Passing Through: Alta and Snowbird

Skiing the greatest runs of your life is a real possibility

After traversing the ridgeline alongside Snowbird’s iconic red tram, my dad dropped into the middle of the Cirque, followed by my brother. Three turns later they both totally disappeared into contrails of white, fluffy snow. I pushed off and stacked my tracks just to the right of theirs, immediately being consumed by several feet of fresh powder.

I was 12 years old at the time and that day at Snowbird is still one of the best powder days of my life. At the end of the trip I told my parents that I wanted to go to college in Utah. Six years later I did just that, relishing as many powder days as possible in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The Wasatch Mountains are in perfect position to catch the moisture of storms barreling across the barren stretches of The Great Basin to the west. The combination of location, topography, and elevation of Little Cottonwood Canyon produces the greatest snowfall totals in the range. Snowbird averages over 500 inches and its neighbor up the canyon, Alta, averages 551 inches every year.

When that snow falls, the Cirque offers up some fresh turns, but you can also bypass the buzz at Snowbird and opt for the smaller crowds at Alta on storm days. I head straight for the Wildcat lift and suggest you do the same. The trees of Westward Ho offer better visibility than elsewhere on the mountain when it is dumping and the little pockets within refill all day long, creating an anomaly where the last run is the best and deepest of the day.

When the visibility is a little better, often the next day, if you stick with Alta, head out the High Traverse off the Collins chair and take your pick of what to drop into. You can’t go wrong. High Rustler is one of the most classic inbounds runs in North America and it’s an absolute must at some point in your trip. Its consistently steep pitch is where I finish every day.

Alta and Snowbird are only separated by a ridgeline and if you buy a combination ticket you can easily swap between the two via Mineral Basin, the Baldy Shoulder, or the quality powder stashes of Keyhole.

Over at the Bird, take a ride up the tram. If there’s no line, lap the 2,900 feet of vertical starting with Silver Fox at the top of the mountain, right underneath the tram. It’s just as fun on a powder day as when there is nothing to be found but hardpack. The northeast-facing slope stays cold, chalky, and more carve-able than other spots. If the tram line is busy, fear not, shred some hot laps on the Little Cloud chair or go explore the Gad Valley side of the mountain.

Whenever you quit for the day—last chair or not—it’s time for some après. At the Bird, there’s no question: head to the Tram Club. At Alta, thaw out next to the fire and start things off with a beer and some pizza upstairs at the Goldminer’s Daughter. For round two—or rounds two through six—hit the Peruvian Lodge across the parking lot.

When it comes to lodging, ski-in ski-out is the name of the game in LCC. Down at Snowbird, the Cliff Lodge offers a luxurious experience without breaking the bank, and the rooftop pool is pretty sweet come springtime. Up in Alta, there are a number of lodges to choose from, each with a rustic, uniquely Alta vibe, and they all offer a variety of room sizes and prices—including dorm-style rooms for those on a budget. Just know that if you choose to stay at the Rustler Lodge, the chef is guaranteed to beat you to Collins for first chair in the morning.

The lodges also play host to their own respective restaurants that serve up great food. If you’re looking to switch it up though, try the Shallow Shaft in Alta for a delicious, well-prepared plate of salmon and a nice glass of pinot noir.

No matter where you stay, eat, and drink, when you wake up it’s time to ski again. Chances are good that you will have the chance to shred light, dry Utah powder during your stay, and when those days happen at Alta and Snowbird, skiing the greatest runs of your life is a real possibility. And hey, if you really score, you just might find yourself relocating for good.

Marquee image: Skier Carston Oliver at Snowbird, UT. PHOTO: Adam Barker