Glimpses of the mountains have been few and far between in what has proven to be an exceptionally wet and soggy early fall, but when the clouds do part, there is a welcome sight: a blanket of white. That pearly palette is among the most welcome signs that winter is upon us, with snow and colder air hopefully banishing painful memories of heat domes and sickly looking images of a barren Mount Rainier.

While a parade of warm, atmospheric river storms in November was not kind to our early season snowpack, consistent snowfall has finally arrived and local ski areas and Sno-Parks are inching closer to sufficient coverage for winter fun.

So if your late fall rituals involve hauling winter coats and snowshoes out of the basement, applying a fresh coat of wax to skis or snowboards that have sat forlorn in the offseason, searching out a good deal on winter tires, putting fresh batteries into an avalanche beacon, or stocking the car with tire chains and a winter emergency kit, then read on for some updates on what to expect this winter in our region’s snow country destinations.

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La Niña is back

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center continues to predict a so-called La Niña weather pattern for the Northern Hemisphere this winter with over 90% confidence. This weather phenomenon typically correlates to cooler and wetter winter weather for the Pacific Northwest. That means snow in the mountains and likely more rain at sea level.

If that term sounds familiar, it’s because we also had a La Niña pattern last winter.

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“La Niñas often come in pairs,” said Washington state climatologist Nick Bond, who ran the numbers and calculated that of the two dozen La Niñas since 1950, about two-thirds have come in back-to-back winters.

If past data is any guidance, Bond estimated that in the second year of back-to-back La Niñas, the first half of the winter (October through December) tends to be wetter and cooler than the second half (January through March), but either way, both halves of the winter are wetter and cooler than normal — and should accumulate a healthy mountain snowpack.

There are exceptions, of course. “The winter of 1999-2000 was kind of a dud,” Bond said. “Not terrible, but not nearly as much snow as the previous winter of 1998-99, which set some records around the state, particularly at the Mt. Baker Ski Area.”

As for a third La Niña? “It is more likely that the winter of 2022-23 will not be of that sort,” Bond said. “I would not want to hazard a guess at this point what the snowpack is liable to be like that far ahead.”

Ski areas and public lands are mostly back to normal …

After a topsy-turvy pandemic winter, skiers and snowboarders can look forward to something resembling a normal season. Crystal Mountain, Stevens Pass and Summit at Snoqualmie have scrapped reservation systems. All local ski areas will load chairlifts to full capacity, which should alleviate lift lines. (Crystal will allow you to ride just with your party if you alert the liftie, while Mt. Baker staff will not automatically load mixed parties, relying on skiers to match themselves.) Face coverings are no longer required in outdoor settings like lift lines, though they are recommended when you can’t physically distance. Ski area indoor dining options are back on the table to get your fix of hot lunches and cocoa breaks. The Hurricane Ridge Mountain View Cafe and its attached gift shop and rental shop at Olympic National Park is also open again, though with takeout-only food and limited rentals (snowshoes only, no cross-country skis). Ranger-led snowshoe tours will return to Hurricane Ridge and Snoqualmie Pass — check with Olympic National Park and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, respectively, for details. Indoor camp and lessons for kids ages 4-12 return to Crystal.

… except where they’re not

Face coverings are still required indoors statewide when not eating and drinking. Indoor dining at Stevens Pass, Alpental and Summit West will require proof of vaccination, as those ski areas are located in King County. (Summit Central and Summit East are just over the line in Kittitas County and thus will not require proof of vaccination for indoor dining.)

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Mount Rainier National Park will not reopen indoor facilities this winter at Paradise, other than bathrooms, nor will it restart ranger-led programs like guided snowshoe walks. If you head up to the park this winter, last season’s mantra applies: Your car is your base camp. The National Park Inn and Longmire General Store will be open and offer grab-and-go food as well as limited snowshoe rentals.

Labor shortages at the Washington State Department of Transportation mean that roads may be plowed more slowly or less thoroughly.

There are new and improved places to play, snowshoe and ski

Washington State Parks stood up temporary Sno-Parks last winter to meet surging demand. One of them, the nonmotorized Easton Reload Sno-Park, is now permanent, with a new snowshoe trail and snow play area adjacent to the existing, larger motorized Sno-Park popular with snowmobilers. The brand new Asahel Curtis Sno-Park off Interstate 90’s exit 47 should also ease the crush at Snoqualmie Pass, but will likely not have sufficient snow cover until later in the winter due to its lower elevation. Last season’s temporary Sno-Parks along the Cle Elum River and in the Teanaway Community Forest are still a maybe and will depend on how busy the winter turns out elsewhere. Note that Sno-Park permits, which are required to park at these winter trailheads — your Discover Pass will not do the trick — did go up in price this year for the first time since 2009. (Seasonal permits and annual snowmobile permits are up $10 to $50; a Special Groomed Trail Sticker costs $70, up from $40; and a Daily Sno-Park permit goes for $25, up from $20.)

