The rhythmic kick glide of skis on fresh early morning snow provides a beat against my pounding heart. Dawn breaks as I climb up the slope, the sound of semitrucks and commuter traffic roaring below me. I quicken my stride to crest the mountain top, hurrying to get one more lap before I’m off to work, before the ski lifts start spinning and the crowds arrive.
This may sound like cross-country skiing, a much more established and regulated winter activity, with plowed tracks, smooth surfaces and warming huts. The difference is that with backcountry skiing, you use the same skis as at a ski resort, only with specific bindings and sticky “skins” beneath your skis, allowing you to “walk uphill” and then transition to downhill skiing to get back down. It’s the best of cross-country skiing and lift skiing, without the crowds.
Beyond getting the appropriate gear and taking the proper avalanche safety training course, the crux of backcountry skiing is knowing where to go. As an avid backcountry skier and new father, I gravitate toward areas with quick access and minimal avalanche risk.
Here are five recommendations for relatively easy and safe options for backcountry skiing to get fresh powder or simply get a good cardio workout and embrace whatever snow conditions that day brings. Get up early or go after work and you can still fit in an excellent ski tour without taking the entire day at these destinations.
Summit East Affectionately known as Hyak to backcountry skiers, this is often the first uphill ski tour that a beginner embarks on. Summit East ski area at The Summit at Snoqualmie allows uphill travel, even during days when the ski area is operating. Conveniently, this section of the ski area is only open on the weekends, so people touring uphill can do so without worrying about being taken out by a speedster flying down the slope.
The other reason Hyak is so popular for beginners is that it is the safest option to minimize avalanche risk. Because the ski area is groomed on weekends, the snow is packed down and the ski patrol ensures that conditions are safe. Even during the week, if there has been fresh snow, having a packed base provides a reliable surface to prevent major avalanche slides.
Keep in mind that anytime you are backcountry skiing, avalanches can occur, so don’t ever let your guard down. Many skiers use Hyak as a “dawn patrol” option, meaning they get their uphill and downhill skiing started by headlamp, and make it back for the start of work.
Yodelin On the other side of the central Cascades, skiers at Stevens Pass have likely passed an old ski area without realizing that it ever existed. Yodelin Ski Area was short-lived, operating between 1969 and 1974. Now used for overflow parking at Stevens Pass Ski Resort, Yodelin is a great place to ski fresh powder amongst old-growth trees.
The access to the skiing is by former logging roads, meaning travel is relatively safe. Once to the top of the mountain, there are options to ski gentle glades or steep trees. The challenge is trying to navigate all the way back down to the car without having to transition back to “skinning,” i.e., putting climbing skins back on your skis because there is not enough of a decline.
Skyline Ridge Directly across US Route 2 from Stevens Pass Ski Area, Skyline Ridge is a popular snowshoeing trail for winter enthusiasts. Whether the destination is Skyline Lake, Tye Peak or the radio tower, ski touring up Skyline Ridge is a fantastic place for easy access and safe backcountry skiing.
An old logging road climbs steeply from the westernmost ski area parking lot. After several hundred feet of climbing, the road branches off and you can take a trail to Skyline Lake, which is an excellent place for a winter overnight.
If you choose the fork to the radio tower, you can end your tour here and simply ski safely back down the road, or there are “secret” runs through the forest that link up with the Pacific Crest Trail and back to the car. It’s fun to get a glimpse of Stevens Pass Ski Area across the highway, knowing that you powered your way up the hill instead of riding a chair lift.
Kendall Trees Perhaps the most committing of the five destinations, you can find deep-powder skiing within an hour of uphill skiing effort. Park at the Summit West Ski Area, walk under I-90 and begin traveling up the Pacific Crest Trail.
After following an often-well-traveled track through thick trees and beside the babbling Commonwealth Creek, you cut up steeply toward the heart of the ski run. The route takes you up through increasingly spaced trees and pops out at the base of Kendall Peak. While it may be tempting to continue up the open slopes toward the summit, the face can be dangerous. Sticking to the trees is always the safer bet.
The best run is short but sweet, only about 500 feet, so you might want to take multiple laps. Make it a morning adventure and get back to Snoqualmie Pass for a rewarding pint at Dru Bru Taprooms & Brewery.
Blewett Pass While not as consistent a snowpack as Snoqualmie Pass or Stevens Pass, Blewett Pass can have the driest powder when the rest of the Cascades are experiencing the dreaded wet snow, otherwise known as “Cascade Concrete.” Located between Leavenworth and Cle Elum on US Route 97, Blewett Pass is a popular snowmobiling destination.
There are many backcountry skiing options as well. The classic ski tour takes you to the top of a broad summit, called Diamond Head, but you must make sure avalanche conditions are safe, as this tour takes you up steep open slopes. Other tours involve skiing through old burn areas, allowing for nice open turns in a unique setting.
While farther afield from Seattle, skiing around Blewett Pass is still a quick jaunt from the highway and the terrain is uncomplicated and not too technical.