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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

David Dubuque: The Inland Northwest is underrated ski country

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 20, 2020

Will Holmquist skis above Lookout Pass on Saturday Feb. 16, 2019 at the Training Grounds.  (Eli Francovich/The Spokesman-Review)
Will Holmquist skis above Lookout Pass on Saturday Feb. 16, 2019 at the Training Grounds. (Eli Francovich/The Spokesman-Review)
By David Dubuque For The Spokesman-Review

It’s easy to forget that Spokane is a mountain town. Surveying the landscape from I-90 gives the impression that we’re living among gently rolling hills. There’s no feeling of being dwarfed by peaks looming overhead that you might get when driving alongside mountain ranges like the Cascades, the Missions or the Cabinets. But those bumps around us that you see on the horizon through your windshield are much larger than they let on. They just don’t like to brag.

The hills around here are large enough that a summertime drive out of Spokane in a number of directions leads to roads that wind up and up into surprisingly lush forests with an incredible diversity of flora. Nothing at all like the more arid valley floor.

One of those self-effacing hills – a rounded peak with a treeless top that’s easily visible when looking northwest from downtown – is Mount Spokane. And the moisture that makes the mountain feel like a world apart from the valley in the summertime turns it into a snow-covered winter-sports paradise in the wintertime.

Like many of the ski hills in the area – 49° North, Silver Mountain, Lookout Pass and Schweitzer – Mount Spokane has an elevation in the neighborhood of 6,000 feet and a skiable vertical drop of about 2,000 feet.

And, also like its neighbors, Mount Spokane is the beneficiary of a unique, Inland Northwest snowpack. The snow that falls in these parts isn’t as deep as you’d find in the Cascades, where cold air blasting down the Fraser River valley meets moist ocean air, creating frequent 4-foot dumps.

But our snow, in general, is lighter, dryer and less likely to turn to “Cascade Concrete” after it’s been tracked out.

While lighter and dryer snow can be a good thing, If these qualities are taken to the extreme, like the low-water-content snow you’d find in Bozeman or Salt Lake City, you can find yourself sinking straight through three feet of “blower” powder and feeling the ice below.

Here, we’ve got Goldilocks snow. Not too wet, and not too dry. It has body, and a six-inch dump is generally sufficient to soften the sharp edges of whatever it’s covering, turning glades and mogul fields into soft playgrounds. And when it’s seen a few days’ worth of skiers, it doesn’t stick together or turn into ice. This makes for easy, pleasant skiing.

The best ski days around here are not the ones where accumulation is measured in feet.

They’re when successive 4-inch dumps gradually fill in tracks left in preceding days, slowly refreshing the mountain and encouraging skiers and boarders to seek stashes where the untouched snow has piled up deep.

In fact, if you see a forecast that calls for more than 8 inches of fresh snow, chances are that it’s going to be less than ideal. And that the crowd of people gathered at the bottom of the chairlift who have taken the morning off from work will find themselves lurching through wet, packable, wind-blown snow, shaking their heads at the bottom of the run and wondering if it was worth the hit to their vacation time.

Silver Mountain, Lookout Pass and Schweitzer are often exceptions to this generalization. And that’s part of the beauty of the region’s hills: They’ve each got a distinct personality.

Mount Spokane, though ever so slightly less favored by Ullr - a Norse god associated with snow - than the three hills mentioned above, has amazing side country – the terrain that’s beyond the boundary ropes – with an easy route back inbounds.

Halfway between Spokane and the Canadian border, 49° North has a down-home feel, snow that’s comparable to Mount Spokane’s, a car-camping friendly parking lot, legendary tree skiing and a nice mix of steeps and cruisers.

Schweitzer is enormous and offers terrain that’s comparable to larger, more widely known ski areas, and it features resort-like amenities.

Silver has the region’s best steeps, along with deep snow. On a powder day, riding down the North Face Glades or 16:1 is like floating down an elevator shaft.

And Lookout? Its vertical drop may be slightly shy of its peers, but it gets more snow than anybody. It’s slated for an expansion that will boost its acreage and vertical drop.

With these five ski areas all within a 2-hour drive of Spokane and Canada’s Red Mountain just over 3 hours away, it’s easy to see why, in 2017, Powder magazine called Spokane one of the next American ski towns. Of course, “next” implies that the goods are already here, and it’s just recognition on a national level is all that’s missing.

Thankfully, three years later, the recognition is still missing. And if you’re lucky enough to call these parts home, you can still enjoy amazing skiing on uncrowded slopes at prices that would be a 20-year throwback anywhere else.

Dave Dubuque is a middle-aged Mt. Spokane season pass holder with an enthusiasm for alpine skiing that far outstrips his abilities. He grew up skiing Whitefish Mountain Resort when it was called Big Mountain.

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