If you’ve spent any time on snow in Utah, you’ve likely heard skiers and riders wax poetic about Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to Alta and Snowbird. Precipitation measured in feet rather than inches, wicked steeps, and the Tram are among this powder-hound nirvana’s greatest hits. But some of this canyon’s lesser-known, yet equally appealing—and non-white-knuckle-inducing—attributes include ample intermediate and beginner terrain (approximately 60 percent of both Snowbird and Alta is rated blue square and/or green circle), each resort’s unique gestalt, and a wide range of lodging options from hip and sleek to traditional and cozy. A perk to visiting this storied winter playground that stands above them all, however, is one that the Park City resorts have yet to figure out: the Alta/Snowbird connection, offering more than 4,700 acres of skiing on one ticket.
Although Snowbird and Alta are next-door neighbors, separated geographically by an easily skied checkpoint at Sugarloaf Pass, the resorts’ personalities are entirely different. “A little bit country” best describes the vibe both on the mountain and in the lodges at Alta. A night’s stay at the Alta Lodge, Snowpine, Goldminer’s Daughter, Peruvian, or Rustler includes breakfast and dinner, served family-style at communal tables where diehards share the day’s adventures and exploits. Nightlife involves gathering in snug lodge sitting areas—typically replete with overstuffed furniture, rough-hewn paneling, and real-wood fireplaces—to play Parcheesi or backgammon. Still have some residual energy? Walk across the street to Alta’s community center, Our Lady of the Snows, to take in a ski movie, a yoga session, or an arts-and-crafts class (altaarts.org). Mornings typically begin before sunrise, marked by the sonic reverb of avalanche control work.
Twenty-year-old Alta native and budding ski superstar Sam Cohen’s favorite place to ski is the North Rustler zone, one of Alta’s most prominent land features, accessed after a bumpy glide along the High Traverse. “It’s as gnarly as anything and has it all: steeps, rocks, and trees,” Cohen says. Those more interested in keeping their feet on the ground have plenty to choose from in the Sunnyside area—runs noodling around under the Sugarloaf lift— and in the densely wooded Supreme area.
An appropriate foil to its old-school, up-canyon neighbor, Snowbird could be considered a little bit rock-and-roll. The Bauhaus-inspired Cliff Lodge serves as the resort’s figurative and literal heart. Rooms here are spacious and modern, and if you stay here (or even if you don’t), be sure to pay a visit to the Cliff Spa. The rooftop pool, studio-quality yoga classes, and eucalyptus steam room are just the beginning of the amenities in this serene oasis. The Cliff also houses the Aerie Restaurant, a space reminiscent of a Vegas nightclub that offers incredible Salt Lake Valley views, still-swimming-fresh sushi, and one of the state’s most extensive wine lists. Snowbird’s rock-and-roll persona is fully realized at the Tram Club, located on the Snowbird Center lower level, where diversions include pool, foosball, karaoke, live bands, and can’t-say-no drink specials.
Like Cohen, 21-year-old pro skier Johnny Collinson grew up in this canyon, but carved instead in the shadow of the Snowbird Tram. “I like the consistently steep terrain with lots of fun little nooks and crannies,” Collinson says. Mineral Basin’s wide-open, sun-washed runs are popular on bluebird days, while the new high-speed Little Cloud and Gad 2 quads lend seamless access to intermediate and advanced runs on the resort’s western edge.
The key to skiing both Alta and Snowbird is to not be afraid to look around a bit. Secret stashes are everywhere. Pay heed, however, to cliff area signs, as they are no joke. If you’re not sure where you’re going, ask someone. The denizens of Little Cottonwood Canyon may not voluntarily give up the goods, but they do want you to make it home in one piece.
Inside the Alta Lodge awaits what is arguably Utah’s most quintessential après-ski bar, the Sitzmark Club (801.742.3500). If you’re lucky enough to get a seat after an epic powder day, be prepared for some serious ski conversation with the Alta Lodge’s passionate patrons. Sidle up to the bar on a slow night, and you’ll gain some Alta knowledge from the Sitz’s longtime head bartender (and pro skier) Dan Withey. With a solid beer offering, arguably the canyon’s best margarita, and a clientele of serious skiers, you’re all but guaranteed to leave the Sitz with a new friend and some new stories.
Looking to log some backcountry vertical? Both Alta (801.359.1078) and Snowbird (801.933.2222) offer forays beyond their borders via snowcat. Snowbird’s Snowcat Skiing for Nature tour includes breakfast at the Forklift restaurant, a pre-public Tram ride, a guided backcountry tour, and an all-day lift ticket. Proceeds from the tour go to the nonprofit Cottonwood Canyons Foundation.
Alta’s snowcat tours begin with a continental breakfast and safety briefing followed by five runs in the pristine Grizzly Gulch Bowl, located just above Alta.