There are only two kinds of skiers in this world: ones who have been to Alta and ones who want to go. The Utah mecca—which has been luring obsessed powderheads to the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon since it started running a single lift made out of old mine equipment in 1939—gets more (and better quality) snow than almost anywhere on Earth, and boasts some of the steepest, most fun terrain in the West. Not a skier? Then think of Alta as the Wimbledon of waist-deep powder, or the Fenway of inbounds cliff-huckin’. And like those legendary places, the resort is a community where history is revered and change comes slow. As in snowboards-are-still-not-allowed slow. As in there-are-still-just-six-lifts slow.
Which is why, late last season, lift-line talk turned to the extensively renovated and expanded Snowpine Lodge, which had been the smallest of the five Alpine-inspired hotels that comprise the bulk of the town of Alta, as well as the oldest structure. Because the resort is built on land leased from the federal government, and since there just isn’t anywhere else in the canyon to build, the five classic lodges are all there will ever be. (Even the village’s one-room school is housed in the Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, a few minutes down the road.)
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When the Snowpine reopened last February, the once lovably scruffy 22-room shoebox had become a sleek, luxe 78-room real-deal hotel. There was zero sign of the ’70s rec-room vibe many longtime visitors associate with Alta’s lodges, to the point where Snowpine 2.0 wouldn’t feel out of place at the base of any upscale ski resort. Which made it a source of interest as well as trepidation. As the construction grew, so did the whispers: is Alta becoming…Aspen?
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To find out, I booked a room at the lodge for a long weekend in late March. The $50 million renovation wasn’t totally complete——this ski season (lifts started spinning on November 29th) is the fully finished Snowpine’s real debut—but the essentials were in place, from the comfortably elegant restaurant Swen’s (built around an open kitchen and a huge communal table) and the ski shop (a branch of the local Powder House chain) to the oversized lockers (complete with boot-warmers) and the ski-in, ski-out access (with fresh-baked cookies and cocoa available to returning skiers each afternoon).
The oldest part of the building, a stone structure which dates back to the 1860s that has served as everything from a general store to the headquarters of the local silver mining operation, has been incorporated into the new hotel, although not in a way that’s immediately obvious from the outside.
One of Alta’s most impressive tricks is the way it’s just a 35-minute drive from the Salt Lake City airport but has a groovy, cloistered atmosphere that I associate with truly remote enclaves like Big Sur or Marfa, TX. You get that feeling right away at the new Snowpine when you’re greeted by friendly, accommodating staff from across the country, who are clearly united by their good fortune in getting to spend their winter on this mountain.
Arriving just after lunchtime, I checked in, changed, and headed out to take advantage of the $13 ticket the resort offers to access mellower territory every day after 3 p.m. Literally steps away from my locker, I clicked into my skis and headed up the Sunnyside lift to warm up for the weekend with some groomer laps before grabbing a pizza at the bar, which had already established itself as a popular, chill après option.
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Keeping with longstanding Alta tradition, the new Snowpine offers around 20 dorm beds, including the exceedingly comfortable cabin-ish four-bunker I shared with three buddies, complete with its own balcony overlooking the heated outdoor pool. On the night my friends and I arrived, we hung out for a while watching the lights of Sno-cats working away high up on the mountain before waking the next morning to the best possible soundtrack for a Wasatch Range skier: echoing avalanche-mitigation blasts. For the next three days, we enjoyed classic Little Cottonwood conditions, including one especially deep morning when an awesome Alta insider snuck us into to some of his favorite hidden stashes.
But it’s not just dorm residents who get a communal experience—everything about the hotel is designed to bring people together.
Each floor is built around a large living-room-ish space complete with overstuffed sofas, cozy rugs (it’s not a wall-to-wall carpeting kind of hotel) and a huge stone fireplace. Likewise, many of the rooms are configured to cater to groups and families: Some include both a king-sized bed and an attached bunk room, and all the suites offer a pull-out queen bed. Most have balconies overlooking one of Alta’s steepest sections, including killer views of the legendary Alf’s High Rustler. The excellent breakfast buffet brings everyone together to power up, and because the lifts are just minutes away, the morning scene is pleasingly unhurried (unless it’s a powder day).
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Every season, people turn their lives upside down to spend as much time as possible on this mountain, from the Manhattan doctor-turned–ski instructor one of my friends hung out with to every Snowpine staffer I encountered. That psyched ski-bum energy is a big part of why the new hotel—while still including Deer Valley-ish luxuries like the spa’s grotto pool and oxygen bar—maintains a relaxed mountain-town quality. Want to celebrate an anniversary with a ski-and-spa weekend? It’s built for that. Want to down a few local pilsners at the bar in your ski pants, or watch the snow blanket the mountain from the bench built into the heated pool? It’s built for that, too.
Still, it’s not surprising that the Alta faithful were anxious: After all, generations of families have grown up on these slopes, and are fiercely protective of the place and its increasingly rare un-corporate ethos. But things do change at Alta, even if it takes a while.
Take the ridgeline connection with neighboring Snowbird, which opened in 2002, or the first high-speed quad, which opened around the same time. Or consider the neighboring Rustler Lodge, which has undergone its own upscale transformation over the last few decades (and which actually boasts more rooms than the new hotel). The Snowpine might now be be a bit more posh than its neighbors, but it remains essentially Alta. The best evidence might be the way the youngest visitors, in the midst of creating lifelong memories of their own, clearly adore the place. (A game room and an indoor treehouse, complete with ball pit, are new for this winter but weren’t done when I was there.)
For the gang of super-psyched kids I saw playing hoops in the pool, or the ones in the restaurant showing each other helmet-cam footage of their gnarliest runs? This Alta, with the Snowpine as it was in the winter of 2019, will be the place they hope will never change.
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