Crystal Mountain is located about 130km southeast of Seattle within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The location means it is quite easy to get to the ski resort from downtown Seattle or Tacoma and skiers could definitely return to the city at night after a day of skiing. The location also means that views from the summit could be great on a clear spring day as Mount Rainier is said to be visible from the peak.
One thing to note is that the resort is not really geared for snowboarders as their main store seems to stock up only on skis, and in fact I even doubt if there are snowboarding instructors here either.
Since I drove to Seattle, I took the highway to the mountain even though highway is a misnomer. Some of the roads are more like country roads with one lane on each direction making for a slower drive even though distance-wise it is nearly similar between Vancouver and Whistler Blackcomb. Not to mention the drive was uninspiring until closer to the mountain itself. Near the mountains, the snow and the majesty of the trees on both sides make it for a very nice scenic drive.
Another danger to take note is that 4 wheel drive and/or snow tires are probably recommended to undertake this drive during winter since the roads get snowed in and these are mountain roads that winds up and down. With the snow falling that day I visited, traffic was even slower as drivers are more cautious and there are some cars without the necessary tools that made it even slower so it took slightly more than 2 hours to reach the resort.
CHAIRLIFTS & GONDOLAS
The resort has one main gondola system that carries skiers up to the aptly named Summit House ski lodge. The same summit can be accessed via a combination of the Chinook Express and the Rainier Express chairlift. Another 2 major 4-seater chairlift is the Forest Queen Express on the south (left) section and Green Valley on the north (right) section.
Then finally, there are 3 more dual-seater chairlifts named High Campbell, Northway and Quicksilver. The latter serves mainly green beginner runs while the first 2 serves the Campbell Basin and the Northway Peak respectively which are comprised of the more difficult black diamond terrains.
COST & VALUE
A day lift ticket costs $76 inclusive of taxes which was decent for a resort of this size. This is slightly cheaper than the discounted tickets one can get for Whistler Blackcomb, especially now that the Canadian dollar has depreciated. However it is worth noting that the cost for a day lift ticket can be lower if you purchase a ticket without access to the Mount Rainier Gondola, so there is a premium to use the shiny new gondola. In addition, the price includes a $5 deposit for the RFID ticket that many resorts are moving into.
Crystal Mountain is considered more suitable for intermediate and expert skiers and snowboarders since only 11% of its terrain are rated for beginners.
Basically the terrain for beginners are restricted to anything below the Chinook Express, though there is one trail down from the top of Forest Queen Express. This meant that most beginner skiers and snowboarders could just pass on the premium lift tickets for the gondola since they are unlikely to need it! And since I only had one day to try out the resort, I passed on most of the green runs though I have to say it was quite crowded where the beginner runs were since there are so little of them!
Intermediate or blue-marked runs makes up the bulk of the trails in Crystal Mountain and most of them are bunched up around Forest Queen Express and Rainier Express chairlift. Amongst these 2, the runs around Forest Queen Express are milder and probably lesser blue runs more suitable for beginners progressing to the next step.
The runs around Rainier Express can lead to black diamond or expert-rated runs which are progressively more difficult. On a powder day, this could make it more difficult with lower visibility and lots of new snow.
Amongst ski runs, I have to say the ones in Crystal Mountain were not as well-marked. Or maybe it was just snowing quite heavily and the visibility quite poor which meant it is quite difficult to notice the way markers.
Due to the limited visibility, I found myself enjoying the trails around Forest Queen Express better since some intermediate trails around the gondola leads to Green Valley which is a somewhat short run as they closed the exit point back to the base from Green Valley on that day.
Looking at the trail map, I would have thought expert runs comprise the majority of the trails but I think the essence is that it covers more of the space. From the wide open bowls at the top of High Campbell to the long runs of Northway. there are plenty of terrain for experts to cover.
However there was only one caveat. That is some of the access points can be easy to miss and some locals were not very friendly at sharing ski access points either. Anyway the short one day I had also meant I did not have time to cover much of the area. Though the bowls around Campbell Basin that was easily accessed by the High Campbell chairlift are definitely worth heading to anytime one is in Crystal Mountain. They are not the best but I think I will be happy snowboarding in them any day.
The base of High Campbell is also home to the Campbell Basin ski lodge, one of 2 ski lodges located on the mountain. The other ski lodge is conveniently located at the top of the gondola, and called Summit House.
During a crowded festive day with lots of powder, both lodges are fairly busy but both are of a decent size and it is rare to see ski resorts of this size having well maintained lodges on the mountains. Comparing the 2, I actually prefer the Campbell Basin lodge since it seems to be more spacious on the outside with more ski racks. It also was not as cold there compared to the Summit House.
For what it is worth, tap water was provided at both on-mountain lodges to freshen up if necessary.
FOOD & BEVERAGES
Since it was crowded and I really wanted to maximize the time on the snow, I skipped lunch and munched on a granola bar instead. After all the lodges were selling the usual junk food like hot dogs and burgers. Nothing gourmet but with prices close to those in Disneyland or Whistler. Expensive for mediocre food and nothing was to my fancy. A
Aside from the on-mountain lodges, skiers could also get their food from the main lodge at the base of the mountain. The main lodge does get busy throughout the day though as there are also some visitors there who do not ski, or families waiting for their other members to return. And as far as I could tell, the food variety are somewhat similar.
Since it was a day trip, I did not stay at the mountain. However for those looking for a ski vacation, there are a couple of hotels, chalets and possibly bed and breakfasts around the area. According to the map information, Alta Crystal Resort is the premier lodging option with hot tubs and all to soothe that leg muscles.
Or in my case, I just head out to Seattle for more luxurious accommodation and even enjoy the city life at night, since there isn’t much to see and do at the base of the mountain either. As far as I can tell from the return traffic, many skiers have the same idea as I did.
Parking at the ski resort is something of an issue though. Initially I found a spot within walking distance to the base main lodge, only to realize the lot is for some members only but the markings were not evident enough. In the end I moved the car out and had to take the open-air shuttle to the main lodge which is not fun at all considering it was snowing somewhat heavily that day! The consolation is that parking is free for the day at the lots and it is somewhat easy to find an empty spot.
As I mentioned before, there is not much of an apres-ski scene though the main lodge does bustle with activity closer to closing time. There are a couple of ski and gift shops and many skiers having the late lunch or filling up after a great exercise but the ambience was just lacking. It is more of a ski-for-the-day-and-return-home kind of atmosphere here!
Maybe people are just not keen to stay out under the snow during this heavy snowfall since the snow got a bit heavier at closing.
And since it was snowing all day long, the low visibility meant very little to see from the summit. Though I am told the views of Mount Rainier from the top of High Campbell at the Silver Queen peak are spectacular. I even read somewhere Crystal Mountain is one of the ski resorts with the best views ever. But it looks like I need to return to experience that for myself.
Though the heavy snow does make for another different kind of views on the mountain and it ain’t bad either when compared with how much fun it was to snowboard in fresh snow!
For a ski resort, Crystal Mountain was quite fun for me due to the deep powder on the day I visit. There was also the thrill of its more advanced runs that really makes it worthwhile. I can see residents of Seattle just heading up here for a day in the weekend to ski or snowboard rather than make the way to Whistler and deal with all the border hassle.
On the other hand, it is unlikely to rival any of the larger ski resorts or would it be a destination ski resort. There are ways to go such as highway expansions for easier access, better food variety, more information on trails and prominent way markers that the resort could undertake to make the experience much better.