To experience an American ski resort without the crowds, hefty prices or super tourist vibes, head to Mt Baker in Washington State, USA.
Haven’t heard of it? You’re not the only one.
Mt Baker is definitely a hidden gem. Despite having some of the best terrain and biggest snowfall of any American Lower 48 ski area, it remains largely unknown.
I think that’s exactly how the locals like it.
I knew I’d try skiing a couple of times while living in Washington State. When I moved here from Australia I hadn’t skied in a decade, except for a three day jaunt to Queenstown, New Zealand.
As soon as I experienced my first day at Mt Baker, I realised skiing was going to be a big part of my winters here. I admit adjusting to deep PNW powder was a little tricky, but within a few visits I was so hooked I bought my own skis!
Where is Mt Baker Ski Area?
About 90 minutes’ drive east from Bellingham – one of the last towns in Washington before you hit the Canadian border – Mt Baker is snowy and remote.
It takes me about 2 hours to travel from Anacortes, but the drive along the country roads is easy and scenic. Highway 542 is the only way in, and the road ends when you reach the ski area. I love driving through the dense forest, the rain turns to sleet then snow as we ascend the windy mountain. As the temperature plummets, the snow builds along the road – as does my excitement.
Who skis here?
Mt Baker is definitely a local’s mountain.
Due to its remote location, it seems most of Seattle’s skiers tend to head to Steven’s Pass and Crystal Mountain – or families to Summit at Snoqualmie. Most people I meet here are locals from Bellingham and nearby Washington towns, as well as some Canadians travellin from the Vancouver area.
While Mt Baker is completely off the radar when it comes to ski tourism – and the international visitors that flock to mega resorts at Utah, Colorado or Whistler – it’s definitely not off the radar among the elite. Professional boarders and skiers are regularly spotted on the mountain, usually heading into Baker’s sought after backcountry. You might also spot them bunking in a campervan in the carpark during the annual Legendary Banked Slalom (which this year brought in Aussie snowboard legend Torah Bright!)
International visitors are so rare here that my Australian accent usually attracts a bit of curiosity – until I mention I actually live in Anacortes!
Mt Baker is known for its record breaking snowfall. It unofficially measures in with the highest average annual snowfall of any resort in the world (53.4ft) and holds the world record for most snowfall when over 95 feet dumped during the 1998/99 season. That’s 9 storeys worth!
Even so, its remote location leaves Baker and its surrounding wilderness crowd-free.
Mt Baker is actually an active volcano, and I’ve read that the volume of snow and ice it holds is greater than all the other Cascade volcanoes combined (excluding Mt Rainier of course!).
My point being, if you like deep powder and plenty of it, Mt Baker is for you.
As many say, “there’s no scene” at Mt Baker. And it’s really true – in the best possible way.
There are no hotels on the mountain. Most skiers visit as a day trip, but weekenders can find a few cabins or lodges in small towns from Glacier to Maple Falls, about a 30-40 minute drive from the slopes. (Those interested should try Blue T Lodge or cabin rental options). Not for the faint-hearted, some car camp at Baker’s White Salmon parking lot. Cook on a camp stove, sip a little whiskey to keep warm and be first in line when the chairlift opens at 9am.
There’s no ski village packed with bars blasting Darude at 3pm or clubs promoting guest DJs. But you can get craft beers and cider at the ski lodges after 11am, or stop in at Chair 9 back down the mountain for a drink on the way home.
There are no outdoor clothing retailers plugging gear left right and centre. Just one little shop attached to the ski rental desk.
There’s no international workforce. The lifties and staff are predominantly Washington locals or powder hounds who found themselves in Baker for the season.
There’s no cell service or WiFi. Occasionally I can get reception at certain points on the mountain.
This is all to say, you don’t come to Mt Baker for glamorous après ski cocktails or showing off designer gear. You come here for the epic snow, for the wild terrain, for the laid back vibes, and for skiing without the pretension that so often abounds in famous ski towns.
One of my favourite things about skiing Mt Baker is its epic scenery. From the top of the mountain there’s a feeling of being in total wilderness, and visitors are treated to some of the country’s best alpine views.
On a clear winter day, there is no better sight than Mt Shuksan dominating the skyline as I head up Chair 8, and watching the backcountry skiers venture out across Shuksan Arm. The views across the valley when I disembark Chair 6 leave me speechless.
Ski Runs and Terrain
Mt Baker Ski Area operates 8 chairlifts with access to 38 runs. However, there’s an infinite amount of runs if you’re creative – and that seems to be Baker’s biggest drawcard. The expanse of the mountain and skiable terrain outside the groomers means there’s so much opportunity to explore.
It never feels too crowded on the mountain and there’s barely ever a line longer than six people waiting for the chair. Try getting that at the big resorts!
