s mayor. Tom Pollard moved to Alta in 1981 after graduating from the University of Arizona in Tucson. He has been mayor since 2005.
The five lodges’ seemingly scripted adherence to a bygone aura is, in fact, unscripted, Pollard says.
“It might be because most of these buildings have been here since the beginning,” he says. “The owners really want their places to look good, like they are part of the mountain. And they’re all very proud of their food, which makes for a fantastic guest experience.”
Another, more practical factor: Alta’s building code limits guest lodging facilities to 33 rooms per net developed acre, a policy that makes a huge hotel nigh impossible.
The easternmost of the lodges, the Snowpine, rests on a foundation that dates to the 1870s and was once the site of a forest service ranger station, general store and the Alta post office; it opened to skiers as the Rock Shelter day lodge in 1938.
I first stayed here in the early 2000s, paying $70 a night for a dorm bed with a shared bath, with breakfast and dinner included. The atmosphere was dark and the entire place longed for maintenance, but the Snowpine drew first-rate characters.
My friend Charlie and I met a guy who, despite living in Los Angeles, had a season pass to Alta. He flew in most weekends, claimed his dorm bed and skied the mountain like an Olympian in training. He drank no booze, instead downing orange juice like it was, well, beer, and often headed out before the lifts opened to hike uphill for an early run.
One stormy morning at 7, with an interlodge alert in effect, we found him on a wooden bench next to the exit door, boots on and ski poles in hand, waiting for the all-clear.
The Snowpine changed hands in 2012, and the new owners have significantly upgraded the rooms, the hot tub, the common areas and the restaurant. Getting into the Snowpine requires effort — a long flight of stairs down from the road or an arm-noodling rope tow up from the resort base — but, once you’re there, the layout is cozy and sublime.
The Jacuzzi affords views of the daunting steeps of Eagle’s Nest, and a drying room allows skiers to shed soggy wear immediately upon entering the building, before padding off in socks to change into a bathing suit.
In the end, Alta is about the mountain and skiing. When I’m way up there and the snow is flying, I’m not thinking about eating, sleeping or anything except the next sequence of turns, and the twists in the cosmos that have afforded me so many days at this special place.
It is but a golden asterisk to spy my lodge from a high ridge and know, for one more day at least, that I am here.
If you go
Where to stay
▪ Alta Lodge, 10230 E. Utah 210, 801-742-3500, www.altalodge.com. Doubles from $329, including breakfast and four-course dinner for two.
▪ Alta Peruvian Lodge, 10000 Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, 801-742-3000, www.altaperuvian.com. Doubles from $299, including breakfast, lunch and dinner.
▪ Alta’s Rustler Lodge, 10380 E. Utah 210, 801-742-2200, www.rustlerlodge.com. Doubles from $360, including breakfast and dinner.
▪ Goldminer’s Daughter, 10160 E. Utah 210, 801-742-2300, www.goldminersdaughterlodge.com. Doubles from $338, including breakfast and dinner.
▪ Snowpine Lodge, 10420 Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, 801-742-2000, www.thesnowpinelodge.com. Doubles from $325, including breakfast and dinner.
What to do
▪ Skiing: A full-day adult lift ticket at just Alta is $84; at Alta and Snowbird, $108. Skiers can cut between the two resorts fairly easily.