In a Booming Region, Stevens Pass Looks to Expand

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Up to five more high-speed quads like the new Jupiter Express could join the Stevens Pass lift fleet over the next 10-15 years.

Once again in 2016, Seattle found itself the fastest-growing big city in America, and the only one of the top five in close proximity to major mountain resorts.  The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area is now home to 3.8 million people, seven figures more than metro Denver or the Wasatch Front and growing faster than both.  Yet despite being generally outdoorsy and with high average incomes, Puget Sound residents have only three real choices for where to spend a day skiing.  Unlike in neighboring Oregon, where three resorts flank Mt. Hood and another Mt. Bachelor, Washington’s large volcanoes never saw ski development before being placed under conservation.  Most of Washington State’s ski areas lie far from Puget Sound, along which two-thirds of Washingtonians live, concentrating some 1.5 million skiers annually at The Summit at SnoqualmieStevens Pass and Crystal Mountain.

Crystal spun off from Boyne Resorts in April to become Seattle’s only locally-owned and operated mountain. The resort’s master plan includes new lifts but most of them have already been built.  Michigan-based Boyne still operates The Summit at Snoqualmie, just 45 minutes from Amazon’s new 24,000-head complex in Downtown Seattle.  The Summit’s approved plan includes a dozen new lifts but almost all of them simply replace very old ones.  That leaves the place where I first rode a detachable chairlift in 1997, Stevens Pass, to meet much of the Puget Sound region’s growing demand for local skiing.  As the second busiest resort in Washington, Stevens averages double the skier density of Crystal and Snoqualmie.  Located along U.S. Route 2, Stevens Pass grew under the ownership of Seattle-based Harbor Properties, which also at one point held Mission Ridge and Schweitzer.  In 2011, Harbor sold Stevens to CNL Lifestyle Properties with operations assumed by Karl Kapuscinski of Mountain High, California.  Stevens saw one new lift during CNL’s tenure, a Doppelmayr detachable in Mill Valley called Jupiter Express.

As the 2007 Stevens Pass master plan notes, “demand for skiing facilities currently exceeds capacity both on the trails, on the lifts and in the base area.  A a result, Stevens Pass frequently experiences days when these facilities are overcrowded, resulting in the use of satellite parking, long lift lines, lack of seating and a shortage of restrooms.” The introduction concludes by noting Stevens has been over-utilized every year since 1995. But with its ambitious upgrade plan approved in 2015 and new stability following the sale of CNL’s ski holdings to hedge fund Och-Ziff last fall, more lifts and less crowding are on the horizon.

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Stevens’ two oldest Riblets are planned to be replaced under the current MDP filed with the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.  I will miss this breakover!

The second oldest chairlift at Stevens is called Brooks, and serves terrain parts to the west of the Skyline Express.  A 2012 amendment to the Stevens MDP identifies three new options to replace this Riblet.  A shorter, terrain park-specific triple would be relatively affordable but a longer high-speed quad would better serve the growing Stevens Pass Bike Park, advanced skiers, and those heading to the Grace Lakes Expansion (more on that later.)  Another option is to simply move one or both existing terminals to create a shorter terrain park lift.  I don’t see much value in significantly modifying a lift that is about to turn fifty and hope they go with a high-speed quad.

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Daisy is another beginner and low intermediate chair leaving from the main base area that was built in 1973 by Thiokol.  Stevens plans to replace it with a realigned fixed-grip triple or high-speed quad chair.  The fifth oldest lift in Washington is nearby Kehr’s chair, a Riblet opened in 1964.  This one is slated to be swapped for a new fixed-grip triple, quad or possible high-speed quad to the bottom of Double Diamond.

Excitingly, Stevens Pass has approval from the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to add three completely new lifts within and beyond the current ski area boundaries.  To the west of Skyline and Brooks lie the Grace Lakes, where a new quad chair will serve up to 540 skiers at a time on 80 new acres.  Much of this area would be naturally gladed for intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders.  An even larger addition called Northern Exposure would add a detachable quad and stage skiers out of the eastern parking lots with six new trails.  As the MDP notes, “Northern Exposure is more than an extension of the existing trail network.  It would be a new direction, a contrast, providing an attractive alternative to the traditional offering at Stevens Pass.”  A triple chair called The Katz could serve a third, smaller new pod between Daisy and Kehr’s.

