Hit the Slopes at 6 Washington Ski Areas and Resorts

south sound trucksDespite last year’s low snow levels throughout the United States, attendance at ski areas only dropped five percent. Many industry analysts think that ski attendance will only grow in the coming years. With the season upon the Pacific Northwest, now is the time to start planning your ski adventure. So, whether you are a veteran of the slopes or just an interested reader, here’s the low down on six ski areas accessible from Olympia: Crystal Mountain, White Pass, The Summit at Snoqualmie, Mission Ridge, Hurricane Ridge, and Mount Baker.

1. Crystal Mountain

Crystal Mountain sits adjacent to Mount Rainier and offers the only high speed gondola in Washington State.

Nestled deep in the Cascades, and almost adjacent to Mount Rainier, Crystal Mountain is the only ski resort in Washington with a high speed gondola. Since their opening in 1962 they have invested 30 million dollars into the area. Crystal Mountain operates eight lifts with one surface lift. In 2007, Crystal Mountain underwent a major expansion, increasing developed terrain by 70% to 2,600 acres. “I just love the terrain at Crystal,” says James Click, an avid skier. “They really did something special when they expanded.”

Crystal Mountain is the largest ski area in Washington and with over 50 designated trails, there is something for everyone. Snowfall is plentiful and they have a history of closing much later than many resorts. In 2011, they stayed open until July 16.

Crystal Mountain is easily accessible, less than two hours from Olympia. The area opened this year with limited terrain on November 21.

Pro Tip: Beginner and Novice skiers should wait to visit Crystal until more of the mountain is open in early December.

2. White Pass

Olympia families love the location, scenery and wide variety of terrain at White Pass.

On the other side of Mount Rainier sits White Pass. Opened in 1952, White Pass has a rich history and is the home mountain of Olympic medalists Phil and Steve Maher. From humble beginnings with just a couple rope tows, White Pass now operates five chairs and a beginner’s surface lift.

In 2010, White Pass added 800 acres to its terrain, bringing the total to almost 1,500 acres. When they expanded, they were conscious of the area’s precious mountain environment. To maintain as much of the natural environment as they could, White Pass cut as few trees as possible and planned runs through naturally treeless areas. White Pass operates 45 runs and has additional off-piste (ungroomed, steeper and more difficult) terrain. White Pass, a two hour drive from Olympia, prides itself on customer service and this really sets it apart.

“My favorite part about White Pass is their advanced terrain. Their off-piste is really great,” says Logan Greenwell, a frequent skier there. “Whenever I go to White Pass I feel like I’m going home. The community is amazing.” Currently, White Pass has about 21” of snow at the summit and hopes to open soon.

Pro Tip: For beginner skiers, purchase a Lower Lift Ticket. This ticket gives beginners access to only beginner terrain and is about half the price of a regular lift ticket. On the way there, stop by the Goat Rocks Cafe in Packwood for some excellent coffee or hot chocolate for any little ones.  Be sure to stop by the Huff and Puff Drive-In for milkshakes on the way home.

3. The Summit at Snoqualmie

This vintage map shows what used to by Hyak Ski Area, now known as Summit East at The Summit at Snoqualmie.

Located on Snoqualmie Pass, The Summit at Snoqualmie contains four former base areas:  Alpental, Summit West, Summit Central, and Summit East. Snoqualmie operates 25 lifts and totals almost 2,000 skiable acres including 523 acres of backcountry terrain. Many ski legends have been born at The Summit including Olympic Gold medalist Debbie Armstrong, who grew up skiing Alpental’s steep slopes.

Snowboarding is deeply embedded in the history of Snoqualmie. When snowboarding was first becoming a mainstream winter sport many mountains did not allow snowboarders onto their slopes. In the mid-1980’s, what is now Summit East began to allow snowboarders. At the time, only 7% of ski areas in the United States allowed snowboarders. Snoqualmie has continued this tradition, and has hosted many snowboarding competitions on their slopes. The Summit at Snoqualmie is an hour and 45 minutes from Olympia.

Logan Greenwell, who also skis at The Summit, states, “Snoqualmie, especially later in the season, has some really excellent terrain. Their night-skiing is phenomenal.”  The Summit at Snoqualmie is not yet open but check here for current conditions.

Pro Tip: The Summit at Snoqualmie is Seattle’s closest ski area. To avoid large crowds and heavy traffic, visit Snoqualmie during the week. Also, if you happen to be feeling a bit peckish, and are up for some unique fare, try the Powder House. It won’t disappoint.

