Independents Day: Mt. Baker, Wash.
In an era of pass wars and megaresorts, we celebrate the unaffiliated ski areas like Washington State's Mt Baker, where the true soul of the sport gets passed on to a whole new generation of passionate skiers.
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Maybe it’s the depth of the snow or the dead-end road that gets you there, but Mt. Baker, the ski area on the flanks of one of Washington’s major volcanoes, feels like it’s isolated from the shininess of the ski industry—in the best way possible. You’re not here to show off fancy gear or eat at a high-dollar restaurant (because there aren’t any). You’re here to ski.
The mountain, and the rag-tag Northwest culture it embodies, exudes a gritty realness (no alpine coasters or heated sidewalks here), and its independent streak shows up in everything from the parking lot scene—even if you don’t snowboard it’s worth coming to the Banked Slalom party—to the progressive backcountry policy that puts the onus of responsibility on the skier. It’s a place that focuses on the things that matter: community, killer terrain, and deep, deep snow.
The snow is probably the thing that brought you here. Baker averages the most snow of any ski mountain in the world. During the 1998-’99 season, the mountain received 1,140 inches of snowfall, a world record. It also boasts the highest average annual snowfall of any resort in the world, with 663 inches.
Baker’s not going to give it up for you at first, you have to work for it a little. Here in the North Cascades, weather is your master, and temperature is your guide. It’s often right on the line of freezing, which means the snow can be bottomless fluff, or Cascade concrete. You have to watch your elevation and your angles to find the best conditions.
But that sense of exploration and the hunt for sneaky pockets is part of Baker’s charm. When you look at the stats, Mt. Baker doesn’t seem like a huge mountain—it only has 1,000 skiable acres and eight lifts—but it’s a place that rewards exploration. The mountain is full of nooks and crannies, the terrain rolling and variable, which keeps the small resort interesting.
For beginners, the mellow runs off of Chairs 2, 3, and 4 provide lots of fun. Expert skiers and riders can push themselves on the steeps off Chairs 1 and 5, and find pillow lines and narrow chutes in the steeps of Gabl’s, the Chair 6 trees, and Pan Face.
Inbounds Baker is full of fun mini-golf lines, but the mountain’s most notable attribute is its easy-access backcountry (not to be trifled with) and its progressive boundary policy. Baker was one of the first mountains to allow backcountry gate access, and if you have avalanche gear and appropriate skills and knowledge, you can quickly get out into the terrain along Mt. Shuksan, including the often-photographed Shuksan Arm, and the Mt. Baker wilderness encompassing Artist’s Point.
Skied yourself silly? You’re probably ready for some après. On-hill your options are the Heather Meadows Café, which has the best food, or the White Salmon Base Lodge, which has a friendly lodge cat and a piano that’s open for the playing. There’s no lodging at Baker, because it’s on National Forest land. You can sleep in your vehicle in either of the parking lots, or you can make your way back down the hill to the closest town, Glacier, home to the Chair 9 Pizza Place, a local staple, and the Wake’n Bakery, where you should have stopped on your way up the hill in the morning. A ski day at Baker is a local immersion lesson from start to finish.
Related: 5 Ski Areas with Backcountry Access
How to Get to Mount Baker
Mt. Baker is just far enough off the beaten path to give you the sense that you’re away from it all, but close enough to Bellingham (1.5 hours), Seattle (2.5 hours), and Vancouver (2 hours) to make it a day trip. If an extended trip is on the agenda, plan to stay in the town of Glacier, 19 miles west of the ski area, which offers the closest lodging options. During the winter, the Baker Bus offers round-trip service from Bellingham to the mountain with stops in Kendall, Maple Falls, and Glacier along the way.
Mount Baker Skier Stats
- Skiable Acres: 1,000
- Annual Snowfall (inches): 663
- Summit Elevation (feet): 5,089
- Vertical Drop (feet): 1,500
More Great Independent Resorts Worth Celebrating
Originally published in the January 2020 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great writing delivered directly to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE NOW.