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Utah Spring Skiing, Part 2

Close out the Season at Alta
Photo: Alta Ski Area
For a spring ski or snowboard experience that's both challenging and fun for those with a variety of skill levels, few areas (other than what we explored in Part 1 ) beat Utah's Cottonwood Canyons.

The canyons' four resorts -- Alta Ski Area and Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in the Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Brighton Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort in the Big Cottonwood Canyon -- are among the closest ski areas to a major airport in North America; the drive from the Salt Lake City International Airport takes less than 40 minutes.

The four resorts all have areas for beginners, those seeking to improve with some instruction and experts in search of chutes and moguls.

All also heavily promote their family-friendly atmosphere and services. In a broad sense, though, the Big Cottonwood resorts appeal more to families with young children. The Little Cottonwood resorts tend to draw more hard-core skiers and snowboarders, for their world-famous steep bowls. The two resorts also sell a joint-lift pass, the AltaBird, which together makes the area one of North America's largest and most challenging ski areas.

All About Alta

Following decades of mining and timber harvesting, skiing began in the Cottonwoods in the late 1930s after Joe Quinney, a Salt Lake City attorney, was angered that the Union Pacific Railroad chose to develop Sun Valley in Idaho instead of Utah areas.

A group of investors, led by Quinney, bought land, built the Alta Lodge and erected a chairlift using salvaged timber and mining equipment. The company is now controlled by the descendents of Quinney and James Laughlin, and several others with smaller stakes.

Alta's 2,200 acres are divided into two drainage areas: Collins Gulch and Albion Basin. Its beginner areas are served by three chairlifts near the Albion Lodge and ski school. Adventurous intermediates and daredevils can find extreme skiing off the 11,068-foot Mount Baldy, Devil's Castle and Catherine's Area. On powder days, Alta also offers snow cat skiing in Grizzly Gulch, beyond the resort boundaries.

Alta inspires incredible devotion among skiers (it's always been a ski-only resort; snowboarding is not permitted).

After traversing deep into Alta's expert Catherine's Area, I met Tom Persons, 48, a real estate investor from San Francisco who spends about 50 days each year at California's Squaw Valley. Yet Alta remains his all-time favorite destination, he said, using the word "love" to describe his feelings for the resort no less than four times in a minute. While Persons came to the nearby resort town of Park City on business, he said, "I'm not coming to Utah and not skiing Alta; that would be sacrilegious."

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