Skiing in Washington State
Washington can be a great ski destination. As with other Pacific Northwest skiing, having a good base of snow is usually not an issue. Annual snowfall in this area is usually among the highest in the country. The mountains provide good vertical (1,500 to 2,500 feet of skiing vertical is common) but the elevations are low enough so altitude issues are lessened.
What’s not to like? Being in the beautiful Pacific Northwest gives you a different feel than the Rockies, proximity to the major SeaTac airport makes much of Washington convenient for travelers from anywhere, and lift tickets are actually reasonable! Just think, you can ski 3 days at Mt. Baker for the price of skiing 1 day at Vail.
We say it often: When you hit Washington during a good week, it is as good skiing as you will find anywhere. While the snowfall is normally very good, one challenge is that conditions can mirror what you see in other parts of the Pacific Northwest. With typical mountain elevations of 4,500 to 7,000 feet, the snow can be moist and freeze, creating a very hard base. The good news is that regular snowfall is likely to cover up the hardpack and ice… and thinking back to very recent years when destinations in Utah or Colorado have not had much snow at all, it all becomes a bit luck-of-the-draw regarding conditions. Personally, our Washington ski experiences have generally been excellent.
East or West?
The main decision to make in Washington is if you want to ski the East — near Spokane, or the West — closer to Seattle and Bellingham. Most of the larger resorts are going to be on the Seattle side, and you get the added bonus of being close to such a major airport. In the East, most of your skiing will be within an hour or two of Spokane. However, when you get that far East, you need to start considering destinations like Whitefish Mountain in Montana which may be just 4 hours away.
We like skiing in Western Washington for the quintessential Washington experience. Lots of snow, good vertical, and some family-friendly mountains that can provide legitimate challenge for any skier. That is not to say there is anything wrong at all with Eastern Washington skiing…. If you offered us a day of skiing right now at places in the East, like Mt. Spokane or 49 North, we would take it in a heartbeat.
Our three favorite Washington Mountains are………..
In the Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie forest area sits Mt. Baker Ski Area, the resort that often boasts the most snow in the U.S., if not all of North America. Mt. Baker tends to get its share of snow, and it is not uncommon to see new snow on the slopes 20 or more days each month.
It is a lower ski area — maxing out at about 5,100 feet. That can make the snow a bit heavier at times, but you will also get some days with excellent light powder. 1,500 feet of vertical serviced by 8 lifts tends to be skewed on the experienced skier side…. about 75% of the runs are intermediate or advanced. Still, there is plenty of space for beginners at lower elevations near the base.
Mt. Baker usually stays open well into April, sometimes until the end of the month — making it a great choice if you are going to be spring skiing. The base area is actually split in to a couple — with parking at either side of the resort and lifts services multiple base lodges. We like home-basing from the White Salmon lodge, a newer and airy lodge next to ample parking and the C-7 Lift.
Mt. Baker is between 2-3 hours from the Seattle area, tucked way up near the border between Canada and Washington. If you are an advanced skier or boarder, seriously consider doing some backcountry skiing which requires hiking up Mt. Baker. You will want to be in good shape, but it is a unique ski experience.
Stevens Pass might be the place to go if your group tends to want more intermediate and advanced skiing. Less than 10% of the runs are geared for beginners, meaning that you are likely to see more polished skiers on the hill.
The mountain is not huge — around 1,200 acres and 4 terrain parks — but what is there is typically excellent terrain combined with normally good conditions. Over 50 runs are carved into the mountain, giving skiers plenty of ways to challenge themselves on the way down. 450 inches of average snowfall puts Stevens Pass well ahead of many better-known Colorado resorts when it comes to typical snowpack. What’s more, the Easterly wind can often usher in drier snow, making for some great powder.
