The Observatory at Alta Lakes

The Observatory at Alta Lakes is perched high in the basin of Palmyra Peak at 11,300 feet. (Courtesy photo)

When you’ve booked a stay at the Observatory at Alta Lakes — perched at 11,300 feet — it almost goes without saying that getting there is half the fun.

Last winter, I booked a trip to the Observatory when my family came to visit. The Observatory, as it's affectionately known locally, is the cabin you can see as you peer over the ridge at the top of Lift 12. But cabin doesn't do the Observatory justice; it’s the coolest structure in one of the most spectacular locations in the world.

I've lived in the area for 19 years, and had heard about the Observatory. I looked down into the basin when skiing to see the cabin nestled in the woods, hiked by it in the summer and always dreamt about going. When my sister and her family came to visit and wanted to do something unique, I called and booked a night.

Matt Bowling and his brothers bought the Observatory eight years ago from Jim and Salli Russell. The Russells built the Observatory in the early 1970s after purchasing the mining claim in the area and scrawling plans for the structure on a New Sheridan bar napkin.

The Observatory is nestled in the basin of the formidable Palmyra peak. It’s surrounded by forest service land and is rich in mining history. A mining trestle built by the employees of the Alta Mine in the 1920s is adjacent to the Observatory. In the wintertime, the only way to access it is by snowshoeing, skiing or snowmobiling. Bowling picked up our group on snowmobiles, and we set off toward the Observatory. We passed through the old mining town of Alta, a ghost town with several original buildings still standing. In the late 1800s it was the town site for the Alta-Gold King area that housed hundreds of people.

After dropping off our gear at the Observatory, we took a snowmobile tour, wandering through the wilderness on freshly groomed trails. Telluride Outfitters runs snowmobile tours of the area and grooms the trails multiple times per day.

The Observatory is close to the ski area but feels far away. The cross country trail from the top of Lift 10, links over to the area and is one of several unique ways to access the Observatory on foot. Bowling offers a “shuttle to skiing” package called the Alta-Mate, which gives guests direct access to the ski resort. He will pick you up and take you to the runs off of Lift 10 and pick you up at the end of the day.

“Some of my guests want complete privacy,” Bowling said. “ They like to cook at the Observatory and don't want to go into town, and they love the Alta-Mate package for that reason." 

After touring the area on snowmobiles, we went back to get dinner ready, start a fire, and warm up the hot tub. When you first walk into the Observatory, the large and beautiful great room with hand-hewn log beams and one of the biggest stone fireplaces I've ever seen, greets you. The Bowling family remodeled the Observatory a few years after purchasing it, and it now offers all the creature comforts of home and more, including a stunning kitchen with a Viking range, stone countertops and double oven.

The comfy leather couch wraps around the living room, offering a different vantage point of the towering peaks from every window. The main floor offers an incredible bedroom with a queen bed that is situated right by a large oval window. It feels as if you're sleeping in the outdoors, but from the warmth of the indoors.

The stairs made of old railroad ties take you to the second floor where there's a second living room, with a TV and bunk beds — perfect for the young adults to get away from the old folks downstairs. On the same floor is another large bedroom that can accommodate four guests, and a beautifully remodeled bathroom complete with a rain-shower.   

The third floor is the star of the sleeping quarters, with its fireplace and large windows that make it feel like you're sleeping in a tree house. From this level, Mount Wilson views take over; it's such a unique perspective of Wilson and almost feels like you're higher than the 14,000-foot peak. 

The Observatory has lots of toys such as snowshoes, sleds, books and games for outdoor and indoor activities. The property is appropriately named — once the sun sets over the peaks, the stars came out. It was quiet as we walked on the groomed trails to view the expansive night sky. Avalanche bombs from the ski area were heard off in the distance, and we saw skiers hiking the ridge toward Palmyra Peak. They looked like little ants moving high above us. 

We woke up to incredible views of the mountains basking in sunlight, took one more soak in the hot tub while drinking the Observatory blend, a special edition from Telluride Coffee Roasters, and wished we had booked another night. 

For more information and to book the Observatory, go to AltaLakes.com.