Deep powder, new amenities at Crystal Mountain

New gondola brings faster lift times and new possibilities

Washington’s largest downhill ski area just got a whole lot better and a whole lot closer to being a year round resort with the opening this year of the Mount Rainier Gondola. The first and only gondola in Washington, Crystal Mountain’s latest improvement is not only exciting news for skiers and snowboarders, but also for summer sightseers and recreationists. The new gondola went into operation on New Year’s Day where it was met by over 3,000 enthusiastic riders. Two weeks later I was introduced to the $5.5 million Austrian-built ski lift.

With its base right next to the lodge at 4,400-feet, you can walk right from the ticket booth and immediately be whisked nearly 2,500 vertical feet to the Summit House at 6,872-feet. And with Crystal’s new RFID (Radio Frequency ID) direct-to-lift tickets, you can skip the ticket line. With your first lift ticket purchase you get a free Go Card. Then on subsequent visits you can reload your Go Card right from home and never have to stand in a ticket line again. Walk right from the parking lot to the gondola and within less than 10 minutes be schussing down Green Valley.

I got to first ride the new gondola on a snowy day. It didn’t take me long to realize that my trip to the top of Crystal took less than half the time it used to take to get there via two chairlifts-and the gondola was more comfortable than the chairs! The spacious 8-person gondola cab allows for a much warmer and drier trip than an open chair. And with the cab nearly all encased in glass, you get quite a visual show on the way to the top as well. Whether you sit facing downhill staring out at the Cascade Crest, or sit facing uphill watching boarders and skiers carving up the slopes-you’ll enjoy the views. And as you whizz past the last of the 13 towers, Mount Rainier in all its grander reveals itself for one of the supreme views to be had anywhere!
The view is so magnificent from Crystal’s summit that it has instilled short term paralysis in some folks. But don’t panic if this happens to you; the physical effect is short term-the visual effects however, remain etched in your mind forever. Savor the amazing view longer by lounging at the nearby Summit House restaurant. Consider trying out Crystal’s “First Tracks Breakfast” on weekends and holidays; which allows you to reserve a spot at the Summit House for breakfast and get a few extra runs in before the rest of the lifts open. You’ll be able to make up any “lost time” staring at Rainier with this option!
 When you’re ready to hit the slopes, get ready to start enjoying the most diverse ski terrain in the state. First opened in 1962, Crystal Mountain has grown to become Washington’s largest ski area. With over 2,600 skiable acres, 57 named runs, and 3,100 vertical feet, there’s plenty of terrain for all levels of skiers. From the Summit house head south for the intermediate and easy runs, and north for the expert terrain. The Northway double chair exclusively services black diamond runs, including some of the most challenging and exhilarating terrain in the Northwest. It also provides easy access to some pretty amazing backcountry skiing.
The high-speed 6-person Forest Queen Express chair services wonderful beginner and intermediate runs, as well as access to the High Campbell double chair. From this lift to Crystal’s highest point, 7,002-foot Silver Queen, expert skiers can carve up the Campbell Basin. Skiers and boarders heading down the Mr. Magoo Run will soon find Sasquatch Park; Crystal’s new jib park. With more than 30 features including rails and pole jams, skiers and boarders here will have plenty of opportunities to ride, slide and glide!
With the opening of the Mount Rainier Gondola, skiers and boarders can now look forward to a much longer season. The gondola will allow transport to Green Valley, which despite its name is white longer than it’s green.
And once the ski season wraps up late in the spring, the gondola will be ready to transport sightseers, and hikers to the summit throughout the summer. Plans are in the works for next year that will hopefully include transporting mountain bikes on the gondola as well. The Summit House restaurant will be serving breakfast, lunch and dinner year round. And you don’t have to be on skies to enjoy the restaurant in winter, as single ride gondola tickets may be purchased.
Crystal plans on expanding the Summit House during the summer of 2011 to include additional seating, a bar, and possibly a conference room. Sitting on a knoll at nearly 7,000 feet, the Summit House Restaurant offers breathtaking views of Mount Rainier hovering above the White River valley, as well horizon scanning vistas that include four other lofty volcanoes. You’ll have a hard time getting a better view from any other restaurant in the state.
With the opening this year of the Mt. Rainier Gondola, Crystal Mountain is on its way to becoming a year-round resort. Think of the new possibilities for hiking, with one way downhill trips now a possibility. But with the extended ski season, hiking is going to have to wait a little longer now!
Craig Romano, Visit Rainier Content Writer
– Photo Credit Jeff Caven and Crystal Mountain
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