This was it, Ski Bluewood, a tiny hill 21 miles southeast of Dayton and the last stop on my journey to ski every ski area in Washington.
Contrary to popular belief, Washington has more than the six ski areas in the Cascades and two near Spokane. Eastern Washington is dotted with tiny ski areas that are as much about community as they are about the sport.
Like many Washington skiers, I’ve long wanted to take a run at every ski area in the state. Over the years, I found it easy enough to pick off the resorts in the Cascades and north of Spokane and even tiny Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains. But it was clear that getting them all doesn’t happen by accident.
Ticking off the final six far-flung ski areas takes a special trip. Or, in my case, three trips.
“We pretty much only get people from the community here,” said Dale Loebsack of Waterville’s Badger Mountain. “But every year we get a few people coming through trying to ski all of the little hills.”
Denny Willard, a 63-year-old Everett resident, was one of those people last year. After getting laid off, he spent last winter working on his goal. When he checks off a new ski hill, he sticks the resort’s decal on his truck’s storage bin.
He rode rope tows, T-bars and platter pulls, and still has a few ski areas to go. But he loves the journey.
“Some places, like Bluewood, might not have the high-speed lifts we are used to, but they have good skiing,” Willard said. “And once you start skiing, it doesn’t really matter how you got to the top of the hill.”
1. LEAVENWORTH SKI HILL
The first stop of the winter was Leavenworth Ski Hill, a bump on the outskirts of town that is beloved by the community.
“The Ski Hill is like the local gym,” said Dwayne McMahon, president of the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club. “... This is a big skiing community.”
A pair of rope tows gives access to some pretty short and mellow terrain, but, really, Alpine skiing isn’t the top priority here. The Ski Hill is part of the 27 kilometers of trails the club grooms for Nordic skiing.
As I took in a few runs, my daughter played in the tubing area. While almost all the other visitors were cross-country skiers we weren’t entirely alone on the slopes.
Brandon Hall, a 20-year-old college student from Snohomish, was snowboarding with his friends. “My favorite part is the culture,” Hall said of Leavenworth.
The center of the culture at the Ski Hill are the ski jumps – the only Nordic ski jumps in the state – and the lodge.
The ski jumps are small enough to use on alpine gear. The lodge is warmed by a large fireplace and is decorated with pictures of the ski area. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the lodge in the 1930s
2. BADGER MOUNTAIN
A month after visiting Leavenworth, I was back in Eastern Washington touring little community hills such as Badger Mountain outside Waterville.
Ski area vice president Dale Loebsack says the ski area came to be in the 1930s when a group of men were urged by their wives to spend less time playing cards and do something for the community.
Loebsack’s grandfather was one of those men who originally built a rope tow on his family’s ranch. Soon the rope tow was moved to Badger Mountain. Some history still remains in the trees here. The old truck that was used to power the rope tow still sits there, waiting for the man who purchased it eight years ago to come pick it up.
Eight years ago the resort replaced the rope tow with a T-bar lift purchased from a Massachusetts resort. There is no lift house at the top of the mountain, so on cold days the lift operator often monitors the activity from his car.
The first thing I noticed about the face of Badger Mountain was that it was no joke. It was short – only 800 vertical feet – but it’s as steep as some advanced runs in the Cascades.
“It’s a great hill,” Loebsack said. “We only get about six feet of snow per year so we have to keep it groomed or the grass will start coming through.”
Through last season, Badger offered free gear rentals – mostly old gear donated by community members and the local Lions Club. Visitors could simply grab the gear and the hit the slopes.
However, that tradition is gone this year because of high insurance costs.
“I knew that would only last so long,” Loebsack said. “We had to have newer gear and hire a full-time worker and make a ski shop. We couldn’t do that, so I took the gear and donated it to families in the community.”
3. ECHO VALLEY
Less than an hour down the road in the hills northwest of Chelan, I found Echo Valley Ski Hill. It was late in the day and the resort was closed, so I lashed my skis to my pack and hiked up the 900-foot hill.
It isn’t much busier when the ski area is open.
