The Great Family Ski Road Trip, Part 2: Crystal Mountain
Most of the major ski areas in Washington state are on Forest Service Land, so they tend to be out in the middle of nowhere, without massive base villages or any villages, period. This makes for incredible wilderness experiences, deep in the Cascades—but it can make it tricky to find accommodations. Crystal has a few hotels and several condos, but a true Washington experience involves camping in some sort of RV in the parking lot. I grew up skiing Crystal Mountain every weekend and have spent many nights in that parking lot, in various old, rickety, character-building vehicles over the years. My husband and I sold our latest RV a few years ago (there’s only so much old and rickety “character” that needs building, really), and we have two small kids now so we don’t get to Crystal as often as I’d like these days, but it will always be one of my very favorite places to ski.
We began our massive road trip at Crystal because it’s one of my favorite spots but also because it’s where I grew up skiing and we could stay with my parents at their multi-family shared ski cabin. Also, it’s only three hours from our house, so we were not exactly entering any “great big road trip” territory yet and could always bail towards home if the diapers were hitting the fan.
Our daughter was eight months old at the time, still not sleeping great and even worse when traveling, so we were bone-tired our first morning at Crystal. The report said barely a dusting of snow, the parking lot was glare ice, and we were surrounded by a thick, bone-chilling fog. But, nothing motivates me better than some willing babysitters and the prospect of a few hours of skiing with my husband, so we blearily and jealously trudged past all the people still sleeping cozily in their (fancy, new) RV’s in the parking lot and got on the gondola. As we neared the top of the mountain, the fog became a glowing haze which then gave way to clear skies and a perfect view of Mount Rainier, sprawled regally across the valley. We skied a few inches of fresh snow on a smooth layer, magical, fast, hero skiing with no one around, and then met up with my smiling parents and happy daughter at lunchtime. It was the perfect way to start our road trip, and the little nuggets of wisdom gained that morning would set the tone for the rest of the trip. In fact, I could pretty much get by every winter on these five rules:
1. Never underestimate the power of a dusting of fresh snow (AKA, an angry inch can go a long way).
2. It’s probably clear above the fog, and it’s definitely snowing above the rain.
3. Take full advantage of the willing babysitters. Hey, they offered!
4. No matter how little you slept last night, just get up and get out there. You will never say afterwards “gosh I wish I would have slept today instead of skiing.”
5. If there’s an option to stay with friends or family, always take that option.
Happy shredding and road-tripping!
The Lowdown on Crystal:
There are three main areas to focus on at Crystal in my opinion--the Southback, the Northback, and Chair 6. The ultimate run to do at Crystal if you’re a good rider and like to hike is the Silver King. If it’s open, take a few warm-up laps on Hamburger Hill off Chair 6, then grab your avie gear and a buddy and head out the gate off a traverse from the top of Campbell Basin (locally referred to as Chair 6). Depending on whether you go to the top or around the back to Campbell Basin, and how fast you hike, it’s between a 15-30 minute combo bootpack/sidestep/traverse. If you go to the top, the longest way down is to drop off the south side towards the bowl, aiming far skier’s right to join up with the large open bowl, back down to the groomed flats that take to back to the main ski area. Definitely ask someone if you’re not sure where you’re going--Mount Rainier looms across the valley, thirteen miles away, and many people have been falsely lured towards her flanks and towards a heinous hike out or a rescue.
If the Northback chair is running and you’re up for some exploring, head over and drop into Northway bowl. On the ride back up you can scout countless lines through Brand X and Northway bowl; it’s like an entire ski area in itself.
After shredding, the Snorting Elk is a must-stop spot for a beer, some nachos, or a pizza. The coziness and warmth there embodies everything good about skiing in Washington to me; friendly people, comfort food, a cold beer with a smile, and celebrating an awesome day charging in the middle of gorgeous nowhere. Often there’s live music playing, to boot.
Getting there: Crystal Mountain is about 2 hours from Seattle, or 1:45 from the Sea-Tac airport. Watch for elk on highway 410 between Enumclaw and Crystal.
Where to stay: Crystal has 70 power hook-up RV sites ($40/night), with no-power overflow parking when those fill up ($30/night). There are some hotels (Alpine Inn) and condos (Silver Skis) available, and great deals can be found mid-week, early and late season. Check www.crystalmountainresort.com.
Food, Drink, & Notable Extras: Wapiti Woolies, in Greenwater, WA, has unique handmade hats and ski gear, plus espresso, milkshakes and other goodies. Snorting Elk is one of my most favorite apres-ski places anywhere and has a bar (beer, huge nachos, decent pizza), a deli (sandwiches, excellent cookies), and a more formal sit-down restaurant upstairs with European fare.