A Guide to Skiing in National Parks: Pt. Two - The West CoastPublished on 12/14/2022 · 14 min readLooking for an exciting new ski destination on the West Coast? Check out this guide of skiable national parks on the west coast by Ski Expert Hunter R.!
Photo by Hunter R.
Some of the nation's most incredible landscapes lie within our national parks. And while visiting national parks may seem more like a summertime activity to most, it can actually be an awesome winter activity too! People of every skiing ability travel to these areas in the winter months in search of fun skiing in a beautiful location. There are only three ski resorts actually in national parks, though there are a few more very close to the parks’ borders.
That means if you are interested in hitting the slopes in the national parks, it’s going to be a bit more complicated and a bit more work than just driving to the resort and buying a lift ticket. Most of these areas can only be skied by means of backcountry skiing—walking up with your skis on and skiing down. But the good news is there are quite a few national parks with backcountry skiing access, including some along the West Coast.
Below we will break down the list of those skiable national parks! For skiing in parks in the Mountain West (Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado) check out this guide. Info on skiing in national parks in Alaska can be found here.
Before you make plans to ski in any of these areas, make sure you have done some research to see if you need any special permits. This is especially important if you plan on camping or doing any multi-day trips. Other good things to check on before you go include seeing if there's availability in nearby campgrounds or lodges, if there's typically any severe weather at the time of year you’re planning to go, and what the avalanche forecast has been that year.
Alright, let’s get into West Coast skiing!
Mount Rainier National Park
Out of all the states that have skiable national parks, Washington would be my top pick of places to go, and Mount Rainier National Park is a huge reason why! It's located in the Cascade Range of Washington and has something for everyone.
For beginner skiers, there are miles of groomed backcountry trails, normally used for cross country skiing but also open for backcountry skiers. For those who wouldn't call themselves experts but have avalanche training and are up for more of a challenge, The Muir Snowfields is a route that will take you 4.5 miles up the southeast side of the mountain for a long ride back down. And for those who are experts and have ski mountaineering experience, there are several chutes and couloirs to explore!
One outfitter nearby, RMI Guides, also offers some really cool courses for those looking to get into ski mountaineering. If you decide you’d like to ski without hiking and view Mount Rainier from afar, Washington's largest ski resort, Crystal Mountain, is located only 75 miles from the park's visitor center.
One thing that makes Mount Rainier really stand out for those looking to ski in a national park is its information center. Thanks to the hard work from those at the ranger station, it’s easier than most national parks to get in-depth information about current conditions, the best areas to go based on your skill level, and detailed maps of the more popular routes for those who aren’t as familiar with the area. The Northwest Avalanche Center is also really on top of keeping up with current avalanche conditions in the park and updating the page with any noteworthy weather that may be coming up, which makes it easy to still get in the backcountry with lower risk than other areas.
Due to its close proximity to Seattle and the multitude of activities offered here, you’ll find it to be a bit more crowded than some other options on the list. There also is not a ton of backcountry skiing options for those looking to get off the groomed trails.
Expert Opinion: If you are an expert ski mountaineer, this area gets a ton of snow, and generally has low avalanche danger and a stable snowpack. If you aren’t an expert ski mountaineer but want to become one, it’s a great place for you because of the classes offered by RMI. If you are looking for a one-stop-shop to do almost every winter activity you can think of in one national park, look no further.
It’s also worth noting that Mount Rainier has an incredible tourism department that will make it easy to plan your vacation. It can help you find lodging, activities to do with pets, trails, classes, spas, restaurants, and anything else you can think of doing. The website even includes a vacation planner feature which allows you to lock in your itinerary before you get there. It'll be a bit busier than other options, especially for those looking to do some intermediate backcountry skiing.
North Cascades National Park
A few hours north of Mount Rainier is Washington's second national park, North Cascades. If you are looking for some incredible backcountry skiing for all ability levels with not a lot of human contact, this is the park for you.
