You don’t have to wait until 2018 to say you’ve skied in the winter Olympics. That’s because it’s already winter in Washington’s wild Olympic Mountains, a great destination for backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowshoe hikers.
This snowy alpine wilderness is a long trip from the Inland Northwest, both physically and spiritually. It’s about 400 miles to Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula – about the same highway travel as the wild snows of Banff, Alberta.
But in terms of the psyche, it’s much further. Perhaps only the North Cascades National Park is more remote than the Olympics during the season of silence.
Away from what Peninsula residents define as the “crowds” of Hurricane Ridge, the only thing you’re likely to hear in the winter wild is the whistle of raven’s wings or the whump of settling snow. The frozen white crystals that cloak Olympic National Park will never be tracked by anything other than wildlife, skis, snowshoes or snowboards.
You can expect to find a bunch of those tiny crystals, too. Winter snowfall totals in the higher elevations anywhere from 250 to 500 inches. The record was 542 inches, or 45.2 feet.
Backcountry snowriding in the park’s mountains offers the rare experience of making the only tracks you’ll see at the end of the day. That experience largely depends upon the effort you’re willing to invest, although the amount of work isn’t as great as you might imagine.
For example, you might choose to spend four days riding or snowshoeing the backcountry snows of Hurricane Ridge, just south of Port Angeles. Since the road is closed Monday-Thursday, you’d likely have hundreds of acres of the white wilderness all to yourself.
But if you’re willing to work a bit harder to earn your turns or tromp a trail, you’ll find a day’s backpack can take you to slopes that will be visited by snowriders only once or twice a winter. Few spots in the Lower 48 are as lonesome as the Olympics for the whoops and hollers of backcountry snowriders in deep powder.
Below you’ll find a sampling of some of the more convenient winter getaways to the Olympic backcountry. They range from day trips to weeklong backpacks.
The good people of the Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club say you’ll travel from “sea level to ski level in 17 miles.” It’s true: From Friday through Sunday, you can stay at a waterfront hotel in Port Angeles and drive to mile-high Hurricane in Olympic National Park, a 34-mile round trip.
If you’re backcountry skiing, snowshoeing or snowboarding, it’ll cost you $15 for a seven-day pass to Olympic National Park. You’ll find trails leading from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center (gift shop, snack bar, warming area, rest rooms) ranging from 2-14 miles, round trip.
The area is also one of only three in the U.S. that offers lift-served skiing in a National Park. For $35 a day, choose between a Poma lift and two rope tows that access 800 vertical feet and 10 trails.
The easiest and most popular “sidecountry” at Hurricane is to the north along Klahhane Ridge, where glades and alpine bowls swoop down to the Ridge road. You can thumb a ride back to the ski area, or swap taxi chores with another party.
Snowriders looking to cross fewer tracks aim for the vast bowls under Hurricane Hill, about a mile down a closed road and an additional mile along a marked trail. The only tricky spot is across a slope marked “Steep and Icy,” so it should come as no surprise that it is usually exactly that.
Park rangers mark a bypass of the area with orange poles. The bypass entails climbing over a corniced ridge before rejoining the trail. Beyond, you can follow the trail or take your chances under scary cornices directly into the bowl.
Finally, if you plan on winter camping, you can head out the 7-mile Obstruction Point Road, which is closed in the winter. The best snowriding might be around Steeple Rock, 2 miles from Hurricane Ridge, or the seldom-visited bowls and glades around 6,700-foot high Obstruction Point, at the end of the road.
A good campsite for both areas would be at Waterhole, a 4-mile one-way ski or snowshoe from the Ridge. Until 2012, a tiny A-frame cabin was located here.
Although the road to Hurricane is closed Monday-Thursday, rangers allow overnight parking 2 miles below the Ridge. Winter backpackers usually drop their gear at the summit, park below and hitch a ride back to the ridge.
For more solitude and a greater variety of downhill thrills, backcountry snowshoers and snowriders choose the wild slopes of 6,007-foot Blue Mountain and Deer Park. The 18-mile road to one of the state’s most scenic summer campgrounds is closed at the Olympic National Park boundary in the winter, making it an 8.2-mile hike, one-way, to campsites at Deer Park.
The area south of Port Angeles serves up hundreds of acres of skiing and riding above timberline and until it became part of Olympic National Park in 1938, Deer Park was the main winter sports area on the Peninsula. Skiers negotiated the steep, narrow road to the slopes of Blue Mountain, where they could ride a mile-long rope tow.
Today, you’ll usually pack your snowshoes, skis or snowboard the first few miles up the closed road before there’s enough snow for skinning or snowshoeing. The road is easily followed in alpine forest, with only one major avalanche gully to cross.
Once at Deer Park, you’ll find a couple three-sided picnic shelters that might make overnight camping a more comfortable experience. A seasonal ranger station is boarded up in the winter, although a barn across from it might be another camping alternative.
The High Divide is one of the most popular summer backpacks in the Olympics, but only a few parties every year visit this alpine playland in the winter. You’ll hike about 7 miles to a camp along the trail that is easily followed for the first 2 or 3 miles before the white stuff gets deep enough for good snow travel.
Once at camp in the upper Sol Duc Park, you can make day trips above to the Heart Lake Basin or beyond to steeper terrain of the Seven Lakes or Cat Creek basins. Snowriders will find 1,000-1,500 vertical-foot slopes that range from gentle to giant, mostly above timberline.
Though small orange trail markers tacked to trees can be found along parts of the trail, route finding is simple for experienced backcountry travelers. Keep the Sol Duc River on your right for the first 5.5 miles, cross the river and climb into Upper Sol Duc Park – keeping the main stem of the river on your left – 1,500 vertical feet and 1.8 miles from the river crossing.
Olympic Hot Springs
Depending upon the snow level, these natural hot springs can be a wonderful cross-country ski or snowshoe, or a long snow-free hike. In years of heavy snowfall in the lower elevations, the Olympic Hot Springs road is closed just above the site of the former Lake Mills.
The road opened to that point this fall after being closed for two years while workers removed the Glines Canyon Dam. The hot springs are about 3.5 miles, one-way, from the road closure – a mile shorter if the road is open all the way to the summer trailhead.
So, last and maybe best: When someone asks you if you’ve ridden skis or a snowboard in the winter Olympics, you’ll be able to say, “Yes, I have.”
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