|Crystal Mountain base area|
This season I tried to convince one of my friends to join me for a mid-February trip, but she was busy. Then I decided why not go by myself? Coincidentally, the weekend of choice also happened to land on my birthday, so I told the hubby this could be my gift.
|Rainier Express lift|
In the days leading up to my ski trip weekend, I watched the weather like a hawk. Although the Cascade Mountains suffered a bout of rain all week, Saturday promised clearing skies. That morning, I loaded my car and pointed it north, hoping for the best.
|Mt. Rainier Gondola|
Located in the Northeast corner of Mt. Rainier National Park, Crystal is a 4-hour drive from Portland (roughly the same distance as my fave Oregon ski area, Mt Bachelor) Aside from some traffic through Olympia and Puyallup, it was a fairly uneventful trip. I arrived at the resort with enough time to check into my hotel and drop off my skis to be waxed. Then I chilled slopeside on the base area's large covered patio, listened to a good live band, people-watched, and enjoyed a cold Porter. Aaahhh!
|And the grand mountain herself!|
Although I studied the resort's trail map that evening, the following morning I boarded the Chinook Express Lift with no concrete plan. Luckily, I got buddied up with one of the resort's volunteer hosts, and he was more than happy to share recommendations. Head swimming with information, I disembarked and decided to check out the Forest Queen Express.
|Fancy restaurant on the mountaintop|
Although today's weather was mild, a week of rain and overnight cold temperatures had frozen the snow into an icy crust. I found the first few runs fast and challenging. Luckily, most everything had been groomed.
|Spectacular views everywhere!|
One of my first impressions of Crystal - their runs were steep! What's considered an intermediate (blue) run here would be classified a black diamond (expert) trail at my home hill. Now I'm not one to shy from a gnarly slope, but the day's icy conditions (and the fact I was by myself) made me a bit more cautious.
|Lots of people taking in the scenery|
Riding single, I got paired up with lots of interesting people. I learned very quickly asking my lift-mates "Where have you been skiing today?" brought a plethora of trail recommendations, snow condition reports, and valuable local advice. Plus I enjoyed some great conversations.
After spending most of the morning exploring the terrain off of Forest Queen, I decided to broaden my horizons. A man on the lift recommended riding the Rainier Express, which took you to the very summit. He said the views on top were amazing. So off I went!
|Nice place to mountain-gaze|
Although the forecast was for sunshine, skies remained overcast most of the morning. By the time I disembarked from the Rainier Lift, things were just starting to clear. And there on top, staring me in the face, was massive Mt. Rainier. My oh my, what an incredible view!
|Cool cloud beside Rainier|
A fancy restaurant was perched on the summit. On one side of the building was a snowy patio area offering low-slung lounge chairs. Chairs and people lined the edge, all taking in the amazing mountain panorama. Snowy peaks stretched out in all directions. It was totally breathtaking.
After soaking in the scenery (followed by copious photo-taking) I followed the crowd down Lucky Shot trail. After a couple of laps on that and a super-steep black diamond run called "Middle Ferk," I could feel my tummy rumbling. Time to break for lunch.
|The Alpine Inn|
Taking a long, winding cat track back to the base area, I skirted a steep slope with three tiny avalanches, and ended up barrelling down another steep bump run (but it was fun!). After a bowl of chowder from the outside dining area, I hoofed it back to my room at the Alpine Inn to shed a layer and use the bathroom. My hotel was a mere 200 yards from the lifts. I've only ever booked slopeslide lodging once before and I must say, it was worth the extra bucks.
|Morning gondola ride|
Then I hopped on the Mt Rainier gondola for a cushy ride back to the top. I spent the afternoon exploring more trails both off the Rainier Express and Green Valley lifts. Although the sun finally made an appearance, it wasn't enough solar power to soften the snow much, and by 3:00 the trails were beginning to ice back over. Deciding my legs had had enough for one day (and wanting to save something for tomorrow) I decided it was time for beer-o-thirty.
|Had the views all to myself|
I enjoyed yet another good glass of Porter on the base area sundeck before heading back to my room for a shower. The Alpine Inn offered both a nice German-themed restaurant and a casual bar and deli on the premises. I chose a burger and beer in the bar, and both were quite tasty. Before heading back to my room, I was tempted enough to grab one of the deli's huge brownies for dessert (hey, it was my birthday!)
|Looking down on Silver Queen|
After a good night's rest, I was up and at 'em the next morning for more skiing. The day dawned with clear skies and sunshine. Perfect!
|Good morning, Mt Rainier!|
First thing I jumped on the gondola for another scenery-packed ride to the top. Taking advantage of the morning light, I wasted no time capturing a few more mountain photos, especially of massive Mt Rainier.
|Looking towards Green Valley|
Then it was back down Lucky Shot for a few laps. The adjacent peak, Silver Queen, had a recent avalanche on one of it's slopes which was quite visible from above. As a matter of fact, one of the trails went right by it's debris field. Very sobering to stop and look uphill at the huge volume of snow that came crashing down! Some of Crystal's slopes are so steep that inbounds avalanches are quite common. As a matter of fact, an avalanche in March 2014 took out one of Crystal's chairlifts (luckily no one was hurt and the lift has since been replaced).
|Lucky Shot run|
The day's copious sunshine quickly turned icy groomed runs into wonderful soft snow. Perfect for carving some turns!
I played all morning, alternating between Rainier Express and the Green Valley lifts. Since it was a Monday, the slopes were practically deserted. Sunshine, good snow, fabulous views, and no people. Happy birthday to me!
Towards late morning, the winds picked up on top, and blew hard enough to shut down the gondola. Luckily, it didn't affect the slopes much - just at the very top. I had to batten down the hatches for the first couple of feet, but once I'd skied a short distance, the wind quickly died down.
|Lots of photo ops for this mountain|
For today's lunch, I decided to check out the Campbell Basin Lodge, an on-mountain cafeteria located atop of the Forest Queen lift. A beautiful structure, it appeared to be quite new. I loved the inside decor, with rustic log furniture and Warren Miller cartoons adorning its walls. I especially liked the drawing titled "Northwest Skier" showing a man skiing on ice in a rain slicker.
|Campbell Basin lodge|
Although it was a fabulous day, I had to cut my afternoon short. Not only fatigued from yesterday's full day of skiing, I had a long drive back to Portland and hoped to beat some of the traffic.
|Warren Miller artwork|
So what did I think of Crystal Mountain? Loved the variety of trails, but the weekend's icy conditions kept me from trying some of the super steeps. I'd love to come back on a powder day and explore more terrain. But on the flip side, the sunny weather enabled me to enjoy the fabulous mountain panoramas Crystal is famous for - totally one of the better ski area views I've seen.
I thought the on-slope lodging was expensive for what you got. I paid big bucks for a tiny single room. And the Alpine Inn, although clean and cozy, was sort of run-down and noisy (my room was right next to the stairway - thump, thump, thump all night!) Crystal being a remote location, is a 45 minute drive from the nearest town, and a two hour drive from Seattle. Visitors can either spend their money on lodging, or spend time driving back and forth down a sometimes treacherous road.
|I'll be back!|
But I was thrilled to finally experience Crystal Mountain for myself. A perfect way to spend my birthday weekend. Two ski poles up - I'll be back!