Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Skiing Crystal Mountain: Seize the Bluebird Days

Mount Rainier from the top of Crystal's Green Valley chair

Usually I ease into the new ski season by starting out on mostly groomed blue runs to loosen up and get my ski legs back. (Sound familiar?) But when the first day brings blue skies, a foot of fresh powder, and avid skiing buddies who challenge me to keep up, I can’t resist pushing it. Even though I know certain neglected muscles will scream at me the next day.

Such was the case last Friday at Crystal Mountain, the Pacific Northwest’s premier downhill ski area. Okay, I can hear you Bachelor and Baker skiers grumbling at me now, but c’mon. On OutsideOnline.com, former U.S. Mogul Ski Team member Mike Hattrup recently listed Crystal as number two of his five favorite ski mountains in the U.S.  And as the dude who rode up the High Campbell chair with me said,

“Crystal is a skier’s mountain.”

How true. With bowl after bowl and seemingly endless routes down steep and steeper pitches, many not officially designated runs, it’s a mountain of well-kept and not-so-well kept secrets.

With November storms smashing into the Cascades every few days and the freezing level jumping up and down like a kid on a trampoline, I watched the weather forecasts carefully.  Friday after Thanksgiving was the day to go over the holiday weekend.

The traverse down Kelly's Gap

I wasn’t alone, that’s for sure.  But I still managed to find a few stashes of untracked pow in which to leave my signature, whooping with joy as I floated down.

And I’ll never tire of the always stupendous view of Mount Rainier, just 20 miles distant, as you crest the ridge near the Summit House above Green Valley. Rainier is, after all, the biggest, most heavily glaciated mountain in the contiguous U. S. (although the second-highest, just shy of Mount Whitney). How many times can I take pictures of Rainier on a beautiful day?  No limits.
The Big Kahuna of Cascade volcanoes

For November, the snow coverage  was good (helped along by new snow-making at the top of Green Valley). Yea, I got one particularly nasty gash in the base of my skis on the southward High Campbell traverse, but Powder Bowl was in fine form for early season.

Also in fine form was Lyndsey, the Snorting Elk cookie-baking maven.  I scooted into Snorting Elk Deli after a great day skiing and snagged one of her freshly baked crocodile spice cookies. Hmmmm.  Still the best around.

So get on up to the mountains, skiers and riders, and start your ski season.  Like my late friend and former Crystal ski instructor compadre Dean Meinert always did, watch the weather and carpe diem. Life is too short to spend those bluebird days indoors.

Have you gotten up yet this season? We'd love to hear about your best first-day-of-the-season ever in the Comments below!
When You Go
While Crystal is awesome, there are plenty of great places to ski throughout the Northwest. Here’s a tip to save a little money on your lift ticket:  After buying your first ticket of the season, keep the plastic Go Card they give you and reload online at the Crystal website. You save $5 a day on your ticket and bypass the ticket booths lines. Just flash your card in front of the scanner at the base lifts.  BTW, Crystal did NOT raise their rates this season, as of last weekend.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Northwest Gratitude

‘Tis the season again already.

Plenty of work, for which I am grateful, is keeping me from blogging as much as I’d like. In the meantime, I’m challenging myself to list at least 10 Pacific Northwest things I’m grateful for today.

So here’s my challenge to you – please reflect for a moment and then leave a comment below with a few things on your gratitude list.

Here's my list, which just got me warmed up:

1.  Carkeek Park in north Seattle, where I can walk in a lowland forest and see salmon spawning.

2. The Panama Hotel, Miro, and Zen Dog teahouses, for their fine tea and soothing ambiance.
Brewing tea in a gaiwan at Zen Dog Studio Teahouse
3. The sound of driving rain outside this morning when I was cozy warm in bed, and the sound of pouring rain as I write this.

4. Washington State ferries—love those ferry trips across Puget Sound.
Riding the Bainbridge Island ferry across Elliott Bay
5. The discounted new books at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, where you can get wonderful cookbooks at more than half price off. (Or just Powell’s, period.)

6. Crystal Mountain’s South Back on a clear day with fresh, cold snow.
Silver Basin in Crystal's South Backcountry
7. The fireplace in Timberline Lodge.

8. Weekends at the lakeside North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center nestled in the North Cascades of Washington.

9. Our remaining patches of old growth forest, may they remain a sanctuary for all.

10. The craggy awesomeness of our snow-covered volcanoes on a clear day.

Wy'East/Mt. Hood
11. Our local organic farmers and small family artisan food vendors, bless them for their hard work and bounty.

Samuele makes the BEST fresh pasta!

