November 2023 Note: The last few winters saw extreme pressure on sno parks in Washington State. Be prepared that you may be turned around if legal and safe parking is not available. PLEASE DO NOT PARK ILLEGALLY OR BLOCKING ANY ROADS OR FREEWAY INTERCHANGES. This is for your safety as well as to ensure that emergency vehicles and snow plows can pass.
A wonderful strategy for getting outside more in winter to is to learn a new winter sport. (Learn about getting started with snowshoeing here.) This article will talk about learning to cross country ski (also known as nordic skiing) and where to find cross country skiing near Seattle. 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 cross country skiing with hand me down skis and poles from a friend, and second hand boots. 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 than downhill skiing, plus no lines and much less (sometimes no) traffic. With that, let’s get started with beginner cross country skiing near Seattle!
I’m sure there are people who can teach themselves to cross country ski, but I am not one of those people! My husband grew up cross country skiing 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. Taking a lesson also provides easy access to rental gear. You can take a lesson at the Summit at Snoqualmie, Stevens Pass Nordic Center or Plain Valley Ski Trails. All 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. It’s 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 for Cross Country Skiing near Seattle
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Skis, Boots and Poles
You’ll need skis, boots and poles for gear to get started. I would start with either classic skis or backcountry skis (which have metal edges or partial metal edges). Your boots will need to have the same type of binding as your skis (there are several options). You don’t need to worry about this if you’re renting, they will make sure you get boots that work with your skis.
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. You will see lots of people skate skiing and there are different skis, boots and poles for that type of cross country skiing. I would recommend taking a lesson and getting advice from a ski shop if you want to pursue skate skiing, I am not an expert on that type of cross country skiing!
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! What I’ve been taught is that the skis should be roughly the same height as your body.
If you are looking to buy skis, I highly recommend skis with partial metal edges for our often icy trails in the Pacific Northwest. They are more expensive but this was a HUGE improvement for me when I switched from regular track skis.
If you are buying cross country ski boots the most important thing is to make sure they have the same type of bindings as your skis! If you are purchasing a package of beginner ski gear or purchasing from a shop they will make sure you get the right ones. If you are buying online make sure the bindings are the same!
For beginner cross country skiing, you can absolutely use any poles you already have! You can go ahead and buy dedicated ski poles, but you can use your trekking poles if you already have them. If you’re skate skiing the specific poles are more important, but for skiing on groomed trails if you have another set of poles you already own, go for it!
What to Wear Cross Country Skiing
Beyond the actual ski gear, make sure to bring warm clothes with you but also have lighter layers because you will get hot! I usually wear this base layer wool shirt and a good rain jacket (either this REI one or this Amazon one) and bring a fleece jacket I can wear between for stops or if it’s cold getting started. Wool baselayers are wonderful but they are not necessary, you can totally wear any long sleeved workout shirt you have.
The rain jacket is important because cross country skiing near Seattle 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 these leggings 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 insulated hiking pants.
Most of the places for beginner cross country skiing near Seattle 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 $70, for a total of $120 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 Skiing 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 places for beginner cross country skiing near 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.
Hyak Sno Park
Where it is: Hyak Sno Park is located on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass
Parking and Fees: Special Groomed Trail Sno Park Pass. There is a large parking lot with heated restrooms. The parking area is shared with the sledding hill and it can be very crowded and chaotic at the trailhead. There is a fee both at the parking entrance which sometimes has a line. Passholders are sometimes let through around the line, but not always.
What it’s best for: Hyak is the PERFECT place for beginners because it’s flat! The chaos around the parking lot sometimes deters people and the first half mile of trail can be a bit rough, but after that this is a beautiful and peaceful place to practice.
Length and Elevation Gain: This flat trail has a good turnaround point at 2 miles, for a 4 mile round trip from Hyak.
Current Conditions: There is a phone number with a recording that is sometimes updated (not daily) (509) 656-2230. The Cascade Winter Recreation Council is also a good source of updated info.
Cabin Creek Sno Park
Where it is: Cabin Creek is located 10 miles east of Snoqualmie Pass
Parking and Fees: Special Groomed Trail Sno Park Pass. There is a decent size parking lot with pit toilets. Parking is generally fills on weekends and especially on race days.
What it’s best for: Cabin Creek is a good place for a group of skiers with mixed skills to ski together. The Road is a 2 mile mostly flat (though not completely) route, and there are a couple of challenging loops when you’re ready to take on hills and curves. Expert skiers can head all the way up to Amabilis Mountain! The trails wind through a beautiful forest.
Length and Elevation Gain: The four mile “Road” out and back has a few minor slopes but is still relatively flat. Adding in loops and climbs you can go up to more than 20 miles with 2000 feet of elevation gain to the top of Amabilis mountain.
Current Conditions: The groomer updates the website nearly every day. This is the easiest place to get information about the current conditions before you go.
Parking and Fees: Special Groomed Trail Sno Park Pass. There is a parking lot with heated restrooms. There is less snow here than at Snoqualmie Pass so it’s good to determine if they have started grooming before heading out. It is often not ready for skiing before January.
Parking and Fees: Washington State Sno Park Pass. Parking is shared with snowmobiles (but not the trails)
What it’s best for: This is a great place to escape crowds. The parking area gets a little crazy but out on the trails you’ll see far fewer people! The downside is that it isn’t always groomed and it can be icy.
Length and Elevation Gain: Just over 3 miles with minimal elevation gain.
Current Conditions: There’s not a reliable source of information on the trail conditions here, so I like to bring my snowshoes to use instead if it’s super icy.
Summit at Snoqualmie Nordic Center
Where it is: Summit East Ski Area
Parking and Fees: Parking is at the Summit East Ski area at Snoqualmie Pass. The cost is $30 for a day or $25 for afternoon only.
What it’s best for: This area is fun and beautiful and often has better conditions than lower down. 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
Length and Elevation Gain: Over 30 miles of groomed trails, elevation gain varies from hundreds of feet to mostly flat
Current Conditions: They usually update the website when they are operating the nordic center.
Stevens Pass Nordic Center
Where it is: 5 miles east of the Stevens Pass Ski Area
Parking and Fees: $24 for a day pass
What it’s best for: This is a great place for beginner cross country skiing near Seattle, especially for those who are in north Seattle or north of Seattle. They have a wide variety of terrain and challenge and offer lessons and rentals.
Length and Elevation Gain: They have about 6 miles of mellow, wide, gentle terrain taking you through beautiful forest. When you’re ready for more challenge, steeper and harder trails add another 13 miles of adventure.
Current Conditions: The website is updated with current conditions.
Lake Wenatchee Sno Park
Where it is: Halfway between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth
Parking and Fees: Special Groomed Trail sno park pass. South Park has heated flushing restrooms. The other three have pit toilets.
In general, dogs are not allowed on groomed cross country ski trails. There are two exceptions to this near Seattle.
Crystal Springs Sno Park – just east of Snoqualmie Pass, much of this sno park is dedicated to snowmobiling, but there are dog friendly trails if you start at the far back of the parking area. There are several dedicated trails for cross country skiing with your dog! Make sure your dog is leashed and under control at all times.
Chiwawa Sno Park – one of the four sno parks at Lake Wenatchee, Chiwawa is the ONLY one that allows dogs and ONLY after 10am. Again your dog must be leashed and under control.
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years and I still spend lots of time there every year. I've been a tour guide for many years in both Alaska and Washington and am a field editor for the Milepost. I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!
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