Friday, February 25, 2011

Skiing Snoqualmie Pass: It’s not always SnoCrummie

I like to think of Snoqualmie Pass (a.k.a. the Summit at Snoqualmie) as Northwest grunge skiing.

It’s about 1,000 feet lower in elevation than most other Washington ski areas and often lives up to its nickname: Snocrummie. And it doesn’t have nearly the size or vertical of Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain, also easy day trips from the Seattle area.

So what’s to love?

On a good day when the snow is fresh, the freezing level hasn’t risen yet (it will soon), and the sun shines, Alpental is an expert skier’s dream. In part because it is so close to Seattle and not a destination resort, Alpental’s hidden chutes, accessible backcountry, and varied terrain are local Northwest skiers’ private playground. (Well, private is a bit of an exaggeration since thousands of Seattle area skiers and riders play there each season.)

Tucked away up a hidden valley off Interstate 90 near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness boundary, Alpental feels alternately cozy and thrilling. While I’m not a hard core Alpental skier, I’ve been there enough over the years to have experienced some truly awful skiing conditions (icy, rocky) and exhilarating times (fresh pow, gorgeous views).

Alas, I wasn’t able to sneak away from work yesterday to make tracks in the foot+ of fresh, cold snow at Snoqualmie Pass (“The best day at Alpental I’ve ever had!” gushed a mutual friend… sigh), but I did enjoy one of my best days ever at Alpental last weekend.

We pull into the uppermost parking lot early enough to get a good spot—good enough to ski down to the lift from the car and then to ski back to the car. Really, parking doesn’t get any better than this.

Sunshine, electric blue sky, and decent snow make for a great day skiing. We warm up with a run down the tree-lined gully that is Debbie’s Gold (named after Olympic gold medalist Debbie Armstrong, who grew up skiing and racing at Alpental), then head up Chair 2 to the top.

With an amazing, glorious 360° view from the top, I have to stop and gape. To the north, volcano Glacier Peak rises above the rugged, lesser Cascade peaks of Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Southeast, Lake Keechelus shimmers light blue against the darker blue mountains, and southward Mount Rainier is partially visible above Denny Mountain. Sinuous tracks slice through Sharon Bowl in the backcountry just northwest beyond upper International.

Since there’s not much of a lift line yet on Chair 2, we take a couple quick runs down Edelweiss Bowl, a nice mix of short but fairly steep up top that mellows to a good cruiser run. Between our first and second run, the snow softens up a bit.

While it’s a cold day, with temps in the 20s, we get plenty warm skiing down International, Alpental’s premier black diamond run. After a short stretch of bumps to the lip, there’s no choice but to plunge right in to the very steep, usually icy entrance. At first I sideslip tentatively and do a little whining until Rich says “You just have to straighten your skis and drop in.”

Done. And then the fun really begins.

North-facing upper and lower International (“Nash” to locals) stays shaded enough that the snow is usually pretty nice up here. Unless of course it warms up (yes, it will) and then freezes again. But the pitch is consistent and steep, but not too steep, and long enough for some great skiing.

Aaahhhh kind of skiing. Big-smile-evoking skiing.

Today we don’t continue traversing across International into the backcountry, but I see some nice tracks out there. A slight downside to the backcountry is the narrow, sometimes harrowing runout at the bottom.

Regardless, it’s a marvelous day with marvelous skiing and scenery. Sure, Alpental doesn’t have the scope of a larger mountain, but it’s got it all in a more compact form and breeds great skiers.

When You Go
Just go! Preferably on a weekday when the crowds are down. Alpental is about 50 miles east of Seattle off I-90’s Exit 52. If you’re coming from the west, take a left at the exit. At $58/day for adults, tickets at the Summit are slightly cheaper than at Stevens or Crystal.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Seattle Teahouses: Sunday mornings at Miro

Ah, Sunday mornings. The quietest, least stressful few hours of daylight a week.

I love Sunday mornings.

Some of us sleep in and have a leisurely morning, some go to church, some are outdoors jogging or skiing, and some of us have tea with friends. Do you have a Sunday morning ritual?

Over the last couple years, an occasional Sunday morning get-together at Miro Tea on historic Ballard Avenue has evolved into an almost weekly touchstone. Call it the Church of Tea if you will.

As soon as the Ballard Farmer’s Market opens, I’m there with a clutch of reusable bags and a fistful of cash. In the winter this too popular market is less crowded and friendlier.

After shopping, I meet my tea compadres for fine tea, an occasional buttery muffin or extravagant crepe, and good conversation at Miro, just up the block from the market. We call ourselves the teasome threesome, but lately we’ve morphed to four since my niece started joining (the teasome foursome? tea squared?). Sometimes we have drop-ins.

With all the steaming, whooshing, and clatter, coffee shops buzz with frenetic energy—which of course can be a good thing when you need to get revved for the day. But who wants that on a Sunday morning? Miro feels soothing, friendly, and a tad laid-back in comparison.

With a large selection of loose leaf teas, there’s always something interesting to sip at Miro. I’m a creature of habit, so I usually order jasmine, although lately I’ve gone for peach blossom silver needle. We share a pot, but sometimes one of us goes rogue and orders our own, separate cuppa.

Miro serves large, sumptuous crepes. Linds and I often split the Christy—a savory spinach and goat cheese-stuffed crepe topped with a delicate, paper-thin slice of Serrano ham and a lightly fried egg. It’s a marvelous blend of flavors and textures. All of Miro’s crepes are excellent.

