Mountain resorts need snow, and the RV-friendly Mt. Baker Ski Area in the northwest corner of Washington state holds the world record—1,140 inches during the 1998-99 season. Even during lesser seasons, snow can be plentiful, with an annual average of 647 inches.
The Mt. Baker Ski Area is not actually on the 10,778-foot volcanic mountain of the same name. It’s on an arm of 9,127-foot Mt. Shuksan, one of the most photographed mountains in the world.
There is no lodging at the ski area, but RVers can park overnight. Mt. Baker’s ski improvements are paid for by cash-on-the-barrelhead so you won’t see any high-speed bubble gondolas. However, all eight chairlifts are quads.
The mountain offers all-day possibilities to skiers and snowboarders alike, with plenty of faces and woods that bring out the pioneer spirit. This is truly snowboarder heaven, where the hardcore insist that snowboarding was born.
One drawback to the ski area’s low elevation—the summit is 5,050 feet—is that the freezing level can yo-yo, and marginally cold days can turn snow to rain without notice.
Newcomers sometimes have a tough time figuring how to get back to the Heather Meadows Base Area because everywhere they go takes them farther away. With 1,000 acres to play with, that doesn’t sound likely, but the ski area is laid out over two mountains, the Pan Dome side and the more popular Shuksan side. Shuksan has the heaviest-duty terrain for snowboarders under Chair 5 and the gentlest groomed slopes for beginners and intermediates.
The Pan Dome side, served by chairs 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6, is for the mogul bashers and chute shooters. Hot skiers can play here endlessly, challenging the steep and deep. Every time experts take one run, they are sure to find another just as hairy.
Shuksan has more wide-open, powder bowl type of terrain. Experts-only runs include Gabl’s Run under Chair 5.
The out-of-bounds areas are extremely attractive at Mt. Baker and many pass the signs and do the hikes at the top of Chair 8. But avalanches are a problem out of bounds. If you ride a chairlift to go out of bounds, you must have an avalanche transceiver and know how to use it. You also must have a partner, a shovel, and knowledge of your route, the terrain, avalanche conditions and predictions. Search and rescue may cost you a lot of money.
Nearly 70 percent of Mt. Baker’s terrain is labeled blue or green. On soft snow days, intermediates can go just about anywhere on the mountain with confidence, minus the chutes, of course. On icy days, however, definitely avoid Razor Hone Canyon. It becomes a long series of shelves. North Face and Honkers get unforgiving too, with their boulderish bumps.
Probably the most fun for intermediates is the terrain off Chair 8, especially Oh Zone and Daytona. On the Pan Dome side, Austin is outstanding under most conditions. The terrain served by Chair 3 has a lot of alternatives for intermediates.
The newest chairlifts, 7 and 8, expand the Shuksan possibilities, but beginners may want to avoid Chair 8 for the time being since its terrain is mostly intermediate.
On the Pan Dome side, beginners can easily get back to the lodge on the Austin and Blueberry runs. The signs are good. The learning areas are near the Heather Meadows base lodge and the White Salmon Day Lodge, served by chairs 2 and 8. The slopes are long and gentle, not sectioned off, but not used by more accomplished sliders. Snowboard novices—some of whom feel immortal rather than timid—use this slope.
The entire mountain is challenging fun for snowboarders. There is not much in the way of flats but without speed from the top of Chair 3 to load onto Chair 2, you might have a short walk. The only in-bounds climb, maybe 50 yards long, is from the ends of Chair 6 and Chair 7 if you’re heading to the Austin run or the Blueberry Cat Track to return to the upper lodge, Heather Meadows Day Lodge.
The Sticky Wicket woods give a good ride until the snow is flatted out. From the woods there are a few choice access steeps into Razorhone Canyon. There are several good chutes, especially in the spring, from Gabl’s run into the little valley under Chair 5.
The Easy Money, White Salmon and Nose Dive runs are extremely popular, and so get congested at peak times.
Lessons are offered at the Heather Meadows base lodge on weekends and holidays; during midweek and non-holidays, go to the White Salmon Day Lodge.
Group lessons (maximum six to a class) for ages 7 and up start every day at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and cost $27 per person. Private lessons for all ages and abilities cost $60 for 90 minutes.
Ages 6 and younger ski free. The beginner tow near the lesson area is always free.
Adult (16 and older) tickets per day are $51 weekends/holidays and $43 weekdays. Youth (7-15) tickets are $37 weekends/holidays and $34 weekdays. Ages 60–69 pay $44.50 on weekends/holidays and $40 on other days. Ages 70 and older pay $30.50 all the time.
Self-contained RVs are welcome to spend the night in the Heather Meadows and White Salmon parking lots (no hookups, no charge, and the White Salmon parking lot gate is locked from 5 p.m. until 6 a.m. every day). Otherwise, the nearest accommodations are 17 miles down the mountain in Glacier.
The White Salmon Day Lodge offers food service with a beer and wine license and is open daily. The Heather Meadows Day Lodge has a brown-bag room, a cafeteria-style restaurant and a taproom. It is open weekends and holidays only.
After the lifts close, you can get together at the White Salmon Day Lodge daily or upstairs at Heather Meadows Day Lodge on weekends and holidays. But that’s it until the next morning. There is no nightlife on the hill.
The Mt. Baker Ski Area is at the end of the Mt. Baker Highway, SR 542, 56 miles east of Bellingham, off Exit 255 of Interstate 5. The drive from Bellingham takes about 90 minutes; from Seattle, allow three hours, and from Vancouver, B.C., two hours. For up-to-the-minute road conditions, go to wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/passes/passinformation.aspx#Mt.BakerHwySR542Link.
The Mt. Baker Ski Area office address is 1017 Iowa St., Bellingham, WA 98226. The ski area phone is (360) 734-6771. For the snow report, call (360) 671-0211. The web address is mtbaker.us.
Steve Giordano is a writer and journalist who lives in Bellingham, Washington.