Mount Baker from the top of Panorama "Pan" Dome
You will see these stickers on beat up Subarus, ratty pickups, and cargo boxes. It's the locals' (not so) secret indication for the Mt. Baker Ski Area. It's located at the eastern terminus of Washington's SR 542. We're a long way from nearly everywhere, and we like it that way.
The legends of Baker's massive snowfall are true, we have the most in North America if not the world. Those who love to ski new snow and crud on challenging terrain will have a blast here. Those looking for extensive groomed runs or a lot of intermediate and beginner terrain would be happier elsewhere.
If you're planning on visiting Mt. Baker Ski Area for the first time come prepared for a "local" experience since this place is designed and run as a regional ski area for day trippers, not a resort.
Mt. Shuksan from the top of North Face on Pan Dome looking over C6, C5, and C8
What follows are a few tips for first time visitors:
#1. Ski With a Local Guide If You Can:
While it's perfectly possible to learn the mountain on your own, you'll have more fun faster by having a guide at first. The layout of Mt. Baker is confusing to newcomers. There are multiple faces on two different hills (Pan Dome and Shuksan Arm) and the lift system seems to be random at first impression. There is even a place where one lift crosses over another at a right angle. The three lodges (White Salmon, Heather Meadows, and Raven Hut) are on different parts of the hill, each making up its own base area.
Extreme Danger Zone
Mt. Baker designates some of its inbounds area as "Extreme Danger Zone," which is roped off but still open to the public. You may duck this rope (as long as it doesn't have a "closed" sign on it) but watch for cliff designations and other ropes beyond. If you do not pay attention to these warnings you could end up dead, and some have. However, there are many legitimate runs past these signs, so be aware and ask a local if you don't know where you're headed, otherwise you'll miss out on some of the best skiing in the area.
There are many cliffs within the boundaries that are evident from below, but not so much from above. While the lethal ones are well marked, there are others that could get you into trouble if you are not careful. If you don't know where you're going don't go there! Even following someone's tracks into an unknown area isn't such a great idea unless you're a ski god. You could end up on top of a cliff with a long hike back out through snow that's chest deep. Having a local guide can help keep this from happening.
One of the many reasons to heed the warning signs. The wind lip is about 8 feet high. This is a relatively minor obstacle when compared to the many cliffs in bounds.
#2. Watch Out For Tree Wells:
There are lots of trees at Baker many of which can form wells, and the large amount of snow that falls keeps creating them. A few years ago a boarder disappeared inbounds, nobody could find him. His body turned up the next summer after the snow had melted. He had gone into the inbounds trees right off of the groomed run and fallen into a tree well. Nasty stuff. Click on THIS LINK for more information on tree well safety.
#3. Best Runs:
Mt Baker is known for its "leave it alone" attitude. If you like ungroomed blacks and double blacks you're in luck, the area is chock full of challenging terrain and none of the blacks are groomed except for the Canyon, and that's because it's so narrow it has to be. Check out the following runs first to acquaint yourself with the ski area layout. There are multiple ways down most of these runs and each way is unique. There is little in the way of long, open, continuous fall line skiing. You need to be ready to change it up frequently.
Check the trail map for the location of these main runs.
All of the runs I'm mentioning, except for Gabl's, come off of Pan Dome on the right of this map.
Austin - The easiest run I have featured here, from the top of Chairs 1 and 6 head past the ski patrol hut (you'll have to hike a little from C6) toward Mt. Baker, if you can see it. The sign for Austin and Blueberry Cat Track (see the photo on top of the page) will show you an entry. You can spend a lot of your day messing around with other ways down through here by going to the right at this point. This area is called Chicken Ridge. Take care with the cliffs along the ridge.
Austin from Pan Face, Chicken Ridge to the left behind the trees
Pan Face - Longer and more open than other runs, this run often has some of the best snow. It's bumped up some of the time. The bumps disappear from time to time when big dumps come in, but they re-form very quickly. Best access is from Chair 1, but with a very short hike you can access it all from Chair 6 as well. (Within an "extreme danger zone" and requires you to, legally, duck the caution rope.)
