Winters can be gray and disheartening in the Northwest.
But maybe it’s just a matter of perspective. As Chad Alden, assistant manager of Sturtevant’s Ski Mart in Tacoma, says, “If it’s gray outside then it’s probably snowing in the mountains.”
And when there’s snow in the mountains, the Cascades have plenty of recreation to offer. There are 18 ski areas in Washington, but the six most popular are located in the Cascades. Between them, they have just about everything a skier or snowboarder needs.
There’s the palatial learning center at the Summit at Snoqualmie, the gondola ride and steep runs at Crystal Mountain, the intermediate wonderland of White Pass, the enormous terrain park at Stevens Pass, the fluffy snow of Mission Ridge and Mount Baker’s famous backcountry.
When combined, these resorts are the heart of a Washington’s ski scene that draws more than 2 million visitors each winter.
Here’s a closer look at the Big 6:
In a state of day-trip ski hills, Crystal Mountain is the closest thing Washington has to a destination resort.
It has a mountain-top restaurant, moonlight snowshoe tours complete with fondue snacks, the only gondola between Puyallup and Spokane and easy-access lodging (another hotel is in the works).
Still, the skiing is the biggest draw at the state’s largest ski area.
The High Campbell (replaced this season) and Northway lifts access an abundance of expert terrain and give easy access to the backcountry. Silver King is a rite of passage for many of the best skiers at Crystal.
But the resort also has plenty to offer skiers with mellower agendas. Intermediate trails make up 54 percent of the designated runs while beginning runs account for 11 percent.
The gondola has allowed the ski area to take advantage of lingering snow in Green Valley and stay open later in recent years. Crystal latest closing day came in 2011 when skiing lasted until July 16.
Crystal Mountain spent $3.5 million on upgrades in 2013, and will top that this year with more exciting features. Last year, most of the budget was spent on a wastewater treatment plant. This year, the resort spent $4 million on improvements that include the new High Campbell and Quicksilver lifts. Crystal has also added a new diesel backup generator, a remote avalanche control system and an electric diesel groomer that consumes 20 percent less fuel and emits less carbon dioxide than standard groomers.
At Mission Ridge, the sun shines more often, the snow is lighter and the slopes are closer to a city than any other ski area in the Washington Cascades. And you don’t have to grow up here until you are 25.
The sun and light snow are the byproducts of its location on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Mission Ridge is located 12 miles from Wenatchee, but resort officials estimate 40 percent of its 100,000 skier visits each year come from Western Washington.
And in recent years it extended its cutoff for teen pricing to 24 instead of 18, an attempt to make the sport more affordable for those with less disposable income. This is something the ski area sees as a priority. Last spring, it sold family-of-four season passes for this season for $1,000.
Apres ski options in Wenatchee have expanded in recent years. The most noticeable addition is the Pybus Market on the Columbia River with a “Public Market” sign modeled after the sign at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Sam Chapin, Mission Ridge’s new marketing director, says the ski area purchased two new groomers for the season.
Last year, the ski area unveiled its #100Laps Terrain Park, where a rope tow makes it possible to make 100 runs or more in a day.
This winter the Legendary Banked Slalom, Mount Baker’s most famous event, turns 30 and the ski area plans to celebrate in style.
They’ve added a fourth day to the festivities, scheduled for Feb. 19-22, and are planning to serve up barbecued salmon and oysters, said general manager Duncan Howat.
The event is a celebration of snowboarding culture and Baker’s prominent role in helping the sport go mainstream.
This year’s event will include a legends race, where winners of past events will compete. To participate in the race, boarders must qualify or win a lottery. A qualifying race is Jan. 19.
The event field frequently includes pros and Olympic athletes from around the world competing on the same course as locals. Last year’s men’s and women’s pro races included participants from 15 states and five countries.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott finished third in the men’s pro race after winning in 2013. Jacob Krugmire, a 17-year-old from University Place, won the younger amateurs division.
There’s not much new this year, says general manager Duncan Howat. Some off-season grooming work on the slopes could allow the ski area to open a little earlier than normal, Howat said. Baker typically opens by Thanksgiving even in below-average snow years, he said.
