What is it about Utah’s low-key Alta Lodge that hits skiers’ sweet spot?
How does a small and unassuming hotel at the end of Utah State Route 210, better known as Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, attract the rich, the famous, and the interesting, year after year after decade?
It’s not the accommodations. The rooms are Euro-regular, not American-grand — the Lodge’s scale has never been confused with Stein Eriksen Lodge or St. Regis Deer Valley.
Nor is it the amenities. What do health clubs, swimming pools, and elegant spas have in common? You can’t find any of them at Alta Lodge. (Though there are two large hot tubs.) Oh, and there are no televisions. Convenience? Uh, no. You drive eight miles up a winding and sometimes snowed-in or bouldered-on mountain road to reach it, and once you’re there, the “front door” is down a long set of stairs.
The food’s very good, but there’s no famous chef. The beds are fine, but there’s no stratospheric thread count. The location is slopeside, but that’s the case with almost every lodging choice at Alta.
What is it, then? We asked. We asked patrons, staff , and Utah locals. There’s something about Alta Lodge. What is it?
Nearly everyone thinks the story starts with a New York documentary filmmaker named Bill Levitt. In 1954, he and his wife Mimi skied Alta and so fell in love with the place, they packed up and moved their family. Though Bill died in 2009, he owned and operated Alta Lodge since 1959. During most of that time, Bill served as mayor of the hamlet of Alta. He used his authority to block overdevelopment, preserve open spaces, and protect Salt Lake City’s clean drinking water. Employees and guests remember him with reverence and awe.
The Levitts have continued the traditions established when the Lodge opened in 1940 with 12 rooms and one “indoor outhouse.” David Davenport, president of the Alta Historical Society, says it’s “dedicated to the traditional lodge style — breakfast and dinner included with stay, no televisions, a common dining area, and an opportunity for communal social engagement between guests.”
The effect? “This tradition is what brings generations of families back to the lodge with their own tradition of a skiing lifestyle.”
Some of the better known guests pretty much define “their own tradition.” At Alta Lodge, Errol Flynn and Claudette Colbert gained notoriety for theirs. The Kennedy clan established several family ski rituals. And conservative pundit William F. Buckley stuck to dogma when he pondered, “What is life like at Alta and Alta Lodge? Absolutely unregimented. At Alta, you do as you like.”
Most guests are not quite as famous, though many share a surprising communality: At Alta Lodge, the line between guest and worker is blurred and permeable.
Jan Burns is a prime example. “I began as a guest when I was 13. Then I waitressed and became a pantry wench at 18. I’ve been bringing my family here ever since. My daughter just applied — and got the job — to work at the front desk.”
Jan’s fondest lodge memory also bridges the guest-worker divide. “When I was working in the kitchen, I suggested to the chef that he use my recipe rather than his for dessert. He, um, disagreed… but allowed me to make it for the staff. Because everybody works here forever, when I went back as a guest, they said, ‘Oooh, would you make that chocolate sauce again?’ So, since 1996, I’ve been given permission as a guest to make chocolate sauce for employees and guests who know to request it. When I go back now, I still make it.”
Jan Burns’ Chocolate Sauce à la Alta Lodge
4 squares unsweetened baking chocolate
2 tablespoons butter 1 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup half and half
Melt two squares of chocolate with butter in double boiler. Gradually add sugar, then add cream. Continue cooking until the sauce is smooth. Remove from heat and add remaining two squares of chocolate; they will melt from the heat of the sauce.
Staff members aren’t the only ones who are sticking around. Skip Silloway has been visiting Alta Lodge every year since 1973. “We bring our boys and their families — we love it.”
Though he’s now 78, Skip still slips in 30 to 40 ski days a year. “I think the combination of the Alta Lodge and Alta Mountain is the best skiing anywhere.” Why? It hits all of Skip’s sweet spots: “There are no TVs in the rooms.
The Levitt family is there every day. They have a nice kids’ program; our grandkids are nine and twelve, and as soon as we walk in the door, we don’t see them.”
Laurie Bernhard is another long-time guest… and another line-crosser. She started going to Alta Lodge as a visitor when she was 15; during college and law school she went during winter breaks, as an employee. “I worked four hours a day for room and board and lift tickets. “Room” could have been the bar after it closed down at night, or a cot somewhere. “Now, we all go back again — 16 of us. Three families, the originals plus spouses and children.”
What’s the draw for Laurie? “It’s like going home. The lobby is the living room. Always, there’s the Alta Lodge dog. Family-style eating. People sharing what their day was like. The best snow in the country. And the wonderful, accessible people who return year after year after year, coming home to that Alta community.”
Sounds like Utah’s ultimate Sweet Spot.
By Jules Older