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What’s new in Washington snow country this winter, from the lodges to the lifts

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: December 30, 2023, 6:00am
3 Photos
Skiers and snowboarders recreate at Stevens Pass ski area in the Cascade Mountains March 9, 2021.
Skiers and snowboarders recreate at Stevens Pass ski area in the Cascade Mountains March 9, 2021. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Winter has barely begun and the dominant theme for snow lovers is anxiety.

Why the jitters? After a rare three-peat of La Niña winters that resulted in generous (if sometimes unevenly distributed) snowfall, the surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific have shifted from cool to warm.

That means a strong El Niño winter is upon us — and those are typically warmer in the Northwest, which does not bode well for mountain snow.

“This could be one of the five strongest El Niños of the last 50 years,” Washington climatologist Nick Bond said.

A moderate El Niño developed during the 2014-2015 winter, the worst in modern memory, and its ghost looms large in the collective psyche of skiers and snowboarders. But the historical data is not all doom and gloom. Hyak, on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass at a modest 2,800 feet in elevation, posted over 300 inches of snow in each of the last three strong El Niño winters, dating back to the 1982-1983 season.

You can wring your hands about tropical sea temperatures or you can go play in the snow. Mission Ridge and Whistler Blackcomb both opened by Thanksgiving weekend. Crystal Mountain Resort and White Pass kicked off their seasons over the first weekend in December as feet of snow blanketed the Cascades — followed by record-setting rain. And Stevens Pass, Summit at Snoqualmie and Mt. Baker recently joined the party.

Read on to find out what else is new as we head into another Northwest winter.

New lifts, lights, libations — and a racecourse

Much-needed infrastructure improvements continue to bring our local ski areas closer to current demand. Stevens Pass decommissioned the two-person, fixed-grip Kehr’s Chair, named for the ski area’s founder, Bruce Kehr, and replaced it with a four-person lift. The upgrade will speed up morning lift lines out of the Stevens base area.

New skiers at Summit Central will also get more time to practice their progression from pizza to French fry (the classic instructor metaphor for going from snowplow to parallel turn). The old pair of moving carpets have been replaced with quicker, longer surface lifts that run the full length between Central Plaza and the Central Express lift. Intermediate skiers at Alpental, meanwhile, will zoom through the lift line quicker at Armstrong Express, which now has 20 percent more chairs.

Have you ever lost a recreational ski race at Alpental because you missed your start time while creeping along on the Sessel Chair? Asking for a friend. Beer league and youth racers alike have fewer excuses now that the double, one of The Summit at Snoqualmie’s oldest lifts, has been replaced with a Doppelmayr triple lift rising higher up the mountain.

Speaking of racing, Crystal’s first-ever NASTAR-approved racecourse will open to the public this week underneath the Quicksilver lift. (NASTAR is the largest public ski racing program in the world.) In addition to competitive organized races, it allows the skiing public to compete against family and friends anywhere through a handicap system that measures the racer’s speed against the course par. Skiers can slalom the gates under the lights from 2:30-8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Mission Ridge replaced the haul rope on Chair 4 for a more reliable ride and upgraded the lift’s lights to stronger LEDs. That improvement will help visibility along the second-longest night skiing vertical in the country.

New LEDs will also brighten your night ski along Golden Nugget at Summit Central and under the Sessel Chair at Alpental.

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When Mt. Baker Ski Area fires up the lifts this season, fewer of them will belch diesel fumes. The ski area is not connected to a public utility grid and historically relied on generators to power its lifts. An ongoing electrification project comes online this season to power most of the chairlifts via renewable energy.

Looking to kick back with a cold one or refuel with some grub? The new Pacific Cantina will serve up tacos, nachos and margaritas on weekends at the Stevens Pass base area. And while the opening of Crystal’s much-hyped new base lodge, Mountain Commons, is behind schedule, there’s a more modest debut at the top of Chinook Express: the Midway Yurt, which offers grab-and-go snacks and beverages plus essentials like hand warmers.

Parking and transit

Stevens Pass has felt the parking pinch for years, even prior to Vail Resorts’ acquisition, and aims to improve the arrival experience this season with dedicated four-plus carpool parking in lots A and G on weekends, holidays and powder days (6-plus inches of new snow). Meanwhile, Mt. Baker increased its parking lot capacity by 15 percent in the offseason while Crystal added 36 RV spaces in the G lot.

Got range anxiety with your EV? Charging stations for electric vehicles are now available at Crystal (eight), Silver Fir at Summit (nine) and Stevens Pass (two), with chargers coming soon at White Pass.