“On a busy day we might get a couple of hundred people,” said Rose Easley of the Lake Chelan Ski Club. “By the end of the day everybody knows each other.”
Echo Valley isn’t nearly as steep as Badger’s main run, but it has a similar history.
Keith Carpenter, the ski club president, says a pair of cousins – Dale and Wally Peterson – started the ski area in the 1950s when Dale’s wife said she wanted a place to ski. The men used an old tractor and engine to power a chairlift behind their orchard.
The lift piqued the interest of friends George and Dorothy Perry who owned a sawmill in Echo Valley.
“They said you have a great lift, but we have a better hill,” Carpenter said. “So they moved the rope tow and it has grown to what it is today.”
Today Echo Valley has three rope tows, a poma lift, a sledding hill and a small lodge.
“It is a place that the community loves,” Easley said. “And it’s the community that keeps it going.”
The next morning, I was surprised the moment I pulled up to the base of Loup Loup Ski Bowl on the mountain pass separating the Methow and Okanogan valleys.
The Loup’s general manager, Sharla Lynn, calls the resort microscopic, but that didn’t seem fair to me after skiing much smaller hills.
At 1,240 vertical feet, the Loup has longer runs than much of those at the Summit at Snoqualmie. The runs are serviced by a lift purchased from Crystal Mountain (the old Midway Quad).
Lynn says my surprise wasn’t uncommon. Many people who do most of their skiing in Western Washington, are surprised by what Loup Loup has to offer. Denny Willard was surprised too.
“Loup Loup blew me away,” Willard said. “I will go back there. I was impressed by all the names on the chairs.”
The names belong to the volunteers. They work the ski patrol and other jobs around the ski area and donated most of the work to install the hand-me-down lift in 1998.
“Without volunteers this ski area doesn’t exist,” Lynn said.
The ski area opened in the 1940s on the south side of state Route 20 before moving to its current location north of the highway in ’58. In addition to the main lift, the Loup has a short platter pull, a rope tow for beginners, and a terrain park, and the runs are not interrupted by cat tracks.
“This is a great place to ski,” said Terry Larson, a volunteer ski patroller. “And you will almost never have to wait in a lift line.”
After a morning hitting most of the runs at the Loup, I found myself standing at the top of what might be the most secluded ski hill in Washington.
On the side of a farm road 15 miles east of Oroville is a red building that looks more like a barn than the base area for Sitzmark Ski Area.
“We adore that little ski hill,” said Linda Black of Tonasket.
The ski area has a handful of short runs that would be considered beginner to intermediate by most standards. But there are challenges there, too.
“I tore my ACL there trying to keep up with my daughter,” Black said with a laugh.
Runs such as Stump Run and Face definitely aren’t for beginners.
Black says when skiers master Sitzmark they often head north for a bigger challenge. British Columbia’s Apex Mountain Resort and its collection of steep chutes is a 65-mile drive from Sitzmark.
6. SKI BLUEWOOD
My journey ended in March when I caught an edge in the trees at Ski Bluewood and face planted in a pillow of powder.
The tree skiing here is one of Bluewood’s best attributes.
“We have great snow conditions and we really focus on having a family-friendly atmosphere,” said general manager Travis Stephenson. “... But, personally, I’m coming here for the tree skiing.”
A year ago there was almost no reason to go to Bluewood. The area was on the verge of closing when Stephenson’s dad, Mike, organized a group to buy the ski area.
The group is mostly farmers from the Columbia Basin
“Most of them aren’t diehard skiers,” Stephenson said. “They got involved for the family aspect and promoting health and exercise.
“... If Bluewood wasn’t here, (Tri-Cities and Walla Walla residents) might as well live in an area that doesn’t have a ski area.”
The next closest skiing options are more than two hours away.
Bluewood has 1,100 vertical feet and two chairlifts. Skiers can find plenty of tree skiing on runs such as Green Giant, moguls on a run called Jackhammer and good intermediate groomers like Skyline and Tamarack.
“It is almost the perfect ski hill,” Willard said. “You can go left or right off the lift and find nice long groomers. And you can dive off the trails and ski in the trees.
“It is a gem of a place.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497