SNOQUALMIE PASS — On a Saturday in early January, I arrived at the Hyak Sno-Park around 8:45 a.m. and nabbed one of the last parking spots. When I returned several hours later from a snowshoe outing, sledders had thronged the snow play area. Dozens had given up on the packed sledding hill and were trudging down the middle of the Palouse to Cascades Trail. They ignored the sign urging walkers to stay outside the groomed track and instead left bootprints in the fresh corduroy that had been plowed earlier that day for cross-country skiers.
I asked a parking attendant how the season had fared thus far. “There was a line of cars outside the gate before we opened at 8 a.m. and we filled up at 9 a.m.,” she told me. “I’ve worked here for four years and until this season I’ve never seen us fill up before 11.”
Variations of this story have played out across the Cascades and Olympics this winter as Western Washington’s weekend warriors have made a beeline for the snow line like never before. Lake Wenatchee State Park’s daily grooming report reminds the public that parking lots typically fill to capacity by late morning. When the mountain is out, Mount Rainier National Park’s Twitter feed alerts visitors they must endure waits of up to two hours in order to reach Paradise. Most of the days that Hurricane Ridge has opened to the public, Olympic National Park cautions delays from 30 minutes to two hours for permission to head up to the park’s loftiest winter heights.
These jams have proven more than just a winter annoyance — they have also led to dangerous situations as those desperate to play in the snow opt for ill-advised Plan Bs, like parking illegally on a highway shoulder and sledding on a slope that bottoms out at an interstate on-ramp. The situation got so dire that the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which is home to some of our region’s most popular snowy destinations like Mount Baker, Stevens Pass, Snoqualmie Pass and Crystal Mountain, issued a warning Jan. 15 about “safety hazards” due to intense weekend visitation.
“It’s always been crowded, but this year took it to a whole new level,” said Karen Behm, coordinator for the Central Cascades Winter Recreation Council. In early February, she found herself rescheduling a skijoring clinic (a sport that involves a person on skis being pulled by a dog) from a Saturday to a Tuesday since it was impossible to guarantee access to Crystal Springs Sno-Park on a weekend.
The reasons for this winter’s squeeze are a perfect storm: With most indoor activities outright closed or otherwise considered risky, people of all ages, especially families, are looking for outdoor activities during the coronavirus pandemic. Ski resorts reduced their capacity and are requiring reservations to comply with state public health mandates. Fewer people are carpooling. Shared transportation options like shuttle buses are on hiatus. While the pandemic-induced influx may be temporary, the record sales of winter sports equipment over the last year and our region’s continued population growth, with many people moving here for our outdoor amenities, mean that overcrowded access points are a long-term challenge.
“We are essentially getting a preview of the use we anticipated seeing five or more years from now as the area population continues to increase,” said Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest spokesperson Victoria Wilkins.
Jostling to get to the snow
The issue is compounded by the peculiarities of our maritime climate. Although the Cascades are home to some of the snowiest places on Earth, the vast majority of Western Washington must travel to the snow. Rare lowland flakes notwithstanding, anyone craving a reliable snowpack to ski, snowshoe, sled or even throw a snowball must find their way to just seven reliable access points where road crews plow paved roads through mountain passes (Stevens, Snoqualmie, White) or at high-elevation destinations at the end of the road (Hurricane Ridge, Mount Baker, Crystal, Paradise). Even though Washington added 1 million people in the last decade, and King County added 500,000 in the last 20 years, these same access points have barely changed.
Indeed, there may be even fewer places to go. Seasoned winter visitors to Snoqualmie Pass recall reliable plowing of the Kendall Katwalk Pacific Crest Trailhead earlier this century, but the prime location along Commonwealth Creek has sat under a blanket of white for most of the last several winters. Washington State Department of Transportation angered snowmobilers in 2018 when it announced a new closure point along North Cascades Highway. More recently, the state agency gave up on plowing the highway to the new Silver Star Sno-Park outside Mazama because the agency burns through a limited snow-removal budget by midwinter and must prioritize through routes, according to WSDOT spokesperson Lauren Loebsack.
“There is just not enough snow to go around,” said Jon Snyder, Gov. Jay Inslee’s senior policy adviser for outdoor recreation and economic development.
Martin Volken, an internationally certified mountain guide based in North Bend, disagrees. “It’s not that there aren’t enough places to go, you just can’t get there.”
In 2013, Volken flew over the Cascades from the Canadian border to the Goat Rocks Wilderness to conduct an aerial survey for a guidebook. “There are thousands of square miles of skiable terrain,” he said. “The problem isn’t overcrowding. It’s access.”
What more access looks like, and where, is no simple question given our patchwork of public land management between state and federal agencies, chronic funding shortfalls for deferred maintenance on our recreation infrastructure, and climate change pushing the snowline ever upward — with some predictions that skiing at Snoqualmie Pass will be impossible by 2050.
“This new connection to the outdoors that a lot of people are finding for the first time ever is cool to see, but difficult to manage,” said Brock Milliern, division manager for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ conservation, recreation and transaction division.
Washington State Parks has already begun responding by setting up three temporary Sno-Parks in February to accommodate overflow crowds, with hope of at least one new snow play option in the Snoqualmie Pass area next winter, according to the agency’s winter recreation manager Jason Goldstein. The state has 130 Sno-Parks, with around 70 located in the Cascades. About a half-dozen of those parks were added in the last decade, and existing locations like Crystal Springs Sno-Park saw parking lot enlargements. As part of the state’s long-term planning for more winter recreation destinations, Goldstein scouts locations all over the Cascades that are above 3,000 feet in elevation and thus likely to hold snow most of the winter. Locations must also have no steeper than a 10% grade to access, but Goldstein finds many places are stymied by poor roads.
