Top Cold-Weather Itineraries in Washington and Beyond
The call comes just after dusk on a late January evening. “There’s an owl off Fir Island Road,” my brother John, an ornithologist, tells me. No need to share the species name.
Anyone who’s peered through a spotting scope knows it’s a snowy owl irruption, so named for the arctic bird’s unexpected arrival this far south. These owls travel south primarily because of a diminished food supply in the Arctic and subarctic. Like watching the myriad snow geese and hundreds of trumpeter swans across the Skagit Flats, a snowy owl appearance brightens the winter days we spend shrouded in 2,000-foot cloud ceilings and chilled by relentless rainfall.
For winter adventurers in the Pacific Northwest, magical discoveries reside everywhere, whether you’re snowboarding with North Cascades Heli out of Mazama or ascending a frozen waterfall with Leavenworth’s Northwest Mountain School. Taken together, these excursions form a colorful collage of breathtaking winter itineraries, adventures as robust and satisfying as in any region of the world. No wonder the snowy owls come here.
Bird Watching on the Salish Sea
While the Skagit Valley provides a spectacular avian canvas even if you don’t leave your car, another fabulous gallery of avifauna awaits those who are willing to paddle for it. Like snow geese and snowy owls on land, northern nesting waterfowl migrate each winter to the protected bays of the Salish Sea.
Kayaking into the bays of Bellingham, Birch, Shelter and Skagit avails the famously massive rafts of northern pintail, American wigeons, red-breasted mergansers and many other duck species. Paddle out a little farther and you can observe three loon species, grebes and gulls, all quite challenging (and fun) to identify in their winter plumage. Numerous species are commonly seen on Puget Sound and several rarities often show up, too.
Arguably our most famous winter snowbirds are the hundreds of bald eagles who stand sentry and fish along the Skagit River from late fall through February. There are many places for experienced paddlers to put in on the river.
You also can schedule a three-hour trip with Skagit River Eagle Tours. Several adjacent towns celebrate the Skagit Eagle Festival every weekend in January. Farther north, one of the world’s largest congregations of eagles (3,769 counted in 1994) gather above the Squamish River in Brackendale, British Columbia.
Suit up for Surfing
Yes, you are going to need some “blubber” to surf in the Pacific Northwest, starting with a 5 mm bodysuit, boots, gloves and a hood. In Tofino, British Columbia, the water is, um, cool, averaging 46 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months.
The swells of Cox Bay, Chesterman Beach and Long Beach vary by the day from gentle breaks that are ideal for beginners to large rollers loved by more experienced surfers. Surf Sister offers private and group lessons, and runs winter camps for surfers of all levels. Wya Point Surf Shop also offers full board rentals and wetsuits appropriate for the conditions.
Back in the U.S., Westport is the go-to destination for Washington surfing. You can gear up (and book group lessons) at Steepwater Surf Shop before heading to The Jetty, The Cove or The Groins, three well-known Westport breaks, to get your curls on. Hang your Discovery Pass off the mirror in the Fairhaven State Park lot, then head out to hang 10 with other committed winter surfers.
Heli- and Cat-Skiing Capital of the World
You can choose your lines of argument all day about where to find the best skiing and snowboarding resorts in North America, but the Pacific Northwest is the consensus No. 1 for heli-skiing and cat skiing. The whole heli craze was started by one Hans Gmoser, an Austrian backcountry guide who began flying guests into B.C.’s remote Bugaboo Mountains in 1965.
The Canadian Mountain Holidays “CMH” ski trip of a lifetime was born. Canada’s Coast Range and our Cascades seem to have aged perfectly with vast pockets filled with pristine powder. How big? Bella Coola Heli Sports skis a tenure that is larger than the Swiss Alps. Revelstoke’s Selkirk Tangiers accesses half a million acres and 400 known runs.
With volume comes variety and the ability to locate the alpine nuance of your choosing. The diverse terrain means that a confident intermediate skier can have as much fun on blue-level runs as the fanatic for double-black steeps only suitable for experts. Purcell Mountain Lodge flies you in via chopper for several days of intimate ski touring. North Cascade Heli also offers heli-assisted ski touring across 300,000 acres.
In Idaho, Selkirk Powder Guides considers the entire southern Selkirk Range its backyard, with great lines for all levels of experienced skiers.
Although considered heli-skiing’s poor relation, no one ever regrets skiing out of a cat, a fantastic conveyance that takes us to all the angles, glades and wide open spaces as a heli-day, at a third of the cost. Selkirk Powder Guides is also home to one of the best cat skiing operations in the Pacific Northwest. Located on the backside of Schweitzer, you first take a 7-minute chairlift ride to a summit-based cabin, and then have over 75 runs of untouched snow to call your own.
Panorama Mountain Resort, located on B.C.’s legendary Powder Highway, has launched a single-run snowcat shuttle. Red Mountain also engages a cat to carry you to otherwise impossible-to-reach stashes. Cascade Powder Cats runs a private reserve on 1,920 acres near Stevens Pass just 70 miles from Seattle.
A Blanket of Snow
Reentering the urban orbit after one day of cat or heli-skiing can feel like you just splashed down from the space station. There’s no need to cut a winter excursion short, thanks to a slew of backcountry camping prospects. North Cascade Heli’s Barron Yurt in Mazama, Washington, sits deep in the North Cascades. Multiday sojourns combine guided ski touring with hours of wilderness bliss with landings as high as 8,600 feet.
Novice backcountry snow campers will find scores of accessible campsites throughout Washington. These are ideal hubs for building confidence and gaining experience. Skyline Lake Backcountry Camp requires a gentle 2.5-mile snowshoe in from Stevens Pass. Experienced snow campers rave about Mount Rainier’s Reflection and Louise lakes sites. The sites themselves have no amenities. There is a warming hut nearby, however, as is the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise.
Living near so much wilderness is like having a favorite playmate right outside our door, 365 days a year. When well prepared, taking on new winter adventures will open up a world of wilderness to ski, climb and observe. Numerous local outfitters rent equipment and offer classes and tours that teach you everything from making a fire in deep snow to ice-picking your way up your first frozen waterfall. Join the snowy owl this winter, unfurl your wings and erupt with joy.
– Written by Crai S. Bower, last updated in January 2023.
– Top image of cold water surfers at Westhaven State Park in Westport by Alamy.