Passing Through: Crystal Mountain

Go to Crystal Mountain, Washington, for the terrain gamut, Mount Rainier views, and the Elk

PHOTO: Ian Coble

Stevens Pass has the trees, Mount Baker has the base depth, but Washington’s most diverse lift-serviced skiing sits to the south, just beyond the shadow of Mount Rainier’s prominent shnozz.

Two and a half hours from Seattle, Crystal Mountain is 2,600 acres of pure possibility. With a base at 4,400 feet, the area’s snow falls lighter and drier than anywhere west of the Cascadian crest, making its 462 annual inches a whole lot more fun to play with than some of its stickier Cascadian compadres.

While some Washingtonians grovel that the area’s eight-person gondola and pair of six-pack chairs are signs of Crystal’s corporate motives, skiers will be hard pressed to find Colorado lift lines—even on a pow day. In fact, as a drive up evergreen 410 to the area’s yet unpaved parking lots can attest, Crystal still bleeds Northwest. Lacking a true destination hotel or fancy base services beyond basic dining and rentals (per the U.S. Forest Service’s strict regulations on ski areas throughout the region), Crystal’s RV Lot is a powder hound Petri dish, a collection of PNW eclecticism, and ripping skiers that gave birth to many a local legend, including Ingrid Backstrom.

In addition, doubles are still the lift du jour for the area’s prime terrain (off High Campbell and Northway), keeping lines fresh well into the afternoon. Groomers know the code as well, keeping beginner terrain in shape while leaving the good stuff to the rest of us.

For those that can’t glean the magic from a creaky double chair, a sunny day Lumberjack Bloody Mary at the Summit House and its sweeping views of Mount Rainier will turn the saltiest of curmudgeon’s into a Crystal convert.

When the snow falls, as it so often does, Crystal’s expanse works in the skier’s favor. Terrain opens on a rolling basis, so if you time your runs well, chances are you’ll witness a rope drop or two. While the gondola is the most direct way to the top, a two-lift shuffle from the Chinook Express to the Rainier Express (a.k.a. REX) does the trick minus the Gondi line. Early risers should risk it and take a long lap down skier’s left of Exterminator, Crystal’s Hollywood under-gondi shot. From there, get to Northway for steeps, chutes, and classic PNW old growth tree lines or head to the new Chair 6 for big mountain bowls.

After your legs are good and beat, chances are Southback, Crystal’s lift-serviced backcountry, will just be waking up, adding a few hundred acres of big mountain terrain to your hit list. If you believe in the higher powers of stoke, drop off the King, or test out the chutes off Three Way Peak, rinse, and repeat.

Days typically end at the Snorting Elk, perhaps the quintessential ski bar in North America. Nestled underneath the Alpine Inn, the Elk is an old Austrian-styled basement bar serving up killer nachos and plenty of sudsy sustenance. Stick around long enough for the live music, and share a pitcher of Elk Frost with Happy Hugh. Trust us, it’ll make you wish that you’d been skiing there since the lifts fired up in ’62.