Pan Face with Chicken Ridge from center to right
The Chute - Watch out for low early season coverage, ride Chair 1 first to check it out. Narrow and steep in the actual chute, the approach is wide open rolling hills of pow. It's one of two double diamond designated runs at the ski area (Gabl's is the other) so many people who are not experts feel like they have to prove themselves here. The narrow part of the chute is often scraped down to ice by side slipping boarders and skiers. However, the skiing just above and just below The Chute can be very nice if you catch it on the right day. On big snow years (with around 200+" of base) it can fill in completely so that it's just a regular single diamond run. (Within an "extreme danger zone" and requires you to, legally, duck the caution rope.)
Pan Dome. The Chute is directly below Chair 1. Pan Face comes off the top of the Dome to the right of the photo, North Face to the left.
Canyon - Gunner's Bowl is the entry, which has some wonderful terrain.
Then you get to ski the Canyon, a narrow groomed cat track that drops down between cliffs. Often icy and crappy, it can sometimes wring out all of the elation you had at the top. It is often closed because of avalanche danger. DON'T EVEN THINK about going down there when the closed signs are up. You'll Jones over Gunner's Bowl, but resist the temptation. It ain't safe at all and the powers that be get very cranky if they catch anyone. It could even land you in the legal system with a $10,000 fine!
Sticky Wicket (not shown on some maps, but there is a sign at the top of C6)- Head toward North Face and take a right after the entrance to The Canyon. Not a trail, so just work your way down through open areas and widely spaced, huge trees. A little to skiers' left of the open part of the run is a more heavily treed, skiable area known to locals as "Sticky Trees." When you get to the rope line at the bottom of Sticky, follow it to skier's left and you will end up at the bottom of Canuk's Deluxe. Do not duck this rope! There's a cliff just beyond which is not huckable.
Pan Dome with Gunners' Bowl (left) and Sticky Wicket (center to right). Mt. Herman in background.
Canuck's Deluxe - Follow Chair 6 about half way down and then bear to skiers' right. Open eastern exposure gives morning sun and first corn in spring. Bumped up after a few days of no/low snowfall, it is a first target for many on a powder frenzy day.
North Face - Straight north of the unloading area for Chairs 6 and 1 gets you to North Face. It usually features bumps and good snow when Sticky, Canuk's and Honkers are iffy from too much sun.
Honkers - Bumps and the same eastern exposure as Canuk's. There are two sections of this run, Upper and Lower Honkers which are divided by a cat track. Be cautious of often heavy traffic on the track when exiting Upper Honkers. Before committing to Lower Honkers make sure you study the snow. This section is often very different than the upper part and it can be really awful, i.e. heavy, ice chunks, icy bumps, crusty, slushy, etc., though some days it's fabulous.
Gabl's - (say "gobbles") Under Chair 5. Designated as a double diamond run. Steep, constantly changing, most vertical on one run in the ski area. It often has good snow, but the bottom has icy patches quite a bit of the time. If you don't go straight down the middle of the run you can often miss these. This run was named for Franz Gabl, a local businessman, race coach, and ski instructor. He won Austria's first Olympic medal in Alpine skiing, a silver in 1948 for downhill, before emigrating to Canada and then the U.S. (Within an "extreme danger zone" and requires you to, legally, duck the caution rope.)
Gabl's and C5
With the exception of Gabl's all of the above mentioned runs are accessed from the top of Pan Dome (Chairs 6 and 1). I have left out most of the terrain on Shuksan Arm (Chairs 7, 5 & 8). These runs are intermediate groomers and low angle off piste which can be fun, but are also crowded on weekends. If there aren't too many careening bodies it can be fun to mess around on this side of the hill. Just go wherever your skis take you.
Shuksan Arm inbounds area, serviced by Chairs 5 and 8. The Natural Half Pipe, site of the Legendary Banked Slalom, is visible in the upper center of the picture. The very top of the hill is called "Hemispheres" and is out of bounds.