White Pass has expanded its cross-country ski terrain by an additional 7 kilometers this winter (about 4.35 miles), bringing the total of meandering forest trails to 25 kilometers (about 15.53 miles). Over at Stevens Pass, additional features will be built in the terrain park serviced by the Brooks Chair. An offseason pruning operation thinned out brush at Summit East above the water tower and in Alpental’s Snake Dance zone to improve the glade skiing experience. Drainage improvements at Summit West and lower Alpental should also allow those lower-elevation areas to open up sooner for top-to-bottom skiing, while system upgrades should improve reliability of the Wildside, Triple 60 and Armstrong Express chairlifts.

Après all day — outside

Whatever the weather, eating and drinking outside during your day in the mountains is here to stay. Crystal’s base area will look different this winter with four shipping containers retrofitted into restaurants serving rice bowls, gourmet hot dogs, sweet and savory waffles, grilled cheeses and panini. The fish shack that camped outside of Campbell Basin last winter has migrated down to the base area and has been replaced by a new pop-up venue called Tie Breaker, a collaboration between Tieton Cider and Bale Breaker Brewing Company. There’s a new outdoor bar in the works called Hop Hut. Summit at Snoqualmie is also leaning into the outdoor dining trend with a taco truck at Alpental and a Greek food truck at Summit West.

Parking will cost you at Crystal; consider carpooling or taking the bus

In a first for Western Washington skiing, Crystal Mountain will charge for parking. Other than season passholders, visitors will have to fork over $20 on Fridays and Sundays and $30 on Saturdays and holidays. You can pay on-site at a kiosk or via QR code. Got a pass? Make sure you upload your license plate number online ahead of time. Don’t try your luck evading the Crystal parking authority: The resort will be monitoring its lots with license plate recognition technology. Violators will be charged fees, vehicles will be towed upon third violation and repeat violators will be banned from the resort.

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Crystal’s parking fees will fund its expanded free bus service, which debuted during the 2019-2020 season. Luxury coaches will leave from the Enumclaw Expo & Event Center multiple times on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Reservations are strongly encouraged. For Highway 2 travelers, there is also a shuttle bus from Monroe to Stevens Pass, which costs $30 round trip. (Shuttle service between Summit at Snoqualmie’s base areas will also return this season.)

These new measures are part of an effort to mitigate overcrowding that caused so-called park-outs in January 2020 and left many local skiers frustrated at hourslong odysseys that resulted in zero runs.

Another solution to cars jamming their way up a narrow mountain road? Carpooling. Four or more will land you free parking at Crystal (the Enumclaw Expo & Event Center has plenty of room for a carpool rendezvous), while three-plus nets access to lots A-G at Stevens Pass (except for F lot, where RVs park) during weekends, holidays and peak periods. A carpool of three or more will garner free parking at Summit at Snoqualmie’s two paid lots: Little Thunder and the front row at Summit Central.

Note that these parking requirements apply to all visitors, including people heading out early for backcountry access or just up for a short spell to bask in the landscape of the snowy Cascades.

Heading uphill at the Summit? You need a pass for that.

Ski touring has taken off in popularity in the Northwest. Inbounds at ski areas is an ideal location to learn the basics of skiing uphill in a safe, controlled environment before venturing off into the backcountry. Over the last several years, the Summit at Snoqualmie has become a go-to destination, especially as a weeknight after-work destination to crank out a few laps under the lights.

This season, Summit at Snoqualmie has tinkered with its uphill policy. In line with trends at ski resorts around the continent, there are now designated uphill routes at Summit West, Central and East that will be marked with flags and must be used when lifts are spinning. (Uphill travel is no longer allowed at Alpental.) Inbounds uphill users must acquire a $5 season pass that can be ordered online.

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On peak days, uphill and backcountry travelers must park in lots W3 (Summit West), E2 (Summit East) or A7 (Alpental).

Plan ahead

Waking up on a beautiful winter’s morning and deciding on a lark you want to frolic in the mountains is a recipe for disaster. Spontaneity, sadly, is not your friend. Especially on a weekend or holiday.

Buying a lift ticket? Taking a ski lesson? Renting equipment? Snow tubing? Snowshoeing? Nordic skiing? Check the ski area’s website ahead of time, as reservations may be required or at least strongly encouraged to guarantee a spot.

Taking part in any of the above — or just heading up to snow country to build a snowman and go sledding? Check WSDOT’s website and social media channels for road and weather conditions. Make sure your vehicle is equipped for winter travel. Check ski area and national park websites and social media channels for updates on parking. Have a backup plan, especially one that doesn’t involve peak times at the closest, most popular destinations (ahem, Snoqualmie Pass). Consider heading up later in the afternoon or rearranging your schedule to go on a weekday.

Heading further afield? Look at Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park webcams to see what the weather’s like in the mountains. (Pro tip: If you search for Mount Rainier weather and get a reading from Ashford, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Look at the Mount Rainier recreational forecast instead.) 

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but the alternative — getting skunked and going home without ever setting foot on the snow — is worse.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the minimum number of vehicle passengers required for carpool access to Stevens Pass parking lots A-G. It is three, not four.

It sure does feel like winter is finally here in the Pacific Northwest! Whether you’re staying cozy inside or heading for the great outdoors, here’s our guide to winter sports, salves and more this season.
Winter Sports Guide 2021

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