Situated at the upper end of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Alta is a community that has had two lives. Silver was discovered in the area in 1864, and by the following year the first verified mining claim was filed. The first settlement in the area - Central City - consisted of a sawmill along with several small boarding houses and businesses. The town soon boasted a population of 216.
In the fall of 1871, Alta was established only 850 yards east of Central City on what was the widest flat area of the canyon. Starting with the Alta Hotel, Central City merchants began relocating their log buildings. The borders of the two communities soon merged, the name Central City was dropped, and its residents were absorbed into Alta. Though alta is a Spanish word meaning "upper or higher," the actual origin of the name has remained unclear. By 1872, the town's population had boomed to 3,000 and there were 180 buildings.