Passing Through: Stevens Pass

An hour and a half outside of Seattle, Stevens Pass, Washington, delivers sleeper pow

PHOTO: Liam Doran

Stevens Pass does not have a village. There are few places to stay at or near the mountain, and weekend traffic and parking can be a nightmare.
However, if escaping the city in just an hour and a half for sleeper pow sounds good to you, then Stevens delivers, with lifts spinning and terrain bombed and ready by 8:45 a.m. sharp.

With a relatively high base of 4,000 feet and a knack for defying the weather report, Stevens Pass frequently surprises with larger than expected snowfalls and extreme temperature changes. At the whim of the Puget Sound Convergence Zone, inversions, and the volatile nature of warm ocean moisture meeting cool easterly winds, it’s not uncommon for the area to experience rain at 28 degrees, snow at 35 degrees, and temperature changes of 10 to 20 degrees in less than an hour.

Nearly devoid of the ski tourism that exists in places like Colorado or Utah, Stevens’ “park and ride” flavor is an ideal setting for skiing some of the steepest terrain in the lower 48, like Cowboy Ridge or Rooster Comb. Stevens is built on Forest Service land, with nearly 1,000 acres of gladed and forested terrain that can be a real undertaking to discover. Pillow lines, airs, and open pow turns are often guarded by tight trees or a tricky entrance, preserving out-of-the-way zones until late in the day. These same trees are a blessing when a storm rolls in, allowing you to ski the majority of the resort with decent visibility, even when it’s snowing sideways.

Big Chief is always a great place to start because it gives you options. Spinning directly outside the main lodge, Big Chief (or Kehr’s Chair, as it’s called nowadays) gives you a chance to link up with buddies and take a warmup lap, or go straight to gnarlier terrain via Double Diamond. This is the best spot to take in Stevens’ geography, giving you looks into the two distinct sides of the mountain.

Riders often beeline for the more open, less forested backside, leaving fun, less obvious zones on the front side ripe for the picking. Wild Katz, a consistently steep clear cut with plenty of rollers to get airborne, is a personal favorite. Alternatively, dip into the forest to the left or right for mellower tree turns.

Another Stevens Pass signature is the steep, technical skiing found in the backcountry and accessed through gates along the area’s top ridgeline. When open, Cowboy Ridge is an emblematic zone that delivers the goods. (The terrain off of Cowboy ridge on the ski area side is inbounds.) Hop on the iconic Seventh Heaven double chair, and after a quick heart-pumping bootpack, you’re there. The chutes leading back down into the ski area range from fun, to spicy, to mandatory drops and no fall zones, offering the experienced freerider quick and easy refills that are hard to match on a deep day. Interspersed trees decorate the terrain, often concealing what’s around the corner, with blind rollovers and send-worthy cliffs that are sure to keep you gripped.

Similarly, hang a left off Double Diamond and exit the backcountry gate for a quick jaunt up Polaris Ridge. From there, drop straight into Polaris Bowl or keep hiking for access to widely spaced old growth tree skiing higher up the ridge.

Accommodations at Stevens are simple, but good. The main lodge usually has plenty of seats and heaters to dry your gear, which can be a must in the PNW’s wet climate. The large basket of fries goes a long way if you are on a ski bum budget, or if the snow is all-time, a pocket PB&J and Rainier beer do the trick.

Après with local brews at the Foggy Goggle or Bull’s Tooth, especially on Sundays for post-shred Seahawks games. If staying west of the pass, the Whistling Post in Skykomish (around 20 minutes down the road) is a great hang out, and if you’re hungry, Zeke’s Drive-In and the Sultan Bakery are great pre or post shredding snack spots. Alternatively, party in the RV lot or head back to the quirky Bavarian themed town of Leavenworth (40 minutes) for more refined accommodations.

On top of the snowpack, steep terrain, striking old growth trees and a laid back atmosphere, what amazes me the most about Stevens Pass is the area’s ability to turn an uncertain or mediocre forecast into an unbelievable ski day. On more than one occasion, I’ve come very close to turning around due to a dismal forecast and nasty road conditions. In spite of pounding rain, fish-tailed semis, and downed trees, persistence often pays off. Pulling in to an empty parking lot, the thermometer reading 32 degrees, and the sky nuking powder, is what makes me come back over and over again.