Snow means shutdowns at the many national parks that go into hibernation for the winter, but for a select few parks the fluffy white stuff is a harbinger of action, not rest — an opportunity for visitors to slip on their skis or snowboards for some alpine adventures.
Three U.S. national parks include ski areas, facilities that were grandfathered in from a time before use of federal parkland was quite so strictly regulated. As such, they are relics of a simpler time, when skiing was a more low-key, family oriented pursuit and high-speed lifts a distant dream.
The Badger Pass Ski Area at Yosemite National Park, in operation since 1928, has a mere 800 feet of vertical, 10 trails and five leisurely lifts, making it a great place for beginners and kids (teens will gravitate to a pair of terrain parks). At Olympic National Park, the Hurricane Ridge Ski Area is even more modest: this club-operated ski hill has just two rope tows and a Poma lift to get you up the slopes, which feature 700 feet of vertical and 10 trails. The 17-mile road to the ski area is prone to avalanche danger, making the drive perhaps the most thrilling part of a visit here.
Perhaps most incongruous is the Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Area, located in generally flat northeast Ohio and part of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Owing to the fact that it offers skiing where none really has a right to exist, this two-hill ski resort (the slopes are about five minutes’ drive from each other) is a thriving commercial operation despite a practically walkable 264 feet of vertical at both the Boston Mills and Brandywine areas.
The Crystal Mountain Resort is located just outside the northeast corner of Mt. Rainier National Park and is a modern ski area with 57 trails, 2,300 skiable acres, and 3,100 feet of vertical, all served by a gondola and a quartet of high-speed lifts. Inside the park, snowboarding and snow tubing is permitted at the Paradise snow play area when snow depths are sufficient to protect the underlying vegetation.
In addition to alpine (downhill) skiing, many parks offer the opportunity to do cross-country (nordic) skiing, from the carriage roads of Acadia National Park to the arctic tundra of Denali National Park. Yellowstone National Park has both groomed cross-country trails and backcountry skiing; you can also cross-country at Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Sequoia National Park.
Also at Denali, expert skiers/mountaineers have the unique opportunity to ski the highest peak in North America: the famously deadly Orient Express couloir has a 60-degree pitch and 5,500 feet of vertical decline that has claimed dozens of lives over the years. Still, the hikers and skiers continue to come for the challenge. If that’s too daunting (and it is for most), skiers also are welcome to scale the park’s lower peaks and slide down on telemark skis or snowboards.
Similarly, ski mountaineers can test their skills on Mt. Rainier, which offers the bold up to 12,000 vertical feet of skiing, as long as you don’t mind the daunting climb (with ski equipment) above the 14,000-foot level.
Countless smaller National Park Service units also offer cross-country skiing, as well: if it snows at your local park, chances are there are opportunities to ski!
(Badger Pass photo © DNC Parks and Resorts; Acadia photo © NPS; Denali photo © Andre Charland/CC by 2.0)