Ask ski buffs for the top three reasons to go to Utah, and they’ll probably say snow, snow and snow. From the end of fall to the start of spring, this western titan sees spectacular powder dumps that total 500 inches or more in some spots. But there are tons more reasons it’s a fabulous ski destination with kids, ease of access chief among them (most of its marquee resorts are less than an hour from the Salt Lake City airport). And for a welcome to the Utah slopes, you can’t do better than Alta, one of the most venerable U.S. ski areas and a longtime favorite for families in the know.
Although Alta is just a 45-minute drive from Salt Lake, its pristine surroundings feel half a world away. Diehard skiers flock here for the glorious powder, challenging terrain, and loyalty to tradition. The numbers don’t lie — the five lodges near the base boast return rates as high as 70 to 90 percent.
Alta doesn’t always make the short list for family ski vacations, but it should! It has a lot to offer kids: Beginner runs make up a quarter of the mountain and the Alf Engen ski school is excellent, with very small classes and lots of one-on-one attention. That goes for adults too — not having skied in years, I needed a refresher on fundamentals and a confidence boost, and my instructor was fantastic at both.
One of the things I love about the ski school is that they group kids more by skill level than by age, so everyone in the class can truly get the most out of their lesson. Children too little or not inclined to hit the slopes can spend time in the onsite childcare center, which takes kids from 6 weeks (yes, weeks) to 9 years.
Alta has a reputation as a purist’s mecca, and it truly is all about the skiing; there’s no flash and dash, and off-the-slopes amenities are limited. If you must have big-name restaurants, chic shops and a buzzy social scene, it probably isn’t for you. The other caveat — or benefit, depending on your point of view — is that there’s no snowboarding.
All that said, the magnificent mountain landscape, with virtually nothing to obstruct the views, is worth the trip alone. And as a bonus, you can access next-door ski area Snowbird from Alta’s terrain; buy a combined day pass to sample the best of both.
I recommend staying at the ski-out Alta Lodge, a local favorite since the 1940s and a delightful blend of old-school style and modern surprises (when’s the last time you saw a Bertoia chair in a ski chalet?). Decor is spare and comfortably worn in spots, but it works; you feel like a guest in a friend’s mountain house. Service is attentive and good-natured, from the front desk to the dining room. Before breakfast is served in the mornings, everyone gathers in the lobby, sipping coffee and sharing the New York Times.
A number of room configurations at Alta Lodge can support families; some have an extra twin bed or a sleeper sofa. In the early season and spring season, up to two kids 12 and under stay free in a parent’s room, with a four-night minimum. The lodge offers a shuttle to ski school and an onsite kids’ club, both complimentary.
Although accommodations are simple and no-frills, thoughtful niceties elevate the experience: dimmable reading lights; bathrobes; boot dryers. And there are no in-room TVs — a major plus as far as I’m concerned. Channel-surfing can’t begin to compete with the alpine panorama, framed by floor-to-ceiling windows as you snuggle under your duvet or soak in the communal hot tubs.
Dining at Alta Lodge pairs warm, personal service with chef-driven menus that feel both familiar and inventive. Room rates include breakfast, dinner and an informal afternoon tea; lunch is available a la carte. The cozy Sitzmark Club — by all accounts, hardly changed over the decades — is the hot spot for après-ski. Little ones can enjoy their own activities and a special kids-only dinner while you linger with a hot mulled cider or a microbrew, the perfect way to cap off the evening before you rest up for another day of pounding the powder.
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Editorial Note: Ciao Bambino was part of a media trip to experience Alta Ski Area and Alta Lodge. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Lisa Frederick unless otherwise noted.
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