As ski season winds down, I’m reflecting back on a strange yet wonderful ski season in the Wasatch. Despite concerns that rising COVID-19 case rates would shut down skiing, resorts remained open throughout the year to masked skiers and riders. For me, the ability to ski or snowboard multiple times a week made the pandemic winter bearable. Having a pass at Alta Ski Area just made the 2020-21 season sweeter.
I spent many days snowboarding at Park City Mountain, but after shredding one stick for 20 years, I decided it was time to return to my skier roots at Alta Ski Area. Alta is for skiers after all, so I purchased a new pair of Atomic Vantage skis and readied myself to ride at one of two ski-only resorts left in North America (Utah’s Deer Valley is the other).
Due to COVID-19 and crowds, Park City had terribly long weekend lines and insanely crowded parking lots, making my weekdays spent at Alta feel like a relaxing mountain bliss. I learned to ski at Alta Ski Area at age five and was briefly part of its pee-wee ski racing circuit. But when I became a teenager, snowboarding was the cool thing to do and I traded in my skis and Alta pass for a snowboard and lessons. Though I’ve skied once or twice a season at Alta and Deer Valley throughout the years, I’ve never taken the time to really relearn the sport and gain confidence in it again.
I decided a pandemic winter with few commitments and hardly any travel would be the right time to master skiing again, and there’s no place I’d rather (re)learn to ski than Alta Ski Area. I love the authentic ski experience at Alta and the epic mountain views at every turn. Alta feels like ski areas used to feel before corporations bought them up, and after spending my childhood here since I lived 20 minutes away in Sandy, that experience feels like home.
Where & How to Learn to Ski at Alta
I can tough it out on a blue or even a rare black diamond on skis to try and impress my friends, but I knew if I wanted to really improve, I needed to go back to the basics. I started my ski relearning by parking at the Albion base and skiing Alta’s Sunnyside beginner-friendly lift to really master my turns on its long groomed runs. This side is typically more families and home to the Alf Engen Ski School so you won’t find as many pros speeding down the runs over here.
If you’re a total beginner, Sunnyside is a great place to start (once you’ve progressed beyond the rope tow). Alta offers its amazing Sunnyside At 3 program here, which is easily the most affordable way to learn to ski in Utah. Years ago it was free, then $10 a time, and now it’s $59 for a four-pack–and it’s still a stellar deal. You can access the Sunnyside lift from 3:00-4:30 every day with this pass, making it a great option for teaching yourself (or your kids) to ski.
This season I often ended my workday early in the afternoon and drove up to Alta for a few turns. By 2:45 the Sunnyside After 3 crew would roll in and create a bit of a line, but not a bad one at all. Plus, the crowds are typically gone by this time of day so it’s much easier to find parking. (Note: parking is set to change next season, so finding late afternoon spots on the fly might not be as easy.)
A free learning option for complete beginners is the tow rope lift on the Collins side. It eliminates the need to learn to get off the lift and lets you focus just on skiing. It’s not long either so you won’t feel too much quad burn on the way down. You can also ride the tow rope between the Albion and Wildcat bases–just to get your ski legs back under you.
By about my fifth time, I started feeling much more confident on blue terrain and could up my speed and ski longer runs and longer days. I loved learning at Alta because the Albion side practically always felt quiet, even on powder days, and it was great to not worry about snowboarders on the hill who might crash into me since I’m such a rookie. If you can ski in the late afternoon on weekdays like me, Alta feels like a private alpine paradise that you have all to yourself. Unfortunately, a minor concussion and other injuries kept me from skiing as much as I would’ve liked, but I still put in enough Alta days to finally feel confident on blue terrain (and a few black runs) on my last day.
If teaching yourself isn’t your jam, put yourself or your kids in lessons at Alf Engen Ski School. Consistent weekly lessons are the best way to learn, and Alta’s instructors will help you gain confidence without getting over your head on tough terrain.
Once you’ve mastered Sunnyside and challenged yourself on longer lifts, head to the Wildcat base to see where the pros hobnob. Grab a beer on the patio of Goldminer’s Daughter and take in Alta’s best apres scene. While you won’t find a fancy resort village here, you will find passionate skiers and an old-fashioned ski experience, and it’s exactly what makes Alta such a great place to learn.
Non-skiing Fun on Snowshoes
Even if you have no desire to ski, or members of your family aren’t into it, there is plenty to do at Alta Ski Area. This winter I took part in a Snowshoe with a Naturalist Day and learned all about Alta’s ecology and mining with experienced guides. I’ll say this slower tour is more for beginners or those most interested in ecology than those looking to pound out a few miles in the powder.
Overall, I enjoyed hiking up the Alta Road and getting a different perspective along the way. The group ranged from never-ever snowshoes to experienced types, and all gained knowledge about everything from tree identification to the town of Alta itself. The tours happen a few times throughout the winter season and online reservations are required.
Where to Eat & Drink at Alta Ski Area
As a more green and blue skier, I spend nearly all my time on the Albion Base side of the slopes. It’s friendly for beginners and rarely has the long lines I see on the Collins side. Despite rarely skiing bell-to-bell, my new-to-skiing legs still need breaks. Here are my favorite stops:
- Cecret Coffee: New for the 2020-21 season, Cecret Coffee is an on-mountain coffee and light snack option on the snow level at Alf’s that you can ski right up to for a quick bite or drink.
- Van Kwartels’ Cecret Mercantile: This independently-owned eatery is located in the Albion parking lot and is a great pre-ski stop or mid-day break. Choose from breakfast pastries to burritos to soups.
- Alf’s Restaurant: Renovated for 2020-21, Alf’s is a casual, scenic dining option with views of Albion Basin and Devils Castle. When it comes to ordering fries, Alf’s is generous. Our medium fry order is pictured below.
- Collins Grill: A fancy, white-tablecloth restaurant on the Collins side. Ditch your boots, get cozy, and enjoy incredible, seasonal cuisine. Read my favorite Collins Grill eats on Alta’s blog.