4. Mission Ridge Ski and Board Resort

In 1944 a military B-24 Liberator crashed in the Squilchuck Basin, part of what is now Mission Ridge. One of the wings is mounted at the resort where locals claim that rubbing the wing helps bring the snow.

On the “sunny sides of the Cascades” lies Mission Ridge Ski and Board Resort. Consisting of 2,000 skiable acres, 36 runs and “snowmaking top to bottom,” Mission Ridge is an excellent option. Mission Ridge operates four lifts, and two surface lifts. In 1944, twenty-two years before Mission Ridge first opened, a military B-24 Liberator crashed in the Squilchuck Basin, part of what is now Mission Ridge. The wreckage is still there, usually buried underneath snow and Mission Ridge has mounted one of the wings of the B-24 in remembrance of the crash and in honor of the fallen airmen.  Locals claim that rubbing the wing helps bring the snow.

Mission Ridge has the most snowmaking equipment of any ski area in Washington, allowing it to remain open in low-snow years. Last year, an infamously low-snow year, Mission Ridge stayed open when many ski areas were closed.  In fact, it never closed from opening weekend to the end of the season.

Tony Hickok, marketing manager for Mission Ridge, says that his favorite part of the mountain is the community. “It really makes it a special place to work,” he explains. Mission Ridge is three and a half hours away from Olympia and offers excellent lodgings with Wenatchee approximately 10 miles from the base.

Pro Tip: For beginner skiers and snowboarders, ask Mission Ridge about the Learn to Ski Freedom Pass designed to give new skiers a discount. Also, students in grades 7-12, with 3.0 GPA or higher, qualify for a discounted $30 lift ticket (with a $30 first-time membership fee). Be sure to bring a report card and student ID.

5. Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area

Hurricane Ridge is one of only three ski resorts in the United States operated entirely within a National Park.

Seventeen miles south of Port Angeles in the Olympic National Park sits Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area. Despite being a small ski area, consisting of three surface lifts and ten designated runs, Hurricane Ridge is a special place. In fact, according to Even Nemeth, a Hurricane Ridge frequenter, its size is what makes it special. “While it might be small, the snow and runs are amazing. People who think that ‘bigger is better’ don’t come here and they have no idea what they’re missing.” Snow levels are indeed impressive with storms off the Pacific Ocean frequently dumping huge amounts of snow overnight.

Hurricane Ridge is one of three remaining ski areas that operates entirely within a national park (the other two are in Yosemite and Cayauhaga in Ohio). According to Roger Oakes, a founder and past-president of Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club, Hurricane Ridge is supported by “a good relationship with ONP [Olympic National Park], an avid group of volunteers, an Education Foundation, a ski school and ski team.” Oakes believes that the future is bright for Hurricane Ridge. “We see the future as one reviving small areas like ours as others become high end and unaffordable to many.”

Hurricane Ridge is open Saturdays, Sundays and holiday weekends. Before visiting, check the website to make sure the Hurricane Ridge road is open. The Olympic National Park is dedicated to keeping the road open year round, but overnight snow storms may cause temporary closures.

Pro Tip: For those with multiple skis in their quiver, be sure to bring your all-mountain skis as well as your powder skis. Variable conditions and untouched tracks will make you wish you had.

6. Mount Baker

Sunny skies greeted skiers at Mount Baker on opening day.

With picturesque Mount Shuksan towering in the background, Mount Baker first opened its slopes in 1926.  Ninety years later, Mount Baker operates eight chairs with access to over 40 runs and several “expert only” areas reserved for backcountry skiing.  “I think my favorite part of Mount Baker is their endless backcountry opportunities and their dedication to promoting safe backcountry skiing,” said Jonah Valler, a backcountry fanatic.

For the uninitiated, backcountry skiing is when someone deliberately leaves a designated ski area to access ungroomed terrain. As with all skiing, backcountry skiing is at the skier’s own risk and should not be attempted without training. In the backcountry, the possibility of an avalanche increases dramatically and a skier may encounter dangerous scenarios. Mount Baker has multiple access points for the backcountry, and to restrict those unprepared for it, Mount Baker has a list of requirements that must be met in order to legally leave the main areas.

Unofficially, Mount Baker Ski Area holds the highest average snowfall of any resort in the world at 641 inches per year. In the 1998-1999 season, Mount Baker broke the world record for snowfall at a ski resort in a single season with 1,140 inches.

Mount Baker, already open for the 2015-16 season, is about three hours and forty-five minutes from Olympia with multiple lodging options.

Pro Tip: For those interested in becoming competent in backcountry skiing, Mount Baker has a widely acclaimed backcountry safety class. Visit them online for more information.

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