PORT ANGELES — The 35-day federal government shutdown last winter in Washington, D.C., had little-known consequences for winter-sport lovers in Washington state. As the snow piled onto the slopes at Hurricane Ridge Ski Area in Olympic National Park, Olympic Peninsula skiers and snowboarders could only watch with longing, shuttered from the park for weeks beyond the intended opening date of Dec. 22, 2018.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat drew attention to this “most unusual victim” of political bickering, a unique ski spot deemed “nonessential” in the shutdown. On the contrary, Hurricane Ridge — one of just three lift-serviced ski areas operating in a U.S. national park — offers some of the country’s truly unique runs.

On Feb. 1, 2019, Hurricane Ridge reopened for business, just in time for a month of record lowland snowfall. Fluffy powder, often elusive in the Pacific Northwest, was abundant. Faced with this excess of natural riches, I seized on the long Presidents Day weekend to head across the Puget Sound in search of slopes.

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Hurricane Ridge sits at 5,242 feet atop Olympic National Park. Plenty high to capture ample snow from the winter storms that lash the Pacific coast, the ridge receives an average annual snowfall of 400-plus inches. But weather on the wild Olympic Peninsula is fickle. Being so close to the Pacific Ocean, storms come in warmer — resulting in wetter, heavier snow — and ferocious winds give the ridge its gusty name.

The National Park Service maintains the 12-mile stretch of road from the Heart O’the Hills ranger station up to Hurricane Ridge. (The ranger station is about 5 miles into the park from the visitor center at 3002 Mount Angeles Road). Until March 29, the road will open — weather permitting — Fridays through Sundays, as well as Christmas week (excluding Christmas Day), New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day.

When a promising forecast presented itself, my wife and I rolled the dice and boarded a Bainbridge Island-bound ferry with plans to meet two other couples in the park. Two and a half hours later, we pulled into Port Angeles. Although the freak occurrence of sea-level snow lent a ski-town sheen to the area that February weekend, part of the novelty of Hurricane Ridge is the rapid transition from sea breeze to alpine air over a stretch of just 17 miles.

Gregory Scruggs skis down Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, where Seattleites have a unique opportunity: to go downhill skiing in a national park. (Courtesy of Thatcher Kelley)
Gregory Scruggs skis down Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, where Seattleites have a unique opportunity: to go downhill skiing in a national park. (Courtesy of Thatcher Kelley)

The summer gateway to one of the state’s most popular national parks, Port Angeles is more subdued in the off-season, though there is outdoor ice skating through Jan. 20 at the downtown Winter Ice Village. Regardless of the season, Next Door Gastropub remains the best choice for food and drink. Our party of six squeezed into a corner on a packed Saturday night, sipped Washington cider and beer, scarfed down poutine (speckled with cheese curds from nearby Mt. Townsend Creamery) and knocked back a Scotch whisky nightcap to celebrate the powder day ahead. Our group opted for a Super 8 motel given the quick, one-night trip. We saved on lodging, but the motel coffee was so mediocre that we swung by Bada NW Coffee Bar for breakfast, then made our way to Heart O’the Hills ahead of the 9 a.m. scheduled gate opening. For a full weekend or a longer visit, the ample supply of bed-and-breakfasts would be worth the splurge.

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Hurricane Ridge has just 175 parking spots and the lot fills up quickly. A local skier adage offers sage advice: “Get through the gate, be there by 8.” (A new shuttle bus, which will service the slopes from town, is scheduled to begin operating in January.)

In our case, we played hurry up and wait. Several inches of overnight snow delayed the gate opening by a couple of hours (for real-time gate information, check @HRWinterAccess on Twitter or call 360-565-3131). Rangers required chains on all vehicles, including those with all-wheel drive. Cooling our heels amid the evergreen sentries flanking the ranger station, we met local families from across the Olympic Peninsula and Kitsap County who swear by Hurricane Ridge, one of only three such slopes in a national park. (The others are Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite National Park and Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Resort in Cuyahoga Valley National Park).

Justin Frechette eyes the powder beneath his skis as he takes a jump while skiing Hurricane Ridge.  (Courtesy of Thatcher Kelley)
Justin Frechette eyes the powder beneath his skis as he takes a jump while skiing Hurricane Ridge. (Courtesy of Thatcher Kelley)

The largely volunteer-run operation has the charm of a mom-and-pop ski area. It boasts just 650 vertical feet, accessed by a Poma surface lift and two rope tows. Drop-in lessons are available and the visitor center rents Alpine skis, cross-country skis and snowshoes.

“Small ski areas are coming to the fore more and more, because if you go to the Cascade areas, especially on the weekends, it’s going to be expensive and crowded,” says Roger Merrill Oakes, founder of the Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club and author of “Skiing in Olympic National Park,” during a recent phone interview. “We have a little area that has essentially no lines on our lifts — such as they are — and we’ve got some challenging skiing.”

On my February visit, half our group snowshoed in search of stunning Olympic Mountain views that drifted in and out of the clouds. The rest of us studied the avalanche forecast, strapped into backcountry ski gear, climbed past the ski area and sniffed out five short but sweet powder runs. True to form, we crossed paths with only a handful of other skiers, whereas I could only imagine how busy the backcountry was near Snoqualmie Pass on a holiday weekend.

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The day never quite turned bluebird, but when the sun came out, we marveled at views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island — in between shots of powder to the face, of course. Skiing within sight of the ocean is an activity I’d admired in glossy magazine spreads of Norway, but here I was doing the same thing just 60 miles west of Seattle. It’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed

If only every ski trip could begin with a boat ride.

Lift tickets and ski-school rates

Prices to get up the slopes at Hurricane Ridge vary. To access all lifts (including the Poma lift), the cost is $45 (or $43 for a half-day). For the tow ropes only (“The Intermediate” and “The Bunny”), the cost is $35 ($33 for the half-day). It’s $20 for The Bunny and nothing else, and an hour of tubing costs $14.

Rates for ski school are also on a sliding scale. For toddler Alpine skiing and snowboarding lessons, three single-hour lessons (plus lift tickets) go for $120. For youths and adults, the three lessons clock in at 90 minutes for $140, also with lift tickets included. Walk-in group lessons also run 90 minutes and cost $60 per person. Private lessons are offer on a per-hour basis, with $70 covering the lesson and a lift ticket.

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Olympic National Park Visitor Center: 3002 Mount Angeles Road, Port Angeles; 360-565-3130