12. Crimson vine maples and fresh huckleberries in the Cascades each fall.

Oh my, once I got started it was hard to stop. 
May you treasure each moment and savor each bite.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Northwest Thanksgiving Weekend Getaways: Historic Lodging, Fine Dining, and Outdoors Fun

Although this post is originally from 2011, as of September 2018 I've updated some links and restaurant recommendations and added a few more suggestions.

I just read an article in Bon App├ętit magazine about exotic Thanksgiving escapes to places like Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Toulouse in southern France. Really? I wondered if the author enjoyed negotiating busy airports that weekend.

While I’ve battled the airport crowds on T-day weekend trips to New York City and San Francisco, my favorite holiday getaways have been exploring here in the Pacific Northwest.  Here are a few trips I’ve done that might inspire you, too.
Long Beach Peninsula, Washington
Late November is the stormiest, wettest time of the year in the Northwest, and the coast gets the brunt of the storm fronts.  How about heading there for the real action?

Where to Stay - I spent a relaxing Thanksgiving weekend at the cozy Shelburne Inn in Seaview close to the ocean in southwest Washington.  The Shelburne is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the State of Washington (since 1896) and a great launching point for exploring the peninsula’s beaches, cranberry bogs, historic small towns (like quaint Oysterville), or just reading a good book in your room.

Leadbetter Point State Park

What to Do - We headed south along the coast to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park (where we got some of the miserable weather that drove Meriwether Lewis into what was likely deep seasonal affective disorder) and another day drove up the peninsula to Leadbetter Point State Park. If you’re feeling adventurous and have good rain gear, take your sea kayak and paddle out to Long Island in lovely Willapa Bay, where I spent one of the wettest nights camping in  my life. Fabulous birding in this part of the region.

Where to Eat - We had incredible meals while staying at the Shelburne Inn in the former Shoalwater Restaurant, but the owners have moved and opened the Bridgewater Bistro in Astoria that looks worth a trip down from Seaview. However, the new restaurant there, Shelburne Restaurant and Pub, looks excellent, with a focus on local, seasonal fare.

[In June 2018 I spent a weekend on the peninsula, which you can read about here.] 

Mount Hood, Hood River, Columbia Gorge, Oregon
If you’ve read my blog, you know I love the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood, and northern Oregon along the Cascade Crest.

Where to Stay - We started the weekend staying at quirky and boisterous McMenamin’s Edgefield in Troutdale after Thanksgiving dinner with family, then drove up to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood the next day for an overnight. Our third night was at the historic Hood River Hotel after a nice drive around the mountain and down through Hood River Valley.

View of Mt. Hood summit from Timberline, Magic Mile chairlift visible.
What to Do - If there’s skiing anywhere in the Cascades in the early season, it’s at Timberline. I got in my first turns of the season and then thoroughly relaxed that evening in front of the massive stone fireplace in the beautiful old lodge.  The next night in Hood River we wandered across the street from our hotel to the Skylight Theater Pub (where they also serve good pizza) for a movie.
Enroute back to Seattle we drove across the Columbia River and explored the Washington side of the Gorge, with a side trip up to really historic and very rustic Carson Hot Springs. Their spa offers massages and mineral baths in old claw foot tubs with water pumped in from the river raging outside the windows. Rumor has it that the place is haunted. [They have added some new buildings and spiffed up the place since I was there, so probably not as off the beaten path or rustic anymore.]
Where to Eat - Dinner in Timberline Lodge’s Cascade Dining Room was fabulous—I had savory fresh papardelle pasta with mushrooms, then a nightcap in the Ram’s Head Bar on the balcony overlooking the fireplace. We also had an excellent dinner in the lobby restaurant at the Hood River Hotel. Just a few months ago I dined at Celilo Restaurant and Bar in Hood River within a block or two of the hotel, wonderful!    

Warming up by the fire, Timberline Lodge
San Juan Islands, Washington
Any time of year is a good time to head to the lovely San Juans, but the islands are less crowded in the late fall and winter.
Where to Stay – Rustic Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island is always fun. In Friday Harbor on San Juan Island we stayed at the Argyle House Bed & Breakfast, a comfy refurbished craftsman-style home just a couple blocks from downtown and easy walking to restaurants. New owners have taken over the place since we were there, but it looks as lovely as ever. I also spent a couple nights a few months ago at the earthbox inn in Friday Harbor. Clean, recently renovated, and great location for walking to town.