#4. Aspects and Snow Quality:
Elevation often makes a huge difference in snow quality. The base at White Salmon is a mere 3500', which means it often has heavy snow or even rain. The top of the ski area is at only about 5000' but it often has great quality snow. What to do if it's like this? Ski Chair 1. Heather Meadows at the base of Chair 1 is at about 4200' and the slope aspect is northerly so you can get higher quality snow, sometimes dramatically so, and while you only have 800' of vertical, it's some of the best and most varied terrain you can find anywhere. Another possibility is to ski North Face to the top of Honkers and just blast the groomer cat track to the bottom, lapping the upper mountain sweetness and ignoring the bottom garbage. A third option is to suck it up and ski the junk along with the sublime. In any event, the snow on Chair 1 (Pan Face, The Chute, North Face) and on Gabl's is often of better quality than on the rest of the mountain due to their shaded exposure.
Yes. Mt. Baker gets LOTS of new snow, and it comes down frequently. Some of it is powder snow, some not so much. The locals whoop and holler over snow that folks in Colorado would look at as a disaster. To really ski this mountain you have to learn to love it all. One day during the 2011 season we had about 8" of champagne pow and the consensus on the chairlift was that it was too light and didn't give enough float. We wanted our dense stuff back.
One side effect of having so much new snow so frequently is that the ski area has given up on having a big terrain park. It cost too much to maintain the park and it wasn't getting much use since Baker bros are into new snow and the many natural features that abound here. There is the "Pinky Park" on chair 3 that caters to kids, but other than that you'll just have to find a cliff to drop, or head to the Natural Half Pipe on chair 5.
Picture taken in 2011, the signpost is about 20 feet tall.
A seemingly well kept secret is that Mt. Baker has some of the most amazing views anywhere on the planet. The ski area is snuggled up against North Cascades National Park and the Mt. Baker Wilderness. It takes your breath away on a bluebird day (yes, we have them) to see Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, and dozens of other North Cascades peaks in every direction. These are not far vistas, but in-your-face views. The mountains here blast up out of the narrow valleys so close that you can count the individual trees on them, if they have trees. Glaciers abound. Bring your camera.
Take a look at the photos below for a little idea of what it's like.
Mt. Baker (of course) from Pan Dome
Mt. Shuksan from White Salmon Lodge parking lot
Top of Chair 5 with Shuksan Arm behind
There are impressive views everywhere. This is at the top of Chair 3, a beginner lift.
Riding up Chair 1 - The view from the chair is even more spectacular, with a panorama that includes both Baker and Shuksan. Impossible to reproduce.
Mt. Sefrit, from the White Salmon parking lot.
Tomyhoi Peak and Chair 8
Looking north from the top of Chair 8.
Looking east from the same spot as above.
The ski area has the only food concession on the mountain, and it is good basic fare at reasonable prices. There is a cafeteria at each day lodge and there is a café on the hill called the "Raven Hut," my favorite.
Raven Hut from Gabl's
At the bottom of chairs 4, 5, and 6. Don't miss going to the far back of the dining area to see Grant Gunderson's fabulous photo of Mt. Shuksan and Shuksan Arm.
White Salmon Lodge.
Very convenient parking and lift access.
Heather Meadows (lodge - left lower)
Three miles farther up the highway from White Salmon. Make sure that you stop in to view the historical pictures lining the downstairs hallway, a real visual treat. Closed on weekdays.
Again, this is a day area. There are no overnight accommodations at the ski area with the exception of the Mountaineers Lodge, which is akin to a hostel. There is lodging 17 miles away in Glacier where there are six rooms at the Blue T Lodge (brand new and quite basic, befitting Mt. Baker) and at private condos, cabins, or B & Bs, so reservations are required. For other hotels/motels you have to drive 55 miles to Bellingham.
Overnight RV parking is allowed (no hook-ups) but there are no services available after the ski area closes for the day. The road to the ski area is extremely windy and can sometimes be a challenge even in an AWD vehicle, so be cautious when considering navigating a large RV.