North Cascades is home to a third of all glaciers found in the lower 48 states and has the most glaciers out of any national park outside of Alaska. It generally has a long winter, being covered in snow six months out of the year, so it's a great option for skiing later into the spring. It’s a little harder to navigate because the main road through the park is an unplowed road from November to April due to its proximity to avalanche paths making it nearly impossible to keep it plowed.
The park headquarters are also closed in the winter making it more difficult to get information for those traveling here. So if you plan to ski here, it will be a bit more of a self-sufficient mission than you would find skiing in other parks. That being said, there is a multitude of options for those that are ready to face that challenge. There are a few classic descents on the easier side, a few on the expert side, and several that require technical ski mountaineering skills. This is not a very beginner-friendly area for backcountry skiing and even the guided trips require that you be an advanced/expert level skier.
The guided trips range from day trips to multi-day traverses. The multi-day traverses are not like the hut trips you’d find in other parks, such as Yosemite (later on this list), they are a lot more rugged and will include winter camping and bootpacking ridges. For example, to ski one of the more famous ski traverses, The Forbidden Route, it takes a three-day trip where you are camping on glaciers, and while the 4,000 feet of elevation gain may not seem like too much, much of the trek will be in crampons.
Though you will need more ski experience and survival skills than other areas, North Cascades National Park will offer a less crowded experience, a wider array of ski options, and incredible views for those up for the challenge.
Expert Opinion: This national park is great for backcountry skiers looking for a real backcountry experience either as a day trip or multi-day trip, but not ideal for anyone who is not an expert skier or does not have much backcountry experience under their belt. North Cascades is not in close proximity to towns, and there is not a lot of access to other activities in the park—besides hiking.
Olympic National Park
Washington’s third national park is home to Hurricane Ridge, one of the three ski resorts that are actually in a United States National Park. Only open on weekends and some holidays, Hurricane Ridge is a small family-owned ski resort that has one lift, two tow ropes, and offers day tickets for $49.
Though the rentals, lessons, and a terrain park might make this area seem like it's only for those looking for a resort experience, that's not the case at all. Situated at the bottom of a bowl, Hurricane Ridge has awesome access to backcountry terrain for those looking to get off the resort.
The backcountry area behind the resort is popular among those newer backcountry skiers or those who want an easier tour. For those looking for something more remote and who don’t mind walking a bit, there are endless options of skiing for any ability level in other areas here too.
There are 150 glaciers in Olympic National Park, and the higher elevations see about 30-35 feet of snow every winter. The snowpack here is generally very stable. Many of the approaches to the skiable areas are longer than you’d find in other areas, which is great if you are looking to camp and do a few days of skiing, but is also doable for a day tour as long as you start early!
Ski Resorts in the Park: Hurricane Ridge Ski Resort
Expert Opinion: Hurricane Ridge and Olympic are great places to ski for every ability level. Plus, it still has all the options for different types of terrain that you’d find in Mount Rainier National Park, but a bit less crowded, and is less remote than North Cascades National Park, but still gets a great amount of snowfall.
Due to the proximity to the coast, this park sees pretty crazy weather swings including winter rains and dramatic temperature changes, so make sure to check-in at the visitor center and let them know your plans for the day so they can let you know of any weather you should watch out for.
Port Angeles is the closest city which is still relatively small but has some good options for dining, lodging, and more. One thing that makes this park cool is that it covers a wide array of elevations and landscapes. There is a sliver of the park that runs along the coast, and more inland on the west area, there are forests that don’t get too cold in the winter months—it is one of the most diverse parks if you’re looking to get a little bit of everything.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
California has a total of nine national parks, more than any other state, and three of them are skiable, though if I was looking to ski in a cool new place in California, I’d probably look more towards their national forests.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is on the northern side of California and gets a hefty 30 feet of snow a year. It has a few options for backcountry ski touring but it’s not our first choice of national parks to ski. There is no avalanche forecast for the park and while there are a few mellow areas for ski touring, most of it is steep areas that are the perfect angle for avalanches. Because of this, even the trails that are skiable are not recommended until March when the snowpack is a bit more stable. There are a few areas of Lassen Peak and Brokeoff Mountain that are safe for expert backcountry travelers, but for most, it's quite a bit safer to explore this park via hiking in the winter.
