07 Mar Mount Baker Ski Area
Mount Baker Ski Area is located in northwest Washington in the North Cascades at the end of Highway 542. It’s about 54 miles from Bellingham, Washington. The drive up is smooth and well maintained. When you reach about 1500 feet the road begins to climb more sharply and becomes a twisty and sometimes hair-raising experience for the last 5 miles or so. If it’s snowing chains are required if your vehicle isn’t equipped with all-wheel or four-wheel drive, and even if it is there are times when you will want to use them.
This was the first year skiing at Mount Baker for me. I’ve heard tales about it for years though. The mountain has a mythical reputation as a one of a kind place, mostly for the prodigious snowfall, but there is also the cavernous backcountry and the experience of winter skiing without the trappings of a large resort. There is no on-mountain community surrounding the ski area such as you find in many western resorts. I’d rate it as kind of a throwback skiers’ and boarders’ mountain. Not a lot of distractions or amenities. Which is why you go there. Despite the straightforward simplicity, I was very impressed with the management and facilities. The White Salmon Lodge is a classic yet very modern and clean building with great sight lines, and the mountain and lifts are well maintained, inspiring total confidence in the place. I’ve read the quads are slow but I found the tempo to be just fine.
On the mountain Mount Baker doesn’t disappoint. First of all the setting is spectacular. Looking north away from the ski area, Mount Shuskan dominates the view and the Cascades stretch into nearby British Columbia. Looking out over this magnificent landscape I am always awed and filled with some fulfilling sense of being at home. Or I find myself feeling that I am in some sort of vast outdoor cathedral built from another ancient age. A time before humans. The scale of it reminds me that on this amazing planet Nature dominates; here, on this mountain, one can’t help but feel small in comparison.
The ski area itself is not a big mountain experience. The vertical drop is 1551 feet. Eight quad chairs are scattered throughout the 1000 or so acres. The terrain is divided into two halves. The left or White Salmon Lodge side is mostly blues with some good cruising groomers, with abundant untouched areas for powder hounds and tree skiers, and plenty of burly terrain off piste.
On the right side of the mountain you have the Heather Meadows Lodge and the Raven Hut. Here on the lower mountain you can find beginner terrain that’s family and child-friendly. At the opposite extreme you will find some of the gnarliest expert terrain available anywhere in the west. Chair #6 which accesses The Panorama Dome is expert-only access.
Though it’s a small mountain in bounds I find it has lots of variety and challenge. But if you just want to cruise and enjoy a beautiful day in the mountians it easily fills that bill, too. Another really important tidbit is it’s very affordable. Midweek the rate is $53 for the day and goes up to $58 on the weekends. I have only skied midweek so far and even after a fresh storm when the parking lot was half full at White Salmon Lodge there were no lines.
The other aspect at Mount Baker that probably cements it’s reputation, beside the voluminous snowfall, is the out of bounds possibilities surrounding the ski area. The backcountry is accessible from several chairlifts, and access is permitted from the resort following the Mount Baker Ski Area backcountry policy. There is so much backcountry access that when taken into account the mountain experience becomes immense. With the frequent snowfall you have limitless opportunities for fresh tracks. So you will see dozens of locals hiking up to the ridges surrounding the area. I love watching the descents while riding the chair. Some truly amazing lines and drops from a very skilled group of riders and skiers. As someone who has skied many mountains in the east and west I would rate Mount Baker Ski Area as one of the best for it’s setting – that alone is worth a day trip. If you are lucky enough to catch a powder day it then becomes an epic experience.
The ski area is home to the world’s greatest recorded snowfall in one season, 1,140 inches recorded during the 1998–99 season. Mount Baker also enjoys the unofficially highest average annual snowfall of any resort in the world, with 641 inches (53.4 ft.). The base elevation is at 3,500 feet (1,067 m), while the peak of the resort is at 5,089 feet.