Special Interest Online Publications - Washington Winter Games
Washington’s Winter Games
By Mike McQuaide
The “Evergreen State” is also a winter wonderland Its nickname might be the Evergreen State but Washington is equally renowned for being a true winter wonderland. Boasting everything from epic world-record snowfalls, to frozen lakes and waterfalls beneath sparkling sunny skies, to deep dark primeval rain forests that are the wettest places in the continental United States, Washington is a playground for winter recreation enthusiasts of all stripes.
Sure, much of the world’s attention this winter will be focused on the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, but south of the U.S.-Canada border in Washington State is where the real fun is. And eleven border crossings (seven of them in eastern Washington) provide plenty of convenient ways to experience our great international access.
Snow skiing and so much more
With more than a dozen ski areas beckoning skiers, snowboarders and other snow sliders, Washington offers some of the most varied terrain and conditions to be found anywhere. Ski areas on the west side of the Cascades boast prodigious snow dumps—95 feet of snow fell at Mount Baker a few years ago—while those on the east side are known for their dry, champagne-powder snow and sunny days. We provide some of the country’s best cross-country skiing too.
But not all of Washington’s winter recreation opportunities require snow. In the snow-free lowlands, birders and other wildlife watchers take in the migrations and seasonal visits of eagles and swans by the hundreds; ducks, snow geese and gray whales by the thousands.
And though winter is when western Washington receives the lion’s share of its annual precipitation—and the desert country and Columbia River basin in eastern Washington gets a bit chilly—there’s just too much to do and see outside to keep you indoors. In fact, the rain and cold are something to be sought out for their own sake.
Waterfalls are never so awe-inspiring, Pacific storms never quite as thrilling, rain forests never more peaceful and contemplative than they are in winter. So grab your Gore-Tex rain jacket,
vinyl poncho, or Hefty garbage bag
and head outside!
Mount Rainer provides plenty of opportunity
As the state’s most massive, as well as recognizable snow- and ice-covered icon, Mount Rainier is one of Washington’s most sought-out winter destinations. Here the snow falls early, often and heavy, turning Mount Rainier National Park into a magnet for winter lovers throughout the Northwest.
Paradise Visitor Area, abundant with jaw-dropping, front-row views of the 14,411-foot-high mountain, draws sledders, tubers and various snow sliders by the thousands. Throughout the park, backcountry skiers and snowshoers schuss their way through forests of ancient timber laden with heavy snow, passing by frozen waterfalls, and perhaps stopping for lunch by crystalline ice-covered lakes.
Just outside park boundaries, Crystal Mountain, the largest ski area in the state, beckons with more than 2,600 acres of steeps, deeps, bowls and moguls; it’s some of the most challenging terrain in the West. In the midst of a $40 million redevelopment plan, the resort’s recent improvements include high-speed quads and six-packs, mountain-top fine dining, and on-hill resort accommodations.
For a more intimate, low-key snow experience, White Pass Ski Resort is nearby also. About a quarter the size of Crystal, White Pass is beloved for its laid-back vibe. Twin brothers Phil and Steve Mahre honed their international championship skills on this mountain and it continues to pack plenty of punch.
Snow fun in eastern Washington
At the state’s eastern edge, skiers, boarders and the like migrate toward Mount Spokane, less than 30 miles from downtown Spokane, and 49 Degree North, regarded as one of the most family-friend ski area in the Pacific Northwest. Both ski areas charm visitors with light, talcum powdery snow, and clear blue skies by the dozens, and alpine extras such as terrain and tubing parks, as well as Nordic skiing.
Bluewood ski resort near Dayton in SE Washington is one of the state’s best kept secrets for downhill, cross country skiing and miles of snowmobile trails. Bluewood has the second highest
base elevation in Washington State and is renowned for its clear skies and dry powder, while receiving an average snowfall of more the 300 inches annually.
In fact, wide-open eastern Washington is a hotbed for snowmobilers. Colville National Forest and the Selkirk Mountain Range in the state’s Northeast corner feature hundreds of miles of groomed trails are managed and maintained through the state’s Sno-Park system and by local snowmobile clubs. In all, Washington snowmobilers have access to more than 3,500 miles of trails throughout the state.
Methow Valley: A snowshoer’s delight!
Snow lovers with a self-propelled bent – those who yearn to earn their turns – head to the achingly beautiful Methow Valley, in North Central Washington. There, cross-country skiers and snowshoers revel in the second-largest network of Nordic ski trails in the country – more than 120 miles worth – that link together sleepy Mazama, Old West-themed Winthrop, and stunning Sun Mountain Lodge.
Leavenworth: Washington’s “Alps” and family fun
Due south of the Methow Valley in the geographic center of the state, Bavarian-themed Leavenworth is also a one-stop center for just about every winter activity imaginable. Perched at the very edge of the Central Cascades in one of the Washington’s most scenic alpine backdrops, Leavenworth sparkles too – lit annually from November to January by more than a million Christmas lights.
Here winter lovers have their choice of all the typical winter activities – from cross-country skiing to snow tubing to snowmobiling – but also horse-drawn sleigh rides, cat-skiing and boarding, dog-sledding, even ski jumping (or gelandesprung) at the town’s local ski hill!
Leavenworth is also equidistant between two of the state’s truly outstanding ski areas – Mission Ridge, where U.S. Olympic Slalom Team members will train, and popular Stevens Pass.