Beginners: The Heather Meadows Lodge has the best access to green runs, lessons and basic ski rentals. Total newbies should sign up for a lesson to get started, but those looking for a quick solo refresher will find runs like Heather and Roly Poly are the perfect place to practice before tackling more of the mountain. White Salmon Lodge also has one green run off of Chair 7.
Intermediate: Baker is awesome for intermediate skiers like myself – aka those who happily follow the signs for blue trails, with a few black runs thrown in on good days. White Salmon is my preferred starting point as it’s the quickest way to reach Chair 8’s expanse of blue terrain. I can spend hours around Daytona, Easy Money and Nose Dive – ducking off piste when I want to explore a little more. For some slightly less intense black runs, I like to venture up Chair 1 or Chair 6 to Austin, North Face and Pan Face. The White Salmon Lodge offers premium ski rental for those intermediates without their own gear.
Advanced: Advanced skiers are probably heading straight for backcountry or making their own tracks through the trees. Whenever I chat to “fair dinkum” skiers they rave about Baker’s easy access to backcountry and some of the steepest, wildest terrain in the country. However, established runs in the ski area like The Chute, The Canyon and Gunners Bowl still offer a challenging ride.
Mt Baker doesn’t have a terrain park, but plenty of locals build their own jumps within the trees or out in backcountry. Or you know, try their luck jumping the infamous road gap.
While I’m definitely no expert on the matter, Mt Baker attracts professionals because of its terrain. Advanced skiers will be in their element.
Note: safe backcountry skiing requires essential gear including packs, a shovel, beacons, a buddy and thorough understanding of avalanche awareness.
Check out Mt Baker’s trail map here.
Awesome facilities without the price tag
There aren’t many ski resorts where you can get a delicious bowl of chili and a pint of local craft beer for less than $15. You can at Mt Baker!
There are three lodges with a bar and cafeteria: White Salmon, Raven’s Hut (ski access only in mid-mountain) and Heather Meadows. The lodges serve up typical fare of soups, burgers, sandwiches and salads, but I’ve always had a yummy meal. White Salmon Lodge even has a piano open for the playing.
An adult weekend day lift pass is $60 USD, with discounts for students, youth, military, and midweek specials. There’s also the option for a half day pass if you arrive after 12.30pm.
Rent ski gear from White Salmon or Heather Meadows, including skis, snowboards, boots, poles and helmets. You’ll need your own ski jacket and pants, but if you want to rent these I’d recommend stopping at Glacier Ski Shop en route instead.
What’s that smell?
To me, the iconic smell of Baker is that of sweet, sweet weed. Recreational marijuana use is legal in Washington State, and part and parcel in ski culture it seems. It’s not entirely uncommon for some visitors to blaze up on the chairlifts – a funny “I’m not in Australia anymore” for me!
Regardless, everyone is friendly, cheerful (and probably really hungry).
Post ski goodies at Glacier
Glacier is a sleepy town at the base of the mountain, about a 30 minute drive from Mt Baker’s White Salmon parking lot. When I say sleepy, I mean ‘blink and you’ll miss it’, with a population of less than 200. There’s a ski shop, a general store, a restaurant and a few houses.
Most importantly however, Glacier is home to the best goddam coffee and cookies you will find anywhere, at Wake n Bakery. I stop here after every day on the mountain for a macchiato and either the orange cardamom cookie or Magic Bar. It’s as big a part of my day as the snow is, and I’m not even kidding. The ultimate sugar hit after using up all my energy on the slopes. (They also do kickass breakfast burritos if you prefer to grab something in the AM on the way up the mountain).
For those craving something a little more than a caffeine buzz, bar Chair 9 is the best (if not only) apres ski option in Glacier. Or drive a little further back down the highway for excellent pizza and brews at North Fork Brewery.
Nowhere parallels Mt Baker Ski Area. While there are so many opportunities for winter travel around Washington and the USA, most weekends I find myself making an excuse to stay put in Anacortes – because the opportunity to ski Mt Baker is the best excuse of them all.
Whether you’re a total beginner or a ski wizard in search of the most challenging terrain – there is something for you here at Mt Baker. And it’s wrapped in a very chilled out, very friendly, affordable package.
P.S. The snow is still dumping at Mt Baker, so it’s expected there’ll be skiing into April. Hope to see you there soon!
Read more from Live Recklessly: Snowshoeing in Olympic National Park, Hiking and Camping in North Cascades National Park, Hiking the Oyster Dome, A weekend getaway to San Juan Island.
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Please note this isn’t a sponsored post, just the enthusiastic reporting of a very average skier who has caught the Baker Bug! For the record, sponsored posts will always be disclosed.