Mt. Baker skiers usually go to bed early or make their own parties, but because Bellingham is the home of Western Washington University you can usually find some action if you drive to town. There is some good food along the Mt. Baker Highway (SR 542) at places like Chair 9 Pizza (includes a nice bar and weekend music), Milano's, and Grahams in Glacier, and down the road a piece there is great beer at the North Fork Brewery which is also a pizzeria, beer shrine, and wedding chapel. Also, if you have a bit of extra time, take SR 9 south from just east of the Nooksack Casino in Deming 2 miles to Everybody's Store in tiny Van Zandt for an interesting and eclectic store with one of the best deli sandwich places on the planet.
As long as you're looking for a spare pair of gloves or new goggles you have a good selection at the ski area. Glacier has a small convenience store, a ski shop, and a board shop. Anything else requires a drive to Bellingham.
Mt. Herman OB
#11. Back Country:
The Mt. Baker back country is famous for a good reason. There is an almost unlimited supply of deep snow available for the investment of a relatively short hike. The avalanche danger is definitely there to be faced, and this guide will not attempt to give advice on where or when to go. If you're interested in taking on this challenge make sure you have done your homework, have the right equipment and training, ski with others, and use appropriate precautions. Many skiers have lost their lives out there, don't add to the total. Click here for Mt. Baker's backcounry policy
Headed up Hemispheres, out of bounds
#12. The Legendary Banked Slalom:
Each year in late January or early February a snowboarding race called the Legendary Banked Slalom is held at Baker. This race is famous the world over among snowboard racers and draws an impressive international crowd with many Olympic athletes, including medalists. With no cash rewards, the grand prize for this event is a roll of duct tape mounted as a trophy and a Carhartt jacket. This is the oldest snowboard race in the world (I think), running annually since 1985, and takes four days to complete. It's also a big party. The race is held in the Natural Half Pipe that begins at the top of Chair 5. This is a really big event, and is worth a trip just to see it in action. Click the link above for dates and details.
Top of the Legendary Banked Slalom course
#13. So Who Should Go?
Folks from as far away as Seattle and Vancouver are regulars here, but most are from the surrounding area, including many skiers who cross the US/Canada border from the suburbs east of Vancouver. If you're on a trip to Whistler, fly into Seattle, and want to make a quick detour it would fit right in. Planning a week at Mt. Baker sounds great, but you never know about the weather. Few people do this.
#14. How Do I Get There?
Drive to Bellingham on Interstate 5, take exit 255, State Route 542/Mt. Baker/Sunset Drive, and head east. This will take you all the way to the ski area.
If coming from the Abbotsford area or Canada Highway 1, take highway 11 south to the border at Sumas, WA (only a short distance), after crossing the border turn left on SR 547 (Rock Road), just out of downtown Sumas, and follow it as it winds and ascends changing county road names but keeping the State 547 number until you reach a roundabout at SR 542, then head east.
Mt. Baker is not on the way to anywhere else except the back country. There are some private buses that go to the ski area with prior reservations, but generally you're stuck with having to drive yourself or hitchhike, as many do. While it is at the end of a state highway it is a sometimes challenging road and is quite windy and moderately steep for the last 8 miles, with a few hairpin switchbacks. On a day with new snowfall (very common) you should be prepared to put on chains if you don't have 4WD or AWD. The Washington State Department of Transportation keeps the road well plowed and sanded unless there has been an epic dump, but even then the road is good if you give them a little time and arrive at about 10:00. (Like you, or anyone else, would do that on a powder day!) Washington law requires that ALL vehicles carry chains in the mountains in winter time. There are no exceptions, even for cars (like mine) that won't accept chains.
Should you choose to make the journey, be aware that there is no gas after Maple Falls, so make sure you have enough fuel to make it about 25 miles and 3000 feet of elevation gain and back from there. There isn't any cell service for about 30 miles between Deming and Mt. Baker, though there is good reception at the ski area itself. The only place to call for roadside assistance along this stretch of highway is in Glacier where the county has placed an emergency phone.
For the National Weather Service forecast for Mt. Baker Ski Area, click HERE.
For a video tour of Mt. Baker from On The Snow, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8OLuHWaH4w
And here's one from Outside Online: http://www.outsideonline.com/featured-videos/adventure-videos/skiing/The-Classics--Mount-Baker-Powder.html
--by Posaune, EpicSki's Ambassador for Mt. Baker