If you grew up skiing or snowboarding on Mount Hood, or if you’re a transplant who has adopted the glistening peak as your home mountain, it’s hard not feel like you’ve hit the jackpot despite recent struggles with traffic and overcrowding.
But moving beyond what’s familiar to experience new terrain is the best way to challenge your skills. One surefire location to test your limits is Crystal Mountain, as I found out when I visited in December.
A four-hour drive from Portland, just northeast of Mount Rainier, Washington State’s Crystal Mountain is a bit too far for a day trip. But this resort similar in size and stature to Mt Hood Meadows commands the respect of a much larger mountain and is worth a weekend to explore its challenging terrain.
Eleven lifts service 2,300 acres of skiable terrain, and another 300 acres are accessible only by traversing to the mountain’s highest peak, Silver King, at 7,012 feet.
Crystal is the largest resort in the state of Washington—and it feels massive. More than one third of all runs at Crystal are black diamond or harder, and another 50 percent are intermediate. That means, if you’re not prepared for steep terrain, you could get yourself into trouble if you’re not paying attention to where you’re going.
The way lifts are located within the resort prevents riders from having to work too hard to access all areas of the mountain. The general layout is north-south along a ridgeline that looks onto staggering views of Rainier to the southeast. (Sadly, heavy snow blocked this view on the day I visited.) But multiple peaks within the boundary shelter dozens of bowls and meadows which face many directions, so when adverse weather hits, it’s not hard to escape and find runs protected from wind or ice.
For those wanting a true freeride experience without the danger of trekking into the backcountry, Crystal has you covered. From the summit at 6,872 feet, you can use a mishmash of trails to ride for nearly 30 minutes back down to the base area. That type of length doesn’t really exist on Mt. Hood outside of gated areas at Mt. Hood Meadows in the Heather Canyon, of which Crystal has its own version called Northway, where riders can access 2.5 miles of advanced terrain with its own dedicated lift.
Between the dumping snow and my unfamiliarity with the mountain, I chose to stay inside the gates during my trip to Crystal, and therefore did not get to experience the legendary Southback area beneath Silver King or the Northway. But the inbounds terrain I found left me feeling like I got the full experience anyway.
My favorite lift happened to be one of the shortest, Green Valley Express, which services the Snorting Elk Bowl where I found terrain to be just challenging enough to push my comfort level, while also knowing I wasn’t going to get totally wrecked in the process. In fact, following some locals over to the Snorting Elk Bowl the first time resulted in my losing speed on the cross-hill traverse and forced me to cut back through other runs. Later in the day, I made a second attempt and kept speed to crest the ridge into the bowl and was rewarded with an expansive, open run before cutting back through some trees to return to Green Valley.
Rainier Express and Forest Queen are also good options for sessions on the upper reaches of the resort, with Forest Queen providing access to the midmountain Campbell Basin Lodge—if you need to grab some food or hit the bathroom—as well as Chair 6 which services Silver Queen peak at 7,002 feet and access runs in Campbell Basin and Powder Bowl, which offers 1,000 vertical feet of advanced terrain.
If you’re looking for great terrain parks, Crystal might leave you feeling flat. This resort is more about its natural features than manmade ones. Night skiing is also not this resort’s jam, offering only limited terrain for evening laps on Friday and Saturday nights until 8 p.m.
My trip began the night before I rode at Crystal with a wet drive up from Portland to check in at the Bavarian-themed Village Inn—one of three hotels operated by a third-party at the base of the resort. My room was fairly clean and comfortable, passable for my main purpose, which was to have quick access to lifts in the morning, but the hotel’s amenities were scant. If I were to stay longer than a night, I might consider the Alpine Inn, which is closer to the base of the resort and allows guests to ski-in right to the door of the hotel. The Alpine Inn also features a fine dining restaurant on its top floor, and a handsome, rathskeller-style ski bar below called the Snorting Elk Cellar. (Neither the Village Inn nor similarly located Quicksilver Inn has any dining options.) Staying at one of the three hotels or Silver Ski Chalets, which offer larger accommodations for families and groups, removes the headache of paying for parking on weekends at one of the several painfully inconvenient lots operated by the resort.
A ride up to Summit House Restaurant on the Mt Rainier Gondola is a fun excursion for families, even those who aren’t alpine inclined. Lunching at this one-of-a-kind location is a great way to reconnect with your group and refuel.
I suggest sharing the Southwest-inspired Smokehouse chopped salad with black beans, roasted tomato, corn, and smoked chicken drizzled in whiskey barbecue dressing, and the Summit salmon sandwich featuring blackened Alaskan sockeye, arugula, cucumber, grilled onions, and a caper dill ranch on ciabatta bread. The restaurant also has a well-curated list of taps, wines, and canned beer.
