May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside's Annual Travel Guide, 1999/2000

"Give us amenities to match our mountains," they cried. They've been heard

First-class snowfall, coach-class resorts. From the day organized skiing first hit the slopes of Mount Rainier in the early 1930s, those were the two unalterable realities of Northwest winters. Generations of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho skiers grew up with enough backyard dumpage to make even the biggest Rocky Mountain resorts envious. The two snowiest years on the planet were recorded in Washington's Cascades—1,122 inches in 1971–72 at Mount Rainier, and an unbelievable 1,126 inches last winter at Mount Baker (including 303 inches in February alone).

Unfortunately, apart from British Columbia's Whistler/Blackcomb and Oregon's Mount Bachelor, much of this annual accumulation has been wasted on ski areas ill-equipped to take advantage of it. Year after year, the Northwest skiing masses would patiently troop an hour or two to their local hill, only to find ancient lifts, half-hour lines, and day lodges that bore a distressing physical—and olfactory—resemblance to junior high school cafeterias.

No more. Thanks to a wave of incoming cash, much of it from Rocky Mountain millionaires who bought out mom 'n' pop Cascades operations, big-time development is surfacing in the land of Starbucks, Microsoft, and Nike. The results: More lifts, day lodges, parking facilities, and restaurants have sprouted during the past three years than in the previous 30 combined.

The poster child for Northwestern re-development is Crystal Mountain (360-663-2265), just northeast of Mount Rainier. Long a sleeper among the West's great ski mountains, Crystal sprang awake in 1997, when the mostly commuter area with boffo backcountry was snatched up by Michigan's Boyne, USA Resorts. Boss John Kircher promptly whipped out the checkbook to air-drop a pair of high-speed, six-passenger lifts, the first in the Northwest. His proposed improvements include a 100-passenger, $7 million Snowbird-style tram to the top of the mountain; an entirely reconstructed and expanded base area; and, most significantly, a string of new, somewhat controversial lifts into Crystal's fabled Northcountry and Southcountry, where in-the-know freeriders have been hoarding secret powder stashes for decades. While the company works the permit process for these colossal investments, it's already moving ahead with less controversial fare, such as a major new midmountain restaurant scheduled to open in fall 1999.

Crystal isn't alone in this spending spree. Washington's oldest and most familiar backyard resort, the Summit at Snoqualmie (425-434-7669), was snatched up in 1997 by multiresort mogul George Gillett, Jr. His company, Booth Creek Ski Holdings (it also owns Northstar-at-Tahoe, California; Waterville Valley and Cranmore, New Hampshire; and Grand Targhee, Wyo-ming), is seizing on the Summit's reputation as a learner's area, as well as its 46-mile proximity to Seattle. Plans call for gradually modernizing 16 lifts and relocating the base village, as well as adding new rental shops, restaurants, day-care centers, and day lodges.

In contrast to all this big imported money is Harbor Resorts, a Seattle development company that owns Stevens Pass ski area (206-812-4510) and operates numerous properties in and around the city. Two years ago the company snatched from the jaws of bankruptcy two other Northwest niche ski resorts: Mission Ridge near Wenatchee, Washington, and Schweitzer Mountain Resort near Sandpoint, Idaho. Harbor hopes to use multiresort ticket discounts and lodging packages to lure the crowds that Mission and Schweitzer couldn't draw on their own.

Meanwhile, the company is spending feverishly to retain its share of Seattle-area skiers at Stevens, a longtime favorite with a nice mix of terrain. At press time, it was putting the finishing touches on a massive new base-village day lodge, which comes on the heels of two new express quad lifts in the past three years. More are planned.

The unprecedented rain of cash in Washington's Cascade Range has trickled all the way down to tiny White Pass Ski Area (509-672-3101), 185 miles southeast of Seattle. The owners continue to push on with plans for a long-awaited expansion adjacent to the present ski area, which will open 300 acres of new terrain and make an already fabulous dry-snow ski getaway even grander. Even the tiniest of the tiny have gone to the bank and started building: Loup Loup Ski Bowl (509-826-2720), a minuscule, 12-trail local area in Washington's Okanogan Valley, leapt from rope tows directly to a quad lift last season.

All of which is being watched closely at Oregon's Mount Hood Meadows (503-337-2222), where local owners were farsighted enough to launch crowd-pleasing improvements in the mid-'90s, before the invasion of the rich Rocky mountaineers. The resort's building binge included erecting four new high-speed lifts in six years. In the process it turned the sleepy little area on the eastern (drier) slope of Mount Hood into an alpine paradise marked by long, wide-open cruiser runs; short, steep powder bowls; and scary upper-mountain canyon plunges. Mount Hood Meadows is plagued by a lack of slopeside lodging, but the snow is so plentiful and the ski experience so markedly improved that plenty of visitors drive the 40 minutes to the mountain from a slew of homey lodgings in nearby Hood River.

Just around the bend, venerable Timberline Resort (503-272-3311) has dipped a toe of its own into the spendy construction waters. In 1998, the resort replaced its creaking high-mountain chair, the Palmer Snowfield lift, with a new high-speed quad that is sturdy enough to run all year. Result: an April-to-September spring/summer schedule that's the longest in North America. True, it's mushy at times. But when you're suntanned and riding a cushy quad in August, who's complaining? —Ron C. Judd

Island Lake Lodge, British Columbia

Infidelity, in the world of skiing and snowboarding, is when an athlete reveals a favorite haunt. Call me utterly unfaithful. I'm about to disclose the best 7,000 snow-jammed acres in the eastern Canadian Rockies, a backcountry retreat blessed with a 20-foot base accessible only by snowcat that happens to be owned and operated by a gang of snow-biz notables.

Actually, the word's already out on Island Lake Lodge, thanks to its abundant slideable fluff and celebrity patrons. Recently purchased by, among others, outdoor photographer Mark Gallup, skiing's celluloid superstar Scot Schmidt, and Team Burton snowboarder Craig Kelly, it has fast become the darling of the winter-sport print and film businesses, not to mention the more recreational among us.

Snuggled next to spring-fed Island Lake in B.C.'s Lizard Range (the nearest paved road is five miles away by snowcat, in Fernie), I.L.L. accommodates 36 boarders and skiers, 24 of whom stay in a rustic tamarack-log main lodge, while the other 12 enjoy private bathrooms in the equally woodsy digs next door known as the Red Eagle Lodge.

Guests pile 12-deep into three snowcats each morning, then follow the lead of two guides down yawning bowls of "fresh," narrow chutes through gullies and glades of spruce, cedar, and pine. And no one goes hungry. Mornings start with full breakfasts. Sandwiches are doled out in the snowcats between any of the day's dozen or so descents. Dinner might be a filet of sockeye salmon with vanilla butter sauce and chocolate-and-mango mousse cake. Evenings, of course, are up to you—a seat by the fireplace, a drink at the bar, a soak in the outdoor hot tub, a professional massage. May as well spread the word.

All-inclusive three- and four-day packages range from $900 to $1,600 per person, including all meals and snowcat skiing; call 888-422-8754.—Michael Kessler

Filed To: Snow Sports

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