A singular base area which includes parking, mountain offices, restaurants, rental, and ski school makes it simple to figure out where to go and home-base at Stevens Pass. Just 2 hours from downtown Seattle, it is both drivable or convenient to get to on several buses that run per day. The lodging situation around Stevens Pass is typical Washington — there is no real “ski town” to speak of, but you will find scattered base and VRBO options.
We like Stevens Pass if your group can hold their own on skis. If you have beginners, we may opt for……..
Our Favorite: Crystal Mountain
Crystal Mountain in Washington is one of the hidden gems in the West. To people in the Seattle area, it is not hidden at all – it is the largest ski area in the state and just under a 2-hour drive from most parts of Seattle-Tacoma. To folks coming from other places who are typically comparing names like Vail, Jackson Hole, and Park City, Crystal Mountain is a pleasant surprise. Given the excellent lift system, you can get a lot of skiing in during the course of a day. We like Crystal Mountain enough to give it a mention on our continually-updated Best Family Ski Resorts piece.
A highlight of skiing Crystal Mountain is the view of Mt. Rainer, just over the ridge from the top of the gondola and two of the main express lifts. It is a view that, on a clear day, usually causes people to pause for a couple minutes – and creates a great photo opp.
2,500 acres of varied terrain is serviced by a very good lift system at Crystal. The Gondola gets you from the base to the peak, about 2,500 vertical feet. 4 high-speed lifts help cover much of the mountain, and a double on either end completes the upper mountain system. A couple smaller lifts at lower elevations complete the picture.
For families looking for a next mix of beginner and intermediate runs, you might find yourself parked near the Express lift, a nice, fast, 6-person lift that access lots of fun and varied terrain, without the risk of accidentally getting on a double black. It is a popular area with families.
One thing we really appreciate about Crystal mountain is that there are multiple ways to ski from the peak of the Gondola all the way down to the mountain base. We wish more mountains had that layout – as it is nice to know that “all roads can lead home” when you are out exploring various runs.
For Families, Crystal Kids is the command central and is located right at Crystal’s compact base area – very convenient to ski rental, restaurants, parking, and 4 main lifts. They offer everything from half day lessons, to full day, to a Little Foot program for 4-6 year olds.
Crystal Mountain is about 2 hours from downtown Seattle, longer if traffic or weather are a factor. It can be as little as a 90 minute drive from suburbs like Kent or Tukwila. This makes it relatively convenient for travelers, as the SeaTac airport has major airline service and South of the city, allowing you to avoid a commute through downtown Seattle if you are flying in.
Note that the drive up to Crystal Mountain can be a little dicey when it is precipitating, and it precipitates in Washington often! The final 30 minutes are on somewhat narrow mountain roads near Mount Rainer. Drive slow, drive safe, and strongly consider driving an AWD car if it is anything but sunny and dry.
One thing about the Washington ski areas is that they typically don’t have the quintessential “ski towns”, the way you would find in some other popular destinations. There are a number of lodging options near the base of Crystal, but the base area is cozy and not the sprawling village or town you might see at ski resorts in other states. This is not a problem, though, as the parking situation is simple and allows you to walk from your car to the lifts, or at worst take a very short shuttle ride. As for area resorts, we have heard good things about the Alta Crystal Resort, a pretty 15-minute drive from the parking lots of the ski base. We recommend searching your favorite travel website for something suitable for you – there is not one place that jumps out as the favorite.
VRBO lodging exists in the area, but it is scattered around. It can provide a great area to find a “place in the woods” for the week or weekend you are there. The other option, if you want to stick with hotel chains, is to stay in the Puyallup or Kent areas, but know you will have a 90-minute drive each day to ski.
We think that Crystal Mountain can be an excellent daytrip from Seattle or Tacoma if you are in the area and just want to spend a day on the slopes.
Paul Miller is the Founder of Family Skier. He is an advanced skier and has extensive experience with family travel and ski schools. An accomplished skier, he has skied in 15 states and provinces and 6 countries. In addition to FamilySkier, his writing can be found on many ski-related websites, and as curriculum for many ski clubs in North America.