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Powder Paradise: Alta

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There’s a special slice of ski heaven found in the upper reaches of Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s called Alta, and each winter it becomes a favorite destination for legions of ski fanatics who come to revel in legendary snow and expert terrain.

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Restricted to skiers only (it’s one of the very few resorts where snowboarding is still not allowed), this 2,200-acre playground of deep canyons, high ridges and snow-creased cliffs in Utah’s Wasatch range captures some the lightest, fluffiest, most ethereal snow anywhere. And all of this, amazingly, is only a 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City’s airport.

A True Skiers Mountain

Alta is a skier’s mountain and a skier’s town. Little has changed about the area since it opened in 1939. With only five modest lodges and a few bars and restaurants, this is an old-fashioned skiing at its best: no glitz, no fashion-conscious posers, no slacking snowboarders. Just serious skiers and their families, many of whom have been coming here for generations.

That’s why Alta seemed like the perfect spot to rediscover skiing. I learned to ski as a teen in northern California's Sierra Nevada in the laid-back 1970s, but stashed my long skinny skis in the early ‘90s after discovering snowboarding. I love how snowboards perform in powder conditions and, over the past decade, I've had more than my fair share of adventures whooping it up on my Burton Custom. But when easy-turning, wide “shape” skis appeared on the scene and opened up skiing, especially powder skiing, to legions of winter enthusiasts, I felt it was the right time to get back on the two-plank express.

It was these “new” generation of wide skis, a pair of 163cm Atomic powder skis, that I snapped into at the base of Alta and hit the hills. I couldn’t have timed it better. A massive storm had swept up the canyon the night before, wrapping my cozy abode, the Alta Lodge, an old fashioned lodge from the “Leave It To Beaver” era, in a foot-deep blanket of the lightest snow I had ever seen. There was so much snowfall in such a short amount of time that the road crews closed the canyon to traffic. Lucky for us to be “stuck” here, with Alta’s slopes all to ourselves. Easy turning skis made it easy to blast through the powder, making run after run on the Mambo run off the Collins lift before heading to more fantastic runs off the Sugarloaf chair on Alta’s backside.

After a full day of perfect powder runs, I was beat. My knees were aching and thighs burning. Alta skiing is hard work. But I now understood the glee behind the toothy grins of Alta locals and regulars, and why this resort is one of those places that needs to stay small, stay simple and keep its focus on one thing: legendary skiing.

Alta + Snowbird: Ecstasy on Skis

For those of you who have never experienced the delirious effects of Wasatch mountain powder skiing, there’s only one place to truly immerse yourself in pure powder joy: Alta/Snowbird. The two independent ski areas have a common border, allowing those who purchase an AltaSnowbird ski pass ($105) to explore a whopping 4700 acres of skiable terrain. A connection gate at the saddle separating Alta's Albion Basin and Snowbird's Mineral Basin is used to move between the two resorts. The ONE TICKET day passes are available at any Alta or selected Snowbird ticket window or online. Adult lift tickets at Alta only are $79 a day. For more information, see www.alta.com/pages/altasnowbird.

If you go:

For Alta ski area information and snow conditions, visit www.alta.com or call 801-359-1078. Alta Lodge has a variety of ski packages, including breakfast/dinner meal plans. For complete Utah ski information, visit www.skiutah.com. To reach Alta from the Salt Lake City airport, you can rent a car for the 45-minute drive, or take a shuttle bus or taxi. Options include Alta Shuttle, www.altashuttle.com or 866-274-0225, $37 per person each way; leaves the airport every 20-30 minutes from 8AM to 1AM.

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