View from road up Mt. Constitution, Orcas Island
What to Do -  Winter is a great time to hike in Moran State Park. Drive up Mount Constitution in Moran State Park on Orcas Island for great views (or not, depending on the weather). When I was there on a T-Day weekend, a big raven greeted us at the misty summit. Or take your sea kayak and cruise the island rocky shorelines studded with starfish. The next day we took an interisland ferry over to San Juan Island, where we hiked and explored along the west side of the island at Lime Kiln State Park. This park is one of the best places to spot orca whales from the land.
Where to Eat -  In Eastsound on Orcas Island, cozy Hogstones Wood Oven has some of the best wood-fired pizza I've ever tasted. Their motto is "Reverence for Excellence." I've also  eaten recently at the Doe Bay Cafe, now transformed into a foodie's heaven with their mostly vegetarian but locally sourced, seasonal gourmet fare.

Dinner at Doe Bay Cafe is exquisite.

Mount Rainier National Park
Late November usually brings heavy snow to the Cascades, and Mount Rainier gets some of the heaviest snowfall on the planet. Head to the mountain with your cross-country or back country skis.

Mt. Rainier from above Paradise
 Where to Stay – We stayed at the National Park Inn at the Longmire Historic District, lower down the mountain than more famous Paradise Inn. Open year-round, historic Longmire is casual and low-key but comfortable, and a great place to unwind in the evenings.

What to Do -  If there's enough snow on the ground – cross-country or backcountry ski up around Paradise.  If there's not much of a snowpack yet – hike, there are plenty of trails around Longmire or higher up.

Snowy Paradise Lodge
 Where to Eat – In the park this late in the year the options are limited. Longmire Inn has a decent dining room, where we had some good meals. They also serve a traditional American Thanksgiving buffet there. Click here for reservation info.

More Ideas
Lake Quinault Lodge on the southwestern edge of Olympic National Park, splendid old-style lodge and setting, plus good walks through old growth forest nearby to burn off the turkey and stuffing. Or go to equally historic Lake Crescent Lodge on the northern edge of the park, where you'll find the same ambiance and forest walks.

Frosty winter morning at Lake Quinault Lodge
Relaxing on the porch at Lake Crescent Lodge.

Sun Mountain Lodge in the Methow Valley of north-central Washington is also a great destination.  The views don't get much better and most years you can cross-country ski too. Talk about burning calories! 

And for you vegetarians/flexitarians who really want to get away, try Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon's central Cascades, where they serve a vegetarian buffet. Soak and enjoy their usual Daily Well Being programs.

Okay, that's just scratching the surface of all the places to go. Do you have a favorite Thanksgiving weekend destination?  Jump in the conversation by leaving a comment below!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Northwest Images, Views of Which I’ll Never Tire: Crown Point and the Columbia Gorge

Looking east up Columbia River Gorge from Chanticleer Point
Every time I scoot down to Portland from Seattle, I try to sneak in a quick trip up the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. Growing up on the western edge of this National Scenic Area was a gift, and I spent many days exploring the Gorge’s trails and driving the historic Columbia River Highway.
Even if I’m short on time, which always seems to be the case lately,  I at least go to Chanticleer Point (Portland Women’s Forum State Park) for the magnificent panorama. Then I usually drive down the old historic Columbia River Highway to Crown Point for closer views of the floodplain and up to Larch Mountain.

Cloud-covered Larch Mountain on the left
While there are splendid views everywhere you look in this beautiful world, this one never fails to make me gaze in awe upriver. Whether it’s a sunny, rainy, snowy, or cloudy day, I see history—social, geological, and personal—as well as what’s in front of me today.

Sometimes I imagine what it must have been like to witness the epic floods from Lake Missoula that ravaged, scoured, and shaped the Gorge’s basalt cliffs thousands of years ago. Or I’ll think about the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveling down the Columbia before the once mighty river was tamed by dams. The expedition members explored Beacon Rock, a huge basalt core of an ancient volcano, when passing through. (Beacon Rock is the dark lump in the background upriver just to the left of Vista House on Crown Point.) I first climbed Beacon Rock the summer before sixth grade, and there's a nontechnical route that anyone whose mildly fit can climb today.

Historic Vista House on Crown Point in foreground
Here in the Pacific Northwest we don’t get the array of fall colors that New England does, but there’s still time to catch golden hues of the bigleaf maples that predominate the western Gorge.  One of my most vivid childhood memories is driving past a wall of gold leaves lining the Gorge on a crisp, sunny fall day.

So how about you?  Do you have memories to share of the Columbia River Gorge? What are the views of which you will never tire, that draw you back again and again? Chime in by leaving a comment below.

When You Go
Hop in you car or on your bicycle and head up the Gorge. Here’s a link to a map of the historic highway, with the viewpoints where these photos were taken on the western edge. From Portland take the Banfield freeway eastbound, get off at Troutdale,  then head east past downtown Troutdale up the Sandy River Gorge to Springdale, then to Corbett. Chanticleer Point is just past Corbett on your left. You won't miss it!