Stevens Pass, named after John Frank Stevens, is located at an elevation of 4,061’ in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. The climate on the pass is a maritime-influenced climate that experiences short and mild summers and winters with heavy snowfall.
Development on the pass connects back to the railway history of the Pacific Northwest. In 1890, Stevens, a surveyor for the Great Northern Railway, found the pass with the help of indigenous groups in the area, and the first tracks were laid up and over the 4,000’ summit. The first rail line, which only operated from 1893 to 1900, was so steep that several switchbacks and spur lines were required. The original Cascade Tunnel, built in 1897, sits 1,180 feet below the summit of the pass and was in operation until 1929 when a newer and longer Cascade Tunnel was constructed two miles to the south and at a lower elevation. Much of the scenic HWY 2 route is along this old railway line.
As development along Stevens Pass grew, the small railway town of Wellington (also known as Tye) sprang up on the west side of the original Cascade Tunnel. Now a ghost town, Wellington was the site of the most deadly avalanche in US History. The historic avalanche of 1910, which killed 96 train passengers and railway employees, prompted the start of a system of concrete “snow sheds” for avalanche paths. Although no longer in use, remnants of many of the sheds can still be seen today.
The ski resort on Stevens Pass was started by two passionate skiers on Big Chief Mountain in the winter of 1937-1938. These two men had hauled an old V8 engine, some ropes and pulleys up the mountain to build their first rope tow. Aspiring skiers had to hike six miles in if coming from the west side or take a bus if coming from the east side. Skiers from Seattle to Wenatchee and even further came to ski the mountain. Popularity increased, and by 1963 the ski area had expanded to include twelve rope tows, the lodge, a shop, and three chairlifts. Eventually, they expanded into Mill Valley, which opened up terrain on three sides of both Big Chief and Cowboy Mountain. Over the decades, ownership of the resort has passed through many hands, and has finally landed with Vail Resorts as the current owners.
Today, the Stevens Pass area is a mecca for powder-hunters from both the west and the east sides of the pass. From multi-peak ski-mountaineering objectives and farther away sled-access terrain, to easy-access sidecountry skiing and some of the best tree skiing in the PNW, Stevens offers a little bit of everything. With a mix of maritime and continental influences on the snowpack, however, the Stevens region also hands over a mixed-bag when it comes to avalanche activity. Sticking closer to the Cascade Crest may deliver deeper snow and cloudier weather, while venturing further east may bring sunnier skies but a colder snowpack and more variable layers.
This is not the place to let your guard down! Study the terrain, study the weather and avalanche forecast, and overlap all of your gathered information to make wise backcountry travel choices.
At Beacon, we rate every zone and run using the ATES scale in order to give you one more tool to use to assess your backcountry terrain options. The Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) is a way to look at terrain as it relates to potential avalanche exposure, aside from the changing variables of snowpack or weather. It takes into account slope-angle, hazards, run-out zones and more and can help you identify types of terrain that have options for reducing exposure. At Stevens Pass, knowing the ATES of the terrain you plan to ski and deciding what terrain is a “green light” or “red light” for your group is essential. To learn more about ATES, visit our ATES Education Page.
Anyone wanting to venture into the backcountry should seek out proper avalanche training. If you feel inexperienced, confused, concerned or timid about traveling in the backcountry, it is wise to seek a professionally certified guide.
Parking on Hwy. 2 requires careful