Snowboarding in the Northwest

The Hard Way

Snowboarding in the Northwest

Mountain High

Snow Business

Snow Job

Gearing Up

I was 14 and a good skier (I was 5 the first time Mom put skis on my feet) with a new-wave haircut when I took an interest in the handful of snowboarders carving and flying down the slopes. I convinced two girlfriends from my Saturday ski bus to rent boards and take a lesson. After one brutal run down the bunny hill my friends gave up, but I stuck it out in the suddenly private lesson—and never went back to skiing. That first year I was one of only a few female boarders on the hill, and I rode mostly alone with my Walkman for company. Sixteen years later, I ride as often as time and money allow, with my snowboarder husband, my heartiest friends, and my mom (still a dedicated skier).

Below you'll find the pros and cons—in my opinion—of the four resorts most easily accessible from Seattle. They are organized from nearest to farthest.

The Summit at Snoqualmie

20 chairlifts, 65 runs, 1,916 acres of terrain
Base elevation: 3,000 feet
50 miles east of Seattle
Adult weekend day pass: $46

The Summit consists of four base areas (East, Central, West, and the demanding, ungroomed steeps of Alpental), all included in the same lift ticket and connected by a shuttle. It's close to home and on a well-maintained highway, which means the Summit can be unbearably crowded and swarming with beginners. Avoid the ski-school-filled weekend days unless you're learning, too. This is a good first-timer mountain; start with a lesson at Summit Central. Two other factors work against Snoqualmie: The runs are for the most part short and unexciting (Alpental excepted), and the low elevation equals sticky slopes and rain as often as snow. Night hours—when it's colder and less crowded—can be heavenly, though not all areas are open every night. If you like to play on manmade objects, the Summit has three terrain parks with dozens of boxes and rails to jib, plus a well-maintained super pipe. (From Seattle: Take I-90 east to Exits 52/53.)

Crystal Mountain

10 chairlifts, 50 runs, 1,300 acres of terrain
Base elevation: 4,400 feet
76 miles southeast of Seattle
Adult weekend day pass: $53

Fanned over a handful of peaks and bowls in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, Crystal Mountain has drier-than-usual snow and unrivaled clear-day Rainier views. It's a predominately intermediate park with long, well-groomed runs and a wild powder basin called North Country. Boarders try to avoid Skid Road, with its flat spots, and the I-5 Freeway, an arduous return traverse from the North Country runs. Crystal boasts more dining and lodging options (and heated outdoor pools) than other hills, plus two scenic restaurants above 6,000 feet. Night hours are limited to Fridays and Saturdays, 4:00–8:00 p.m. (From Seattle: Take I-5 southbound, take Exit 142A east toward Auburn, then Hwy 164 to Hwy 410, then continue east on Hwy 410 to Crystal Mountain Boulevard.)

Stevens Pass

10 chairlifts, 37 runs, 1,125 acres of terrain
Base elevation: 4,061 feet
78 miles northeast of Seattle
Adult weekend day pass: $52.58

Stevens Pass offers dependable snow and plenty of terrain on three sides of two different mountains. A wide variety of groomed runs are geared toward the intermediate carver, and a huge terrain park at the west edge of the property pleases trick heads. Don't miss the "backside," Mill Valley, accessible via the Tye Mill chair, which is sunnier and less popular than the rest of the mountain. Weekends and school holidays are crowded (sometimes extremely so; the parking lots can fill up completely—arrive early or risk being turned away). The best time to ride Stevens is during the generous dark hours: Six lifts are lighted until 10:00 p.m. Thursday through Monday. The road up, Highway 2, can be nerve-racking, especially in the several miles before the resort, where the curvy highway is undivided and often covered in snow or slush. Drivers should always carry chains and provisions for a several-hour delay due to snow removal. There's no lodging on the hill, but weekenders can book rooms in Skykomish or Leavenworth. (From Seattle: Take I-90 to I-405 northbound, then Exit 23 to Hwy 522 east, then Hwy 2 east to the pass.)

Mt. Baker

8 chairlifts, 30 runs, 1,000 acres of terrain
Base elevation: 3,500 feet
125 miles northeast of Seattle
Adult weekend day pass: $39.46

Baker is a boarders' paradise tucked into the volcanic ridges between Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker. The modest resort birthed Northwest snowboarding, attracts a higher ratio of boarders to skiers than perhaps anywhere else in the world, and hosts the region's premier snowboarding competition, the annual Legendary Banked Slalom (February 9–11 this year). The runs here are roomy—less crowded, even at peak times, than at other parks—and the location offers loads more snow; Mt. Baker records more annual snowfall than any other ski area in North America. One family has overseen the park since the late 1960s and, as a result, the mountain has an indie atmosphere with a relaxed patrol staff (build a mid-run hit and no one will hassle you about it) and lifts known by numbers rather than fancy names. A good morning starts on Chair 6, from which you can ride the best inbound powder runs. Baker is off the power grid, which means no night skiing and no on-mountain lodging. Booking a room in Glacier or Bellingham is a wise idea, as the drive back to Seattle can be brutal after a long day of riding. (From Seattle: Take I-5 north to Exit 255, then Hwy 542 east to end of road.)