Where to Ski Next: Crystal Mountain, Wash.

One of the Northwest’s biggest ski mountains is determined to become a destination resort. Here’s how.
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One of the Northwest’s biggest ski mountains is determined to become a destination resort. Here’s how.
Where to Ski Next: Crystal Mountain, Wash. tout

My timing couldn’t be better. Seven feet of light, dry snow fell on Crystal Mountain earlier in the week. The February storm’s ferocity shut down power to the resort, forcing a midweek closure. Which means the powder is still there, untouched and waiting, when I arrive on a cloud-covered Thursday.

To get to Crystal Mountain, 80 miles southeast of Seattle, you follow meandering country roads into the shadows of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, which towers over Crystal Mountain like a big brother. The last seven miles are a steep, snow-covered road that feels like an elevator into the sky.

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There’s no village at Crystal, and pickings are slim when it comes to lodging and restaurants. The first thing you spot at the end of the road is an RV lot filled with old Airstreams and families in camper vans.

Crystal does have some lodging options that aren’t on four wheels—a few condo complexes near the base, some communal, club-style homes, and the aged but charming Alpine Inn, which is where I’m staying. The rooms there are just big enough to fit a full-size bed, but it’s cozy, and best of all, it’s slopeside and above one of the best après-ski spots anywhere: the European-style Snorting Elk Cellar, a low-slung locals’ bar that serves up pints of Northwestern microbrew and colossal towers of nachos.

The next morning, I’m on the Mount Rainier gondola first thing, powder-hungry and antsy as I get whisked up 2,500 vertical feet to the top of the mountain. Liftlines are minimal, and what crowds there are disperse quickly—folks seem to know exactly where they’re going—so I feel like I’ve got the mountain to myself. I spin a few fast laps on the Green Valley chair, which offers limitless thigh-deep powder on short, rolling pitches through the trees. Then it’s off to Bear Pits, a steep face filled with narrow chutes that nobody seems to have touched yet. I carve first tracks down the far side, then hustle up two lifts to the aptly named Powder Bowl, off the back side of High Campbell chairlift.

Most of the skiers at Crystal are locals who drive in from the greater Seattle area. Resort management estimates that 80 percent of its skiers are day-trippers from western Washington. Despite world-class terrain for all abilities and an average of 486 inches of snowfall annually, Crystal Mountain hasn’t managed to attract many destination travelers—those flying in for extended stays. The result is a distinctly neighborhood vibe, like you’ve stumbled into someone’s backyard paradise and been graciously invited into the club.

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But it also presents a financial problem for the resort. “If there’s a flaw in our business plan it’s that Crystal experiences large crowds on weekends and is empty midweek,” says John Kircher, the resort’s general manager and president. “Crystal’s mountain more than qualifies for destination-resort status—the terrain and lifts are fantastic—but the lack of on-site accommodations keeps skiers and riders looking elsewhere.”

Kircher has a solution, but it’s going to take a few years. The U.S. Forest Service has approved a master plan that allows for 150 new rooms to be built. Over the next five years, Kircher hopes to scatter small cabins along a hillside near the base rather than build a large hotel complex. To help draw in new overnight and destination guests, the resort has already boosted dining offerings as well—a food truck and an outdoor kebob café went in last winter—and invested $150,000 in new ski-tuning equipment and improved gear-rental services.

In addition to two new lifts that were installed over the summer—one replacing the High Campbell double, which was destroyed by a March avalanche—Kircher says two more lifts will access new terrain in the next five years.

With all of those improvements, the resort hopes to level out the dips in its visitation numbers and attract longer-term travelers from near and far. As for changing that backyard vibe? That’s most definitely not in the master plan. “Of course, it’s essential to preserve the current character of the resort,” says Kircher, a lifelong skier whose family runs Boyne Resorts, the Michigan-based company that bought Crystal Mountain in 1997. “This is a vital element of the entire ski-resort industry that gets ignored time and again.”

There’s only one place to properly end my powder day at Crystal Mountain, and that’s the Snorting Elk Cellar. I slide into a wooden booth behind a plate of nachos and take in the scene. The place is jammed with locals, snow still crusted on their beards and huge grins plastered on their faces. From this perspective, the resort doesn’t seem to lack anything at all. Instead, all I can think is how lucky I am to be part of the club.

Need to Know:

Stay: If you want your own kitchen (not a bad idea, considering the minimal dining options at the mountain), go for a one- or two-bedroom condo at Silver Skis Chalet, 150 yards from the gondola. Condos come with DVDs and board games to borrow and a large heated pool. For a more rustic setting, nab a room at the Alpine Inn.

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Eat: You can sign up for early-morning first tracks and a deluxe breakfast spread with a view of Rainier at the mountaintop Summit House. For lunch, the midmountain Campbell Basin Lodge serves up noodle bowls and the usual burger and sandwich bar. The Alpine Inn Restaurant is the only spot serving dinner, and its French onion soup is delicious.

Drink: Après-ski, head to the Snorting Elk Cellar for a pitcher of local favorite Manny’s Pale Ale and the legendary nachos.

Must Ski: Don’t miss the Northway chair for the most sustained steeps and varied glades on the mountain. Up for a hike? Bootpack out to 7,012-foot Silver King, the crown jewel of Crystal’s “southback” zone. For intermediate terrain, the Mount Rainier gondola offers perfect top-to-bottom groomers.

Stats:

Summit Elevation: 7,012 feet

Skiable Acres: 2,600

Annual inches: 486

Photos from top: Crystal Mountain; Jason Hummel; Crystal Mountain.