The concept of an hour from sea level to ski level may seem a leap of imagination for the inland skier, but at Hurricane Ridge it’s a reality that is shared by world travelers and locals alike.
From December through April, amid glacial ice and primeval forests, this ridge on the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula is a quiet retreat for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding and downhill skiing.
A small, personal slope, it is a refreshing change from crowded slopes, expensive lifts and long lines of more publicized resorts.
From the Tyrolean-style lodge on the shoulder of Mount Angeles, cross-country trails spider outward into Olympic National Park, winding under corniced ridges and through snow-shrouded, virgin forests. Snowshoeing near the summit last year, I met Tom, a skier from Switzerland, who commented in heavily accented English as he eyed the rugged Bailey Range and glacierclad Mount Olympus behind it, “This is much like the Alps. The snow is good, the scenery spectacular. Oh, it’s not as jagged here, but more trees … it’s wild and free.”
“He means the slopes aren’t groomed,” said his companion, Maudrey, from Los Angeles. “And you don’t have to pay.”
A novice myself, I found crosscountry skiers were quick to help newcomers with friendly advice. Skiing and snowshoeing in the meadows and forests adjacent to the lodge are safe for the beginner, and equipment rentals (cross-country, snowshoes and downhill) are available along with hot chocolate, burgers and conversation.
Experienced cold-weather skiers and snowshoers can trek deep into the wilderness, camping amid the primeval snow. But the pleasures of overnight winter alpine camping are not for the novice, considering subfreezing temperatures and the possibility of sudden storms.
Overnight campers are required to register with the rangers at the lodge and must make arrangements to leave their car three miles below the lodge at the turnoff at Third Peak.
Jane Hendrick, a park ranger working at the information center, pointed out that advanced trails, such as Hurricane Hill Route (1.5 miles), Obstruction Point (4.3 miles) and Hurricane Ridge to Mount Angeles (6 mile round trip) have specific dangers, such as avalanche conditions and cornices. Before trekking these trails, the skier or showshoer should check in at the lodge, where park rangers provide information concerning everything from the geologic structure of the area to exhibits of pressed alpine wildflowers.
The downhill ski facility has one ski lift, a rope tow and a bunny tow. An intermediate slope, it is perfect for families out for a day of fun, or couples out to enjoy an intimate wilderness weekend. And the prices are modest - $14 for an all-day lift ticket and only $3 for the bunny slope.
Snowboarders, especially, find the trails and moguls through the trees exciting. Slaloming through the trees, jumps and quick turns abound. And the downhill area is a pleasant change from the crowded ski lines of the popular resorts. It is an intermediate course which offers unexpected challenges and frequent heavy falls of white powder.
The road to the lodge is a spectacular 17.5-mile, two-lane, twister that winds from the Olympic National Park headquarters in Port Angeles up the shoulder of Mount Angeles to Hurricane Ridge.
The drive - 30 minutes to an hour, depending on conditions - offers wondrous alpine scenery with views of the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island, beyond. Photo opportunities abound and the road has scenic turnoffs every few miles.
Be prepared for ice and snow in winter, when traction devices are the rule rather than the exception. The Park Service plows the road only Friday through Monday when the lodge is open, so mid-week trips can be dicey.
Hurricane Ridge is open only in the daytime, with the road gate outside Port Angeles opening at 8 a.m. and skiers required to head down the hill by 4:30 p.m.
On weekends, cross-country outfits for $13.50 or downhill outfits for $14.50, can be rented at the ski shop. The relaxed atmosphere and low prices can be credited in part to the policy of the Park Service, which has kept Hurricane Ridge from being developed by commercial interests. The ski lift and rope tows are run by the Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club, a volunteer organization of local skiers and their families who operate out of a small green trailer across from the rope tows.
One of the real pleasures of Hurricane Ridge is snowshoeing, which is easy to learn (if you can walk, you’re halfway there) and inexpensive (you can rent a set of snowshoes for $6.50 a day). On Saturdays and Sundays, the Park Service conducts a free, one-hour snowshoe trek starting at 2 p.m. at the lodge, with snowshoes provided. The trek is about a mile and circles through the trees around the lodge snow play area.
Beginners and experts alike sign up for this one, as the rangers not only teach snowshoe basics but answer questions and explain specifics of the alpine ecosystem. Sign up at the information center early. The trek is limited to 39 people and is usually filled on weekends.
After spending time on the slopes, head for the ski shop. There, with a sweeping view of the Bailey range and Mount Olympus, travelers can relax as they enjoy the coffee shop, fireplace and naturalist displays.
As one snowshoer commented, “It’s almost like the 1950s, it’s so mellow.”
xxxx If you go Getting there: Port Angeles can be reached by car (you’ll need to take a ferry across Puget Sound) or air (Horizon has daily flights). For information: Olympic National Park: 600 E. Park, (206) 452-4501 Hurricane Ridge information, (206) 452-0329. Washington State Ferries, (206) 464-6400 or (800) 84-FERRY. Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information, (206) 452-2363. Gear and instruction: Olympic Mountaineering offers a full range of skis, snowshoes, rental equipment and instruction. 221 S. Peabody, Port Angeles (206) 452-0240. Sorensen Sports, offers ski wear, downhill instruction, ski rentals, Monday thru Saturday, 222 N. Lincoln, Port Angeles, (206) 457-5559. Dining: Chestnut Cottage Restaurant: 929 East Front Street, Port Angeles. Excellent seafood, pricing moderate, perfect for family dining or intimate dinners. Gourmet espresso and desserts. Meals all day. (206) 452-8344. C’est si Bon: 4 miles east of Port Angeles on Hwy 101. Fresh local seafood, French cuisine. Opens at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Reservations recommended. (206) 452-8888. Coffee House Restaurant & Gallery: 118 East First St., Port Angeles. Only two blocks from the Victoria Ferry, this Art Deco/ Neo-Classical restaurant offers low-key ambiance, jazz on weekend evenings, poetry, and art … always something new. (206) 452-1459.