Another great strategy to #getoutallwinter is to learn a new winter sport. Previously we talked about getting started with snowshoeing, and now we’ll talk about learning to cross country ski (also known as nordic skiing). I love cross country skiing, but it has been a hard won skill for me (and I am still very much an intermediate skier, even after many years). It takes me a long time to learn a new physical skill or sport, and I am here to tell you that if I can learn to do this, you can too! I started to learn when I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, but after I moved back home (to Seattle) I pretty much had to start over since the snow is a lot wetter and icier here. I started with hand me down skis and poles from a friend, and second hand boots (which are easy to find in Fairbanks, because so many people cross country ski). In this post I’ll talk about learning, gear, where to go, getting information about conditions and more. Cross country skiing is an awesome sport, you get terrific exercise outside in the winter, and it’s far less expensive (not remotely comparable) to downhill skiing, plus no lines and much less (sometimes no) traffic. With that, let’s get started beginner cross country skiing near Seattle!
Learning to Cross Country Ski
I’m sure there are people who can teach themselves to cross country ski, but I am not one of those people! Jay grew up with it and he taught me, which was awesome, but if you don’t have a skier in your family or among your friends, consider taking a lesson (if you do this you’ll also have easy access to rental gear). Near Seattle you can take a lesson at the Summit at Snoqualmie, or Stevens Pass Nordic Center, and both of them also rent gear. I highly recommend renting gear to determine if you like it before investing in it. If you come into some used gear to try out and just want to go on your own, you could check out this video or this one to get an idea of a few basics. If you want to go for the first time and you’re not doing a lesson, try out Cabin Creek Sno Park (the “road” trail is good for beginners, the other trails are significantly harder) or Hyak sno park as they you can get started on flat or nearly flat terrain. So much easier to start and get the hang of it where it’s flat. The main thing I would say is that it takes a lot of practice so don’t get discouraged…you got this!
One thing you will learn is that there are places that are groomed for cross country skiing (all the places mentioned above). You can certainly ski where it is not groomed, but I highly recommend learning and getting comfortable on a groomed trail before setting off in ungroomed areas. It’s also helpful to have backcountry skis (which are wider and have at least some metal edges) if you’re going to be going in ungroomed areas.
Gear and what to wear
You’ll need skis, boots and poles for gear. I would start with either classic skis or backcountry skis (which have metal edges or partial metal edges). I definitely recommend renting first to figure out what you like (unless you come into some used gear). You can rent gear at Summit at Snoqualmie or Stevens Pass Nordic Center as well as REI’s Seattle and Spokane locations. There are a number of different theories about what size skis to get, and I would suggest following the advice of the people you rent the skis from (or where you buy them). If it seems like it works for you, go with it! I got by for many years on skis that were “too long” for me but I did ok because I didn’t know any better and I got them for free! That said, now that I have skis that are a bit shorter it’s definitely much better! Beyond the actual ski gear, similar to what I said about snowshoeing, make sure to bring warm clothes with you but also have lighter layers because you will get hot! I usually wear a base layer long underwear shirt and a rain jacket and bring a warm jacket I can wear between for stops or if it’s cold getting started. The rain jacket is important because cross country skiing around here can be pretty wet, especially when you fall. It’s also good for wind protection and if you get hot you can open the armpit zippers (or just take it off). On my legs, I wear running tights if it’s not too cold (generally if it’s above 25 F which is most of the time around here), if it’s colder than that I usually wear snowpants over long underwear. For my head, I wear a headband and bring along a really warm hat (for stops). I wear wool socks, similar to what I would wear hiking. Gloves are also really important even if it isn’t that cold, to protect your hands while you’re holding on to the poles. Beyond your clothes, make sure to bring plenty of water and food (I like to bring hot food!) along with the rest of the 10 essentials. You can read about my favorite rain jacket for northwest winter outings and my favorite headband here.
