A new mountain-bike park at Stevens Pass Ski Area heralds the hill's first summertime operations.

In past summers while heading east over the mountains, I’d often eye the sad, empty, bereft-of-all-life-forms chairlifts at Stevens Pass Ski Area with a bit of disappointment. It’s such a stunning, easy-access spot: If only there were some sort of summer operations there.

Well, with the opening last month of Stevens Pass Bike Park, I need be doleful no longer. Some seven years in the making, the park, which offers the only lift-assisted mountain biking in Washington, opened last month to rave reviews from the fat-tire set.

“It’s awesome,” said 29-year-old Andrew McCaffery, of Tacoma, during a break between runs on the park’s two trails, Rock Crusher and Slingshot Wookie.

“You don’t have to pedal up — which is great — and it’s way closer than Whistler.”

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Because the park’s two trails (more to come in the near future) are geared toward mountain bikers of the more downhill-slash-freeride persuasion, that not-having-to-pedal uphill holds real appeal. And not just because downhillers’ bikes often weigh 40-plus pounds.

Amber Zimmerman and Chelsey Diamond, of Leavenworth, usually ride Freund Canyon, Rosy Boa, Devils Gulch and other hot spots near Leavenworth.

“Those are great places but you have to work so hard to get up the hill, it can take you hours to get in even one lap,” said Zimmerman, 28, who’s been an avid rider for about two years.

“In two hours here though, you can get in like 14 or 15 laps. And being able to do lap after lap like that really allows you to hone your skills.”

Rock Crusher or Wookie

The Rock Crusher is considered an intermediate trail. It’s wide and flowy with lots of fun banked berms and several bridges. Slingshot Wookie is rated black diamond and is for more advanced riders: It’s narrow, rocky and rooty single-track and noticeably steeper and faster than Rock Crusher. Both trails are accessed via the Hogsback chairlift.

Park officials hope to open another intermediate trail within the coming weeks, with two more trails in the plans for 2013, a beginner’s trail and another black diamond.

Cross-country mountain biker that I am — that is, I’m not one to fly through the air — I quite enjoyed my laps on Rock Crusher and not just because I got to wear a full-face helmet and shin guards for the first time ever. (Along with downhill-specific mountain bikes, helmets and knee and elbow pads are available for rent at the park.) Certainly the riding is great, but the summertime panoramic mountain vistas are simply out-of-this-world.

At well over 4,000 feet, this pivot point between Eastern and Western Washington is Central Cascade Mountain Nirvana. It’s all alpine meadows, rock gardens, forested glades and jagged ridgelines heading off in all directions. Given that most of my mountain biking is done in dark coastal forest below 2,000 feet, I couldn’t help but interrupt my riding with repeated stops to soak it all in.

More summer fun?

That summertime setting is something that Stevens Pass wants to take advantage of, said Joel Martinez, vice president of operations for Stevens Pass Ski Area, which also manages the bike park. This is the first time in its 75-year history that the ski area has offered summer activities.

“We’re hoping that mountain biking will be a catalyst to a whole range of summer operations in the future,” said a helmeted and padded-up Martinez, just before heading down Slingshot Wookie.

“We’d love to have concerts up here, offer things like zip lines, Frisbee golf, maybe offer meeting space for corporate retreats — that sort of thing.”

Earlier this month, Stevens Pass hosted its first major summer event — the Northwest Cup Finals, a downhill mountain-biking championship. And already it offers summer activities for those with no interest in biking: scenic chairlift rides. For $10, folks can ride the Hogsback for the experience of getting high in the mountains, as it were.

As of now, however, there are no dedicated trails for chairlift hiking, so sightseers need to ride the lift down as well. Still, with tables and chairs set up just off the Hogsback unload area, it makes for a spectacular setting for a picnic.

And that’s where I again ran into Zimmerman and Diamond, now joined by another Leavenworth rider, Liz Stone. Taking a break from laps down the Rock Crusher and Slingshot Wookie, they sat around a tablecloth-draped table enjoying fried chicken with veggies and hummus while sipping Lola Prosecco from plastic cups. It was all quite civilized.

“We decided to make it a girls’ ride day,” said Diamond, laughing. “It’s such a male-dominated sport, but we’re taking over the day!”

And doing it in style.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of the newly published “75 Classic Rides: Washington” (The Mountaineers Books). Contact: mikemcquaide@comcast.net.