More than a year in the working, the ski area is also offering a new family pass. The pass allows parents with children ages 4-6 to get a lift ticket for half price. The kids ski for free and when they’re tired, the parents can share the pass, alternating who stays with the kids and who hits the slopes.
If you have the skills, a partner and the right equipment, a trip into the Stevens Pass backcountry is a must, said Chris Danforth, the resort’s vice president of sales of marketing.
If you don’t have the skills, don’t even think about it. The ski area is so well-rounded, you’ll find plenty to do inbounds too.
The area offers ample beginner and intermediate runs that allow skiers and boarders the venue to work their way up to the steeper expert runs.
The backside, 7th heaven and Wild Katz are worth aspiring to, Danforth said.
“Wild Katz has some of the steepest tree skiing I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
Stevens Pass claims to have more terrain park features than any other ski area in the state.
The park is positioned low on the mountains so visitors can stop and gawk, and skiers and boarders top off a free ride on the upper mountain with a trip through the park.
Stevens, which draws the second-most skier visits in the state, also has a large night skiing operation.
Skiers and snowboarders aren’t likely to notice, but Stevens Pass spent a $1 million on maintenance projects over the summer. The biggest project was a new water tank.
“It’s not that exciting, but it needed to be done,” Danforth said.
Danforth says summer work on the hill is likely to make a more enjoyable experience for those who enjoy tree skiing.
SUMMIT AT SNOQUALMIE
The Summit at Snoqualmie is four ski areas in one, and each draws a distinctly different crowd.
Summit West and Summit Central are the hub for the state’s largest learning center, with more than 500 instructors.
Central is also home to the 40-acre Central Park that has a perpetually changing collections of features. Even if the rails and jumps are beyond your skills, they’re fun to watch from above while riding the Central Express lift.
Summit East is only open on weekends and offers a collection of intermediate and more difficult runs, including the ski area’s longest cruisers.
The resort’s most famous terrain is across Interstate 90 at Alpental. Filled with mostly diamond and double-diamond runs, Alpental has gates to some popular backcountry terrain.
The Summit also has extensive night skiing operation which helps, along with its proximity to I-90 and Seattle, to make it the most visited ski area in the state even if it is only the third largest (behind Crystal Mountain and 49 Degrees North).
The Silver Fir area renovation is nearing completion. The Silver Fir Lodge opened late last season and this year the new Rampart Chair at Summit East is scheduled to debut. The idea is that the improvements in this area will thin crowds around the rest of the resort. The ski area spent an addition $1.5 million on summer slope maintenance equipment, additional lighting for night skiing at Alpental and other upgrades.
With its welcoming atmosphere and its expanse of intermediate runs, White Pass has built its reputation around being family friendly.
While the terrain is mostly mild, there is good tree skiing and a few good steep runs for expert skiers.
The Great White Express allows stat geeks to amass vertical quicker than perhaps any other lift in the state. The lift whisks skiers up 1,500 vertical feet in seven minutes.
The ski area’s most famous event is its annual Winter Carnival, Feb. 28-March 1 this season. The carnival includes a litany of games and activities and is highlighted by a large snow castle that kids can slide through.
White Pass is also birthplace of Hope on the Slopes, a 24-hour ski and snowboard event that raises money for the American Cancer Society. Tacoma businessman Dave Ludwig founded the event 12 years ago.
Across U.S. Highway 12, White Pass boasts a cross-country skiing area that has had a spike in popularity over the past decade.
Regulars are likely to notice some new, short connecting runs on the trails in Paradise Basin.
Stunt Ditch, scheduled for April 11, seems to have earned a permanent spot on the White Pass event roster. Resort spokeswoman Kathleen Goyette says the event “was wildly successful” last year.
What is it? It’s quirky enough that even Goyette had to check her notes to try to explain it. Let’s just say it involves a hand-dug half pipe, rails, jibs, boxes, jumps and Sasquatch.
There’s also food and beer.