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The next Stevens Pass master plan could be even more interesting than the current one, with significant additional terrain already included within the resort’s special use permit, shown in blue, yellow and orange, that could see new lifts eventually.

Northern Exposure seems likely to be built before the other two expansions with its mix of benefits and trail capacity of 610 new skiers at one time.  With three lift replacements and three all-new lifts, Stevens Pass would gain 350 additional acres of developed skiing and a comfortable carrying capacity of 7,480, up from 5,670 today.  Perhaps Stevens’ biggest challenge is addressing its parking and transportation woes, something that every Cascades resort struggles with.  If Stevens can figure that part out, the expanded ski experience will rival the best in the region.

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9 thoughts on “In a Booming Region, Stevens Pass Looks to Expand

  1. Dhowe September 15, 2017 / 10:26 pm

    Another option is to drive an extra hour and hit mission ridge, the most underrated resort in Washington IMHO

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  2. Brian September 15, 2017 / 11:01 pm

    I don’t see why SP can’t expand east into the old Yodelin ski area. Avalanche control are a bit more advanced then back in the day when that area got smashed.

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  3. Will Robertson September 15, 2017 / 11:54 pm

    Nice article! Do you think the Northern Exposure quad is 5 years away or less or more?

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    • Cameron Halmrast September 16, 2017 / 10:44 am

      USFS has to approve all permits of course and an environmental study has to be conducted which takes about 1-3 years and is valid for 10 years typically. However, if parking is limited which it is currently, Stevens Pass will have to focus on ways to get more people to the hill before the Forest Service will allow an expansion. Either by expanding its parking lot size or installing a transportation lift. This was the stipulation we had when I worked in the industry. They wanted 100,000 skier visits before we could start our “expansion.” On a side note, if you have ever seen a master plan that has lifts going everywhere, such as Winter Park’s old master plan, don’t ever assume all these lifts will be built. They are usually a negotiation tactic. By that I mean the resort will give up building these three lifts to build just this one.

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  4. Mike September 18, 2017 / 10:54 am

    FWIW, I think it’s fair to include Mt. Baker in the Puget Sound group of ski areas. Not that its inclusion fundamentally changes the underlying calculus of a growing market and limited terrain to serve it.

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    • Peter Landsman September 18, 2017 / 11:37 am

      No question the entire region is growing like crazy and Mt. Baker, Mission Ridge and White Pass are options for some Western Washington skiers. As far as I can tell, none of those mountains have current plans for expansion, leaving the other three to provide more capacity within a reasonable driving distance for day use.

      I would love to see Crystal try again for East Peak. In hindsight, they are lucky it wasn’t approved last round with the recent fire that would have torched brand new infrastructure. East Peak is already heavily used for recreation and within Crystal’s SUP. And now the trees have been naturally thinned!

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      • Will Robertson September 18, 2017 / 8:05 pm

        I’m really hoping they try for a lift up the king. I know they tried before, but it would be cool if they try for it again. Do you think there is a chance it would be allowed now?

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      • Peter Landsman September 18, 2017 / 8:31 pm

        There’s always a chance. As someone who grew up hiking the King every weekend, part of me wants them to leave it alone. Mr. Kircher’s wife, who is now patrol director, might agree with me. It’s so unique to have such rugged, hike-to terrain with avalanche hazard reduction for those who want to enjoy it. Northway is very similar so I’d rather see the Kelly’s Gap, Bullion Basin and East Peak lifts happen first. Here’s Silver King, for those who haven’t been to the treasure that is Crystal…

        Three Way Peak, Silver King and the Throne from Silver Queen.

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      • Dhowe September 18, 2017 / 9:19 pm

        I believe mission ridge has an expansion plan that pushes to the north of chair 4. I’ve seen a map but I don’t think they’re very far along on the permitting. What they really need to do is replace their older lifts

        Liked by 1 person

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