Crystal’s in-resort shuttles that move guests from parking lots to the base area got an upgrade this season, with new, roomier buses equipped with exterior ski and snowboard racks. The resort’s free weekend coach shuttle to/from Enumclaw is also slated to return, along with paid parking for non-passholders.

Methow Valley visitors this winter can also avail themselves of new bus service between Winthrop and Mazama on TranGO, the Okanogan County transit agency. The $1 bus ride, running six times in each direction Monday-Saturday, will make it easier for cross-country skiers to attempt long one-way skis like the Methow Community Trail. With an additional round-trip this season, the free SkiLink bus between downtown Wenatchee and Mission Ridge operated by Link Transit runs eight times daily.

There’s an app for that

Smartphones have become an indispensable on-mountain tool — although the push to eliminate paper trail maps is lamentable.

Before heading out this winter, Northwest skiers should download the new app Avy, a major initiative of the Northwest Avalanche Center in partnership with the Sawtooth Avalanche Center in Idaho. The app contains the daily avalanche bulletin and mountain weather forecast and can also send push notifications when avalanche conditions are updated after they were originally posted. The app’s field observation feature is user-friendly, so you can easily report avalanche activity in the mountains.

Resort skiers, meanwhile, will find it useful for checking snow totals. NWAC maintains a network of telemetry sensors with hourly real-time data on weather, wind and snow accumulation. Don’t trust the ski area’s marketing department to tell you how much snow fell overnight — check Avy. More details at nwac.us/avy-avalanche-and-weather-information.

For Stevens Pass regulars, Vail Resorts recently launched the My Epic app. Real-time operations and parking updates eliminate the need to check the social media platform X to find out if the back side is opening soon, while mobile pass and lift ticket technology means you can get your Epic Pass scanned at the chairlift hands-free via Bluetooth. (Note that the mobile ticket feature does not currently work at Whistler Blackcomb.)

Handheld scanners are also going the way of the paper trail map over at Crystal, which installed RFID gates at Chinook Express, Discovery Chair and the Mount Rainier Gondola. Tap your Ikon Pass and go, just like an ORCA card — minus the turnstiles. (Crystal also has a mobile app, launched in prior seasons.) New RFID gates will also speed up loading on the Little Thunder lift at Summit West and Sessel at Alpental.

White Pass Ski Area implemented a new ticketing system ahead of this season, which will require every skier and rider to get a new RFID card for their lift tickets or season pass. Acquire one in advance at estore.skiwhitepass.com and avoid a pesky wait on your first visit.

Finally, cross-country skiers can now check grooming reports at the Cabin Creek, Crystal Springs and Mount Spokane Sno-Parks, as well as Echo Ridge Recreation Area and Methow Trails, on Nordic Pulse (nordic-pulse.com). This 2-year-old app has become a one-stop shop for Nordic ski clubs to post real-time grooming information.

Hurricane Ridge opens

Seven months after a fire destroyed the Hurricane Ridge Day Lodge, Olympic National Park has cobbled together sufficient infrastructure to reopen for winter operations. The Olympic Peninsula’s snowy perch will open Friday-Sunday and holidays, weather and road conditions permitting. There will be trailers with heated bathrooms and a temporary ranger station, but no dedicated indoor warming area or food service, so be prepared with snacks, water, blankets and sleeping bags in your vehicle. Shuttle service from Port Angeles will operate on weekends: hikeolympic.com/hurricane-ridge-winter-shuttle.

Without a lodge, there will be no ski or snowboard rentals this season, but the Hurricane Ridge ski school will still operate. The Poma surface lift, two rope tows, tubing area and small terrain park are a charming, no-frills ski destination, one of just three ski hills located in a national park. Lift tickets are a relative bargain: $57 when the Poma is operational, $44 for ropes only and $25 for the bunny rope tow. The tubing area is 10 rides for $22, tubes provided.

A year after staffing shortages plunged Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park into weekend-only purgatory, the park has committed to opening access via the Longmire gate five days per week, weather and road conditions permitting, with the gates still locked on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The park has pledged a return to seven-day winter access as soon as staffing levels are adequate.

Nordic skiers will find more to explore at the White Pass Nordic Center. Over in the Methow Valley, the Aqua Loop trail damaged during wildfires in 2021 is back open. There is also a new trailhead at Methow Trails headquarters in Winthrop, replete with toilets and a short loop trail.

Finally, the Sno-Parks program administered by Washington State Parks doled out a record $3.1 million to local winter sports clubs and public land managers this year. Dollars sprinkled throughout the state will fund everything from additional grooming days to more portable toilets (including ADA-accessible ones), new signage and trail repair.