By Larry Walsh, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- An early December ski trip to a western resort can be a gamble in terms of sufficient snow cover to justify the expense and time to get there.
But that wasn’t a problem at this Wasatch Mountain ski area less that an hour from the Salt Lake City International Airport, where they measure snowfall in feet, not inches. The average annual snowfall is 46.6 feet — 560 inches.
The readers of Ski and Skiing magazines consistently have ranked Alta at the top in the United States for powder, snow quality, terrain and value. It sits in a high alpine basin at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Alta (pronounced Al-ta) has a well-deserved reputation for challenging terrain, but only 35 percent of its slopes and trails are rated “most difficult.” Beginners, novices and intermediates will find plenty of well-groomed, comfortable runs off the Albion, Sunnyside and Sugarloaf chairlifts.
“Our best-kept secret is the great beginner and intermediate terrain,” said Connie Marshall, director of marketing and public relations.
Getting to the Albion and Sunnyside lifts can be a bit of a stretch — literally — via a rope tow that runs back and forth along the base. A handle tow would be an improvement. We skied to the lift from our hillside accommodations at the Alta Lodge, a first-rate ski-in, ski-out facility.
Alta, the second-oldest ski area in the west — Sun Valley is the oldest — is a skier’s mountain; snowboarding is not allowed.
It has 2,200 acres with 116 named runs served by two detachable quad chairlifts, one detachable triple chair, one standard triple chair, three double chairs, three surface lifts and one conveyor lift. We encountered no lift lines.
Lift tickets have radio frequency ID chips that open gates in lift lines. Guests are advised to place them in their pants pocket and away from their cell phones. Skiers with an Alta/Snowbird ticket can ski to Snowbird via Mineral Basin or take a shuttle bus for the mile ride.
In addition to ski-in, ski-out convenience, the Alta Lodge provides full breakfasts and four-course dinners, wireless Internet access, in-room boot heaters, hot pools and saunas, the Sitzmark Club bar and a complimentary children’s program.
Use the wall-mounted phone just inside the upper entrance to call the front desk when you arrive. Employees will carry your luggage down the 59 steps to the lobby.
We began our visit to Utah at Solitude Mountain Resort, thanks to a 6:30 a.m. Delta Airlines departure from Pittsburgh International Airport that, after a change of planes in Detroit, arrived at 10:30 a.m. We arrived at the resort 40 minutes later, had lunch at the Honeycomb Grill, changed in an expansive restroom and were on the snow at 1:30 p.m.
A combination of abundant natural snow, some snowmaking and seamless grooming gave us an opportunity to enjoy a number of cruising runs off the Sunrise, Apex and Moonbeam chairlifts.
Solitude has 65 named runs and three bowls distributed over 1,200 acres and served by three high-speed quads, two standard quads, one triple chair and two double chairs. Its terrain is 20 percent beginner/novice, 50 percent intermediate and 30 percent advanced/expert.
Silver miners in the early 1900s gave the name Solitude to the geographic area now occupied by the resort and the name stuck. It also accurately describes the resort in early December, January and April when lift lines are virtually nonexistent.
Children 13 and younger ski/snowboard for free when staying two nights or more. The Inn at Solitude and the Solitude Village Condos offer discounts on lodging, lift tickets and rental equipment.