Expert Opinion: It’s cool that you can ski in a volcanically-active area but there are not a lot of options for different trails and it's harder to mitigate safety given the terrain and lack of avalanche forecast. To me, it is not really worth it unless you are an expert with avalanche training and are looking for a unique place to ski a line or two in March or April.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in central California have a few options for skiing as well, though it's also not our top choice. Most of the skiing here is very technical mountains such as Mount Whitney, California's highest peak, and North Palisade, California's fourth highest peak.
Nearly all of the skiing here requires advanced mountaineering skills and there are several years that lack the snow need, making these routes inaccessible. The tours that don’t require advanced mountaineering skills are too long to be day trips so would need to be part of a multi-day camping trip. The park does not offer guided trips so you will need all your own skills and equipment.
The only route that would be fun and accessible to non-expert backcountry skiers looking for something short is the route to Pear Lake Winter Hut, which is steep but not terribly technical and can be done in a day, as an out-and-back or an overnight trip if you wanted to rent out the hut for a night.
Expert Opinion: This is great for expert skiers with mountaineering skills and those local to California looking to do an overnight or multi-day hut trip in a beautiful area, but not a lot of options for everyone else!
Yosemite National Park
More well known for climbing, Yosemite National Park is also home to Badger Pass, one of the only three ski resorts in the U.S. within a national park. It is a bit on the smaller side but still has five chairlifts and a terrain park. You can rent equipment, take a ski lesson, and get a day ticket for adults for only $62. Pretty affordable! Badger Pass Ski Resort is generally open from mid-December to mid-March but call ahead to double-check because they have a shorter season in low snow years.
For those looking to stay away from the resorts, Yosemite also offers guided backcountry ski tours or hut trips. These can range in length and difficulty, though most are on the easier end and along groomed cross-country ski trails. Yosemite’s ski tours are more about seeing some sweet views in the park in a new way and less about skiing awesome snow and terrain. The most popular tour is a hut trip to Glacier Point. It’s a 10.5-mile trek along a groomed trail to a rustic cabin that sleeps 20. The trail can be guided if you prefer or self-guided if you are an advanced skier. The hut features one of the most incredible views Yosemite has to offer and homemade meals are included in the cost!
Ski Resort in the Park: Badger Pass
Nearby Ski Resorts: Mammoth Mountain (20 or 30 miles depending on road closures)
Expert Opinion: If you are looking to do some fun, easy skiing in a national park, this is it. Yosemite has it all for people who are interested in seeing the sights via skis and want the experience of skiing in a national park without too much technical hiking. The ski resort allows for skiers and snowboarders of any ability level to enjoy the park without worrying about the dangers associated with backcountry travel and the guided tours allow those looking for a bit of a different experience to see the sites of Yosemite in a new way.
There are guides and groomed trails for the backcountry trips, and lessons for those who prefer to stay at the resort. There are quite a few options for lodging, dining, and other activities such as ice skating in the park. And if you decide you want to see another resort, Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort is just a short (30 minutes to 2 hours depending on road closures) drive away! That being said, it's not the best choice for experts in search of a difficult new line because most of the skiing here is very mellow.
Note: The third national park that has a ski resort not mentioned on this list is Brandywine Ski Resort in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio. It’s a smaller resort owned by Vail and while it has a lot to offer for a Midwest ski resort, it’s not quite the views or experience you’ll get if you head a bit more west, so for that reason, it’s not included in detail on this list.
That concludes our West Coast national park skiing tour! If you have any questions on these areas or want advice for what gear to bring along on a day of backcountry skiing, whether it be a day trip to your local hill or a big winter trip to one of these spots, hit up a Ski Expert on Curated and we can get you outfitted and ready to hit the slopes! Have fun, and remember to check the avalanche forecast!