Transportation, parking and fees
Near Seattle, most of the cross country skiing opportunities are either at Snoqualmie Pass or Stevens Pass, or one of the Washington State Sno parks. Ski areas have free parking but you pay for a trail pass. Washington’s sno parks require a one day or a seasonal sno park pass. An important thing to note, if you go to the sno parks that are groomed (Hyak, Cabin Creek and Lake Easton are the closest groomed ones), you’ll need the special groomed trails permit, which costs an additional $40, for a total of $80 for a sno park pass for the season. It’s a sticker that goes in your car window. You can select these options when buying online.
If you’d like to get out and try cross country skiing but don’t have a car or don’t want to drive, your best bet is probably to take the shuttle to Stevens Pass ski area and then the shuttle to the Nordic Center, or to take the shuttle to Snoqualmie Pass and then the summit shuttle to Summit East (where the nordic center is).
Beginner Cross Country Ski Routes near Seattle
Now that you have all that information, it’s time to think about where to go for your cross country skiing adventure! Below are my favorite beginner routes close to Seattle, a mix of ski areas with lessons and rentals as well as sno parks that are groomed and have easy trails to get started on. Before heading out, it’s important to check the Avalanche Forecast and take it seriously as well as monitor the weather and the road conditions on the passes. Another excellent source of information is the Central Cascades Winter Recreation Council (also a group you can join on Facebook).
- Hyak (Snoqualmie Pass, flat, requires a Sno park special groomed trail pass): The fabulous thing about Hyak is that it’s completely flat. A perfect place for beginners! About two miles in there is an avalanche chute (it’s signed) so going to that point and back is a very good four mile beginner outing. It goes along the Iron Horse trail next to Lake Keechelus and through the forest. The parking lot is often super crazy as it’s also an official snow play and sledding area, but once you get about 100 yards in it’s much quieter. It’s regularly groomed and to find out the current snow conditions call (509) 656-2230 (usually it’s not snow covered and groomed as early as Cabin Creek). This is the same phone number to find out the conditions at Lake Easton. It’s a recorded message. Hyak is generally available for skiing by late December.
- Cabin Creek (East of Snoqualmie Pass, some easy flat routes and some that are very hard, requires a sno park special groomed trail pass): Cabin Creek is expertly groomed and has a level of trail for everyone. The “road” trail is a nearly flat two mile trail (four miles roundtrip) that’s great for beginners. As you get more confident, you can take on some of the more challenging trails in the system. To check the current conditions at Cabin Creek, check the grooming report which is updated every day except Monday and Tuesday. Cabin creek is the first of these three sno parks to be groomed most years. Officially grooming starts on December 1 but there is not always enough snow at that point. Generally by mid December it’s ready to go.
- Lake Easton (between Snoqualmie pass and Cle Elum, mostly flat): Lake Easton has really pretty trails around the lake, along the Yakima River and through the forest (and it connects to the Iron Horse trail which goes all the way to Hyak…I talked about that NOT beginner adventure here) and it’s mostly flat. This is an awesome place for beginners and probably the most beautiful of these three sno parks, however it’s at lower elevation and doesn’t always have enough snow. Call the same number as Hyak (509) 656-2230 for a recording that will tell you if it has snow and if it’s groomed.
- Summit at Snoqualmie Nordic Center (Snoqualmie Pass Summit East Ski Area): This is a fantastic trail system for all levels including beginner and while you pay $27 for a trail pass ($23 for afternoon only), it is a really good trail system with trails for all levels, including beginner. The only thing that takes some getting used to is that you take a chairlift up to it. This has the big advantage of skiing about 500 feet higher than the parking lot (which can make for much better conditions), but skiing off the chairlift (as well as downloading, since you also ride down the chairlift) takes some getting used to! It is possible to access it without the chairlift, but it’s a very steep and challenging climb and a solidly terrifying downhill run (in the downhill ski area). I’ve done this and I have to say that I don’t recommend it and never plan on doing it again! Take the chairlift if you go here. It’s open 9-4 Friday-Sunday once the season opens (usually mid to late December)
- Stevens Pass Nordic Center (5 miles east of Stevens pass downhill ski area): The Stevens Pass Nordic Center is another good commercial groomed trail system (no chairlift here) with varied levels of difficulty including beginner trails. It’s slightly less expensive at $24. They do not offer an afternoon discount. They are open 9-4 Thursday-Sundays and generally open in mid December.