“We can plow and groom, but we just need roads that are maintained,” he said.
Scott Schell, executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center, looks to investments like paving the road into the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie as proof positive that Washington is capable of making transformative investments in its recreation infrastructure, turning a former dumping ground and haven for meth labs into one of the gems of the Pacific Northwest.
“Winter recreation is the forgotten stepchild of summer recreation,” Schell said.
Proposed solutions to the overcrowding issue
In over a half-dozen interviews with ski area operators, winter recreation advocates and public officials, ambitious but achievable wish list items have emerged that would better disperse the trailhead crowding that has turned winter recreation from fun into frustration. Among them: Maintenance and plowing of forest roads that start at low elevations but eventually reach up into snowy high country, like the roads to the Hannegan Pass and Heliotrope Ridge trailheads outside of Glacier. Keeping Mountain Loop Highway open throughout the winter and establishing new Sno-Parks on this otherwise inaccessible stretch of the Cascades. Reestablishing winter access to Mount Pilchuck, where Washington State Parks ran a ski area from 1957 to 1980. Plowing along state Route 410 in Mount Rainier National Park to reach the reliable snow at Cayuse and Chinook passes. Providing a green light to a human-powered-only ski resort, no lift infrastructure required, modeled on Colorado’s Bluebird Backcountry. Opening Hurricane Ridge on weekdays.
While no one wants or expects to attract out-of-state winter ski visitors on the scale of Colorado or Utah, our booming population and robust slate of in-state companies that thrive on winter sports — including: Eddie Bauer, evo, Feathered Friends, Lib Tech, Lithic Skis, K2 Sports, Outdoor Research, Mountain Safety Research, REI — prove there is more than enough local interest to keep our winter trailheads and ski areas busy.
As a result, in addition to creating new access points, managing existing locations is also paramount. Winter travelers will need to recommit to carpool culture. Better public transportation, drawing on local models like Trailhead Direct and national success stories like Utah Transit Authority’s Ski Bus, will also alleviate the crush. Consider, for example, regular bus service along busy corridors: state Route 542 from Bellingham to Mount Baker, U.S. Route 2 from Everett to Stevens Pass and Leavenworth, Interstate 90 from Seattle to Snoqualmie Pass, and Seattle/Tacoma to Crystal and Mount Rainier. But this mindset is not likely to take hold until the pandemic is squarely in the rearview mirror, which means even next winter there may be a coronavirus hangover of crowded trailheads.
The next four years, however, might offer a window of opportunity for big-ticket improvements to support wintry destinations. In 2018, Congress passed the so-called “wildfire funding fix” championed by Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell that ends the practice of borrowing money from recreation budgets to pay for wildfire suppression. Last year’s Great American Outdoors Act will direct millions of dollars to the state’s public lands. Outdoor recreation advocacy groups are lobbying the Biden administration to invest in public lands in any proposed infrastructure package.
And public dollars don’t have to go it alone. In Gallatin County, Montana, the nonprofit Friends of Hyalite raises money to pay for winter plowing costs into Hyalite Canyon, an international destination for ice climbing and ski touring that as recently as 2007 was completely inaccessible in winter. The state’s Sno-Park program, meanwhile, is revenue neutral: All the money to maintain winter trailheads comes directly from permit sales.
At the state level, Inslee’s top recreation adviser points to ongoing budget talks. “Gov. Inslee has proposed putting more money into state parks in each of his proposed budgets since taking office,” Snyder said. “This year is no exception: more money for state parks operating and more money for construction projects. Without basic funding to keep up with demand, it is hard to address increased visitation.”
Inslee’s 2021-23 proposed budget includes a request for more than $348 million for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission — a 24.2% increase from the previous two-year period.
This winter’s big crowds may have moved the needle on the need for more and better managed winter recreation access, but land managers remain cautious about immediate changes.
“There has been a lot of great conversation sparked by this winter’s use, and we hope to capture that momentum and interest to make progress towards long-term solutions, but we also have to temper the enthusiasm with caution on the complexity of this discussion,” said Wilkins, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest spokesperson. “The forest must balance the demands of a growing population with the management of natural resources and the quality of the visitor experience, and solutions will also need to balance those needs.”
“We are always looking into options and trying to be creative with solutions,” said Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest spokesperson Colton Whitworth. “Our ranger district has been in talks with the ski area [The Summit at Snoqualmie] to potentially plow specific trailheads at Snoqualmie Pass in order to increase parking opportunities for snow play, but the funding mechanism for this has some process issues that we need to work through.”
Thus far, the main players are still looking toward the warmer months. “We are working with partners to identify projects for the next five years,” said Whitworth. “We have a variety of projects that will be implemented next year on the I-90 corridor, mostly focused on summer recreation.”
The Swiss-born Volken sees that summer-centric approach as misguided. He watched his home canton, Valais, go from an economic backwater he likened to the Appalachia of Central Europe into a vibrant winter destination thanks to infrastructure investments that allow places like Zermatt and Verbier to exist in the shadow of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
“People move here for the natural beauty and access to outdoor recreation,” Volken said. “We’re wrecking the experience before we have the opportunity to reap the economic benefit.”
Back at Hyak, a sunbreak offered a peek across the highway to the Gold Creek valley, with mighty Alaska Mountain at its head, as impressive as a Swiss alp and barely an hour from home. While carving up our Cascade wilderness with the trains, tunnels, gondolas and villages that crisscross the Alps is far from anyone’s goal, just a modicum of additional access would go a long way to making the winter months in Washington more than a season to grit through, but rather a season to embrace.