Above us, intriguing art hangs on the tall, gallery-scale walls. The shows rotate on a regular basis, from photographs to oil paintings to mixed media. One of my favorite exhibits was Jim Molnar’s photographs of tea estates in the Taiwanese mountains.

Gracious and lovely owner Jeannie Liu is often around, and welcomes suggestions from her customers. The tea baristas like Taylor, Henry, Carly, Emmy, and Andrew are mellow and friendly. After all, it’s a mellow and friendly place.

So we sit and sip, talk about our week just past and the week ahead, compare notes on what we’ll be cooking with the farmers’ market fare, describe upcoming adventures or whatever else comes up. Somehow it’s grounding for me.

I hope your Sunday mornings are equally pleasurable, whatever your routine. If you stop by Miro before noon, I’ll likely be there with Tea Squared. Just follow the aroma of peach blossoms.

When You Go
Besides being a nice Sunday morning stop, Miro is open into the evenings, with occasional live music. Or try their Saturday afternoon tea tastings that feature a range of offerings of specific teas. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Northwest Winter Hikes: Twin Falls and More

Sure, our winter weather is often dreary, chilly, and damp here in the Pacific Northwest. Think that stops us from getting out and reveling in our splendid outdoors?

It doesn’t stop many of us crazy diehards—even when the freezing level shoots up and it’s raining on the ski slopes (and everywhere else). We love our outdoors here in the Northwest.

In the lowlands and foothills there are still plenty of hiking trails accessible year-round (except for during a rare lowland snowfall). Here’s a sampler.

Twin Falls
Note: Currently the Twin Falls trail is closed  between the first overlook with benches (0.75 from miles from west trailhead) to the west end of the Twin Falls Canyon Bridge (1.75 miles from west trailhead) due to several hazards that make the trail dangerous for hikers. Access the east end of the Twin Falls Trail from the Homestead Valley Trailhead located off of I-90 Exit 38.

Today I managed to find three also-crazy-diehard friends to join me for a hike in the rain to Twin Falls in North Bend’s Olallie State Park, about 30 miles east of Seattle in the I-90 Mountains-to-Sound Greenway corridor.

Twin Falls is a popular, pretty easy, relatively short hike through the forest along the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River with views of gorgeous waterfalls, which are gushing today from the rain and some snowmelt.

I like this hike despite the crowds because it’s close and short enough (2.4 miles roundtrip to the waterfall overlook bridge, or up to 4 miles RT) that I can zip out in the morning, get good exercise, and be back in Seattle for afternoon errands. Although it’s not a long hike, elevation gains and losses along the trail get my heart rate up and work the quads and glutes.

With lots of Gore-Tex rain gear, I rarely hike with an umbrella. But today I do. Here in North Bend along this stretch of river, it rains over 80 inches a year, more than double Seattle’s annual rainfall. This is truly a temperate rainforest, with thick green moss and delicate ferns clinging to tree trunks along the river.
Starting out in the rain at Ollalie State Park Twin Falls trailhead.

We meander along the river for about a half mile, then the trail switchbacks up and down and up and down again. The trail is in decent shape considering the traffic it gets. People come with all sorts of footwear, from Betty in her leather hiking boots with gaiters, to Gavin in his barefoot sport shoes, to Joe-Cool with his naked paws.

There are a couple lookouts along the way before the overlook bridge between the lower and upper falls, which crosses a narrow gorge about 80 feet above the water. Water spilling over the lower, tallest waterfall reminds me of spun sugar threads as it spiders down the rock face and plunges into the river. It’s bracing to behold.

We turn around a little past the bridge and get back to the trailhead after being out a little under two hours, wet but happy.

More I-90 Corridor Year-Round Hikes
Here on Pacific Northwest Seasons I’ve blogged about other foothills hikes in the I-90 corridor between Puget Sound and Snoqualmie Pass. (Just click on the links to posts about these hikes.) Generally the Issaquah Alps, including Tiger Mountain, Cougar Mountain, and Squak Mountain are accessible year-round, with miles of forest trails. Most of the year you can also hike up Rattlesnake Ledge for stunning views of the Snoqualmie Valley and Mount Si. And with a trailhead just across the parking lot from Rattlesnake Ledge, Cedar Butte is another mostly year-round hike in the forest.

City Hikes
Portland and Seattle have some large forest parks with good trails for getting away in the city. Read about winter walks in Carkeek Park here. In Carkeek as well as Discovery Park, with its miles of trails, the scenery transitions from forest, to grassy fields, to sandy Puget Sound beaches. Forest Park in Portland has over 30 miles of trails just above downtown.

After hiking the forest trails in Carkeek Park, I always go down to the beach and touch  Puget Sound.

Island Hikes
Go stretch your legs on an invigorating and glorious hike along the bluff at Ebey’s Landing on the western side of Whidbey Island. In Washington's San Juan Islands, there are numerous hikes on Orcas Island, including the Mountain Lake Loop in Moran State Park and Turtle Mountain.

Along the bluff trail at Ebey's Landing, Whidbey Island

Columbia River Gorge Hikes
Unless there’s a winter ice storm, actually a pretty rare occurrence, you can hike year-round on the many trails in the Columbia Gorge National Recreation Area east of Portland. Be careful of icy trails near waterfalls on cold winter days. In this post I wrote about hiking to the top of Multnomah Falls and back.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! And I'd love to hear in the comments below about your Northwest experiences.

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