Winter is a birder’s paradise
Of course, there’s more to Washington’s winters than just snow and ice games. Beginning in November, birdwatchers from across the country flock to mountain-fed streams and rivers throughout Washington to witness the annual gathering of bald eagles. Drawn by spawned-out salmon, some 500 eagles converge on the Skagit River alone – more than anywhere else in the Lower 48 – many perching in the nearby trees like hundreds of hanging Christmas ornaments.
Closer to Puget Sound, the fertile Skagit River delta attracts an estimated 30,000 snow geese as well as hundreds of trumpeter and tundra swans. Not to be missed: the sight and sound of 10,000 cackling, flapping geese lifting off and taking flight in unison; it’s truly one of nature’s awe-inspiring wonders.
Wildlife feeding stations and whale migrations
In south central Washington, when the snow begins to fall in the mountains, hundreds of Rocky Mountain elk and bighorn sheep descend to the lower elevations of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area near Yakima. Feeding stations are even set up to allow wildlife lovers to get up-close and personal with some of these amazing creatures.
Out on the Pacific Coast, as many as 18,000 gray whales cruise by Olympic Peninsula beaches on their way to and from their breeding and calving waters off Baja California.
Pacific Ocean storm watching is “wildly” popular
And wildlife isn’t all that’s worth watching during Washington’s winters. When Pacific Ocean storms roll in out on the Olympic Peninsula and the weather turns bad – really bad, as in 70-mile-per-hour winds, horizontal rain, and 30-foot ocean swells – weather enthusiasts head for coastal communities such as Kalaloch, Ocean Shores, and Long Beach.
They’re drawn by the thrill-a-minute spectacle of exploding seas crashing against the coastline’s rocky headlands. This is indeed some of Mother Nature’s best entertainment! After a brisk, exhilarating beach walk, cozy up to a crackling fire with a glass of Washington wine and a good book. It just doesn’t get much better.
Winter hikes in the rainforest
Further inland, where the storms aren’t quite so dramatic, the peninsula’s bountiful winter rainfall makes the otherworldly rainforests of Olympic National Park even more dramatic. Bundle up and follow easy trails into the ethereal Hoh Rain Forest, a magical moss-draped, fern-covered world where some of the giant wooly-trunked western red cedars, hemlocks, and Sitka Spruce tower 300 feet above the forest floor.
Waterfalls are spectacular in winter
When the clouds are crying and the weather is at its worst is also when waterfall watching is at its best. Just east of Seattle, the rushing, rain-swollen Snoqualmie River launches itself off the edge of a cliff in a dramatic 280-foot horsetail of water crashing to the boulders below. Snoqualmie Falls, it’s called, and each year some 1.5 million visitors take in this thrilling battle of water versus gravity. Visit the falls after a snowfall when the surrounding forest and moss-covered rocks are dusted in white and you’ll swear you’ve stepped into the pages of a life-size fantasy picture book.
Of course, Snoqualmie is not the state’s only waterfall that saves its best for winter. Palouse Falls near Spokane, Marymere Falls at the foot of the Olympic Mountains, and Nooksack Falls in the aptly named Cascade Mountains are just a handful of Washington’s thousands of named and unnamed waterfalls.
Experience Washington’s Winter Games!
Got the picture? There’s simply a lot to do here during winter. Just minutes south of the border crossing to Vancouver, B.C., head to the Mount Baker Ski Area, a birthplace of snowboarding and home of that world record snowfall in which 1,140 inches fell during the 1998-98 season. (It beat the previous record of 1,122 inches set at Mount Rainier’s Paradise.) Each February, the ski area hosts its own world-renown snowboarding competition, the Legendary Banked Slalom that, in 2010, celebrates its
In February, ski, skate, snowshoe, snowboard and more during the Methow Valley’s own Olympic Festival. Sporting a “Who-needs-Vancouver?” attitude, this winter wonderland hosts two-and-a-half weeks of competitive, non-competitive, and just plain silly – i.e., snowshoe softball—events for winter lovers of all ages and skill levels.
Spokane has hosted a number of international skating events over the past few years including the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships that was held January 14-24, 2010. This event showcased America’s rising talents before the winter games in Vancouver.
Frozen water is not a requirement for winter fun here. Paddle the peaceful waters of Willapa Bay in the state’s southwest corner. It’s the largest estuary between San Francisco and Puget Sound and a pristine wonderland of tideflats, marshes and ocean beaches near the mouth of the Columbia River. Paddle quietly and you’ll come upon elk, great blue herons, maybe even a bear. Migratory shorebirds, swans and waterfowl by the thousands too, stopping by on their annual journeys.
Go for a ranger-led snowshoe walk at Mount Rainier or Olympic National Park. Join 4,000-plus other bicyclists and pedal Seattle’s Chilly Hilly bike ride in February, so named because it climbs 2,700 feet in just 33 miles. See our national bird like you’ve never seen it before by taking a bald eagle float tour down the Skagit River.
Grab your bike, hop on a Washington State ferry and make for Moran State Park on Orcas Island. During the cold-weather months, park officials open most trails to bikes and with its varied terrain—tree-ringed lakes, otherworldly forests, splashing and dashing waterfalls, not to mention that top-of-the-world vista from the summit of Mount Constitution—Orcas Island is a must-ride for the fat-tire crowd.
Washington offers seemingly endless possibilities for winter fun. All that’s required is to open the door and step outside. You’ll be stepping into adventure.
49 DEGREES NORTH MOUNTAIN RESORT
Crystal Mountain, WA
Ski & Snowboard Area
Leavenworth Ski Hill
& Winter Sports Club
Loup Loup Ski Bowl
Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort
Mt. Baker Ski Area
Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park
North Cascade Heli Ski
The Summit at Snoqualmie
White Pass Ski Resort
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