Twenty-six hundred acres and a blanket of white brought in off of the Pacific Ocean; dodgy terrain and unmarked double-blacks at the feet of Mt. Rainier; backcountry access, blasted and monitored, built into the actual resort: All of these ingredients paint the beauty of Crystal Mountain. Bring a map and a camera. Steeply sprawled over a handful of bowls, basins, peaks, and pillows, Crystal Mountain has not only the most terrain of any ski destination in Washington, but also the best views.
The Cascades are well known for being a young range (relative to mountain-years), and perhaps it is Crystal that best captures the physicality of these mountains. The sheer size of the resort is immaculate: Acres upon acres and acres of piste and off-piste skiing. The Northway Zone alone, an “inbounds backcountry” section of the mountain, is roughly 1,000 acres. To put that in perspective, that’s about the size of all the inbounds terrain Mt. Baker has to offer as a whole. And, while there is no official way to officially judge which mountain in Washington has the steepest terrain (elevation statistics don’t tell the full story), Crystal is a safe bet, consuming all these acres of “relatively young” Cascade mountains and making them look mean and pristine — the way skiers like them. What Crystal has done superbly with all this space, however, is introduce a variance of terrain that looks encouraging to all levels. After all, this is what makes a good mountain great — if it doesn’t have the slopes for beginners to learn, if it doesn’t have the runs to challenge the intermediates, and if it doesn’t have the spicy lines to satisfy the experts who venture up the hill, it’s not an all around mountain. Crystal is, with its expansive size and demanding terrain up high for those hounding for the steeps, the most complete all-around mountain in the state.
Let’s not forget that Mt. Rainer is quite emphatically sitting right on top of you…don’t need to say much more than that. We repeat: Bring a camera, and (if it’s not a snow-crazy storm) hope for a clear day.
Crystal is organized quite simply, with a fantastic lift/gondola infrastructure system (not a bad way to stay warm and dry as you get to the top!). Essentially, the closer to the base, the easier the runs, and the higher up you get, the more challenging the terrain. That’s expected at most mountains.
But, perhaps in a twist, you don’t find the best skiing by going up, you find it by spreading wide. Northway and Chair 6 are undoubtedly the best two chairs on the mountain, and the two are both the easiest access to the steepest terrain and are closer to the outskirts of the boundary lines. Chair 6 is a double chair that lets you into the south backcountry and farther out terrain, while the Northway chair was recently installed to incorporate the former north backcountry into the resort. While inbounds, these two terrain zones are accessed via gates form their respective chairs. Northway offers the longest run on the mountain, and most say is the best place to ski on a powder day. If you’re looking for first chair, work your way over to Northway as fast and early as possible on a powder day. Not only is the section so large that you’ll find first tracks, it is surprisingly unpopulated, great for steep, high-intensity runs with few people. And of course, despite the backcountry vibes, the technically-inbounds terrain is well signed, keeping you from getting lost and bootpacking out of the flatlands.
Just two hours from the Seattle area, the lines at Crystal can get pretty long. The overall size definitely helps spread skiers thin. But come midweek… man, can that mountain feel empty! And those who have skied it on an empty powder day are drooling at the thought of midweek escapes this season. Roughly half the mountain is marked intermediate, and a good 35% is expert, so skiers here know how to turn. That being said, Crystal is a fantastic place to learn, and slowly move up from green to blue to black, piste to trees, and bowls to chutes.
Predominantly skiers over snowboarders, and without a significant terrain park, the skiers who tend to turn the powder are freeriders, backcountry enthusiasts, and die-hard loyalists who have been coming back to Crystal year after year after year, craving that big-mountain feel. It’s unbelievable Crystal can be as unpopulated as it is at times, but that’s what you get when you offer unbelievable terrain (and heaven in the trees) over two and a half thousand acres.
One final secret: Being significantly higher up than Mt. Baker, Crystal Mountain avoids the classic Northwest winter rain and “warm” temperature that can ruin a good storm. It may not get as much snow as Baker, but…. you know that old saying about quality over quantity? So “shhhh.” Don’t tell Bellingham.