But before you make the long drive up north, there’s a few things you might want to know about this beautiful and challenging resort.
If you’re used to the grandeur of lodges on Hood, Crystal Mountain might underwhelm. There isn’t currently a lot to experience besides a pop-up cafeteria, a handful of food trucks, and a coffee stand built out of a gondola car—which is admittedly very cute and makes great espresso. The base area currently feels like an airport terminal under construction: nobody is really stopping to spend a significant amount of time, rather just passing through to make the connection to their next destination.
But plans laid out by the resort’s new owners—Colorado-based Alterra Mountain Company, which purchased it back in 2018—will see $100 million invested in the property over the next decade. The first stage of that development is underway with a new 25,000-square-foot, $26 million lodge that will bring more dining options and amenities for guests.
Longtime patrons of Crystal Mountain have mixed feelings about what this means for their local hill. Some appreciate the fact that Alterra is putting their economic might into a mountain that hasn’t seen a lot of investment in new facilities or lift upgrades. Others are bothered that new ownership has significantly increased prices, joined the Ikon Pass, and created a new weekend parking system that charges additional fees.
“A lot of folks haven’t heard of us as much as I think we deserve to be heard of,” said Brent Okita, a longtime ski patrol manager at Crystal Mountain.“I’ve always thought of Crystal as a little Jackson Hole.”
An expert skier and mountaineer whose resume includes summits of Rainier, Denali, and Everest, Okita first came to Crystal back in 1983 to work as a bartender and started ski patrolling six years later.
He says he fell in love with Crystal for what he considers the “world-class” terrain that the resort offers. He’s stayed so long because of the culture that’s been fostered over the years that, he says, places a huge emphasis on employee happiness, and that Alterra has continued to support that atmosphere.
Okita sees the upgrades Alterra is bringing to the mountain—including building new facilities and updating chair lifts—as positive for a resort with big potential.
“We want more people here, especially during the week,” Okita says. “I think we’re one of the top five ski areas in the country, and that kind of recognition would be cool to have. The terrain, nothing really compares.”
Reid Pitman has lived and worked at Crystal Mountain for 15 years. He currently serves as the executive chef at the third-party-owned Snorting Elk Cellar and Alpine Inn Restaurant.
Pitman says he’s a firm believer in Crystal’s prowess because of the easy access it provides to the backcountry.
“If the snow conditions are right, each of those runs out there can feel like a helicopter dropped you off,” Pitman says. “Sometimes it’s a journey to get out there, it’s a slog. But the amount of effort to reward is pretty good.”
Pitman has watched the resort change over the years, the pace accelerating in 2018 with the purchase by Alterra. He says the focus so far has been on building amenities that will bolster the resort’s profile and bring in new guests from far and wide.
But, Pitman says, it’s hard for him to see Crystal becoming like a Big Sky in Montana or a Jackson Hole in Wyoming, where skiers flock from around the globe. Where he sees the resort failing is its ability to foster the next generation of “locals,” or, families that will come back year-after-year for decades.
“I really believe a lot of the things they’re doing are shortsighted and sort of about ‘How do we get skiers here tomorrow?’” Pitman says. “They should really be thinking about, ‘How do we get skiers here in 10 years?’”
One upside Pitman foresees is that development will bring more after-hours events to the mountain when lifts stop spinning. These days, he says, things are a bit quiet when the mountain shuts down, with few options for après-ski. But once the new hotel goes in, there will be more capacity for guests to remain on the hill for a night or two, helping evenings at Crystal come to life.
With a visit to Crystal Mountain today, you can still witness the pioneering spirit that helped build this resort back in 1962 with two double chairlifts, a T-bar and some rope tows. The staff are friendly and helpful, the crowds aren’t Colorado-level out of control, and the local businesses around the resort give off a mom-and-pop vibe that makes a trip to this resort feel like a warm hug from a distance relative whom you enjoy, but only get to see every few years. That’s not to mention the terrain providing some of the most diverse and challenging turns you can find inbounds at any resort.
But that could soon change. Following completion of the new lodge, plans for a new 100-room hotel will kick off just east of the main parking lot. And a new 14,000-square-foot, 350-seat dining and retail space at the summit is set to replace the charming Summit House Restaurant.
If you’re hoping to catch that old spirit, you might want to plan a Crystal Mountain trip sooner than later because the tenor of this resort could be quite different in a couple years. Locals will tell you that’s already happened. Personally, I see change as progress, but I also understand how putting the emphasis on building new clientele could damage the heart and soul of a place that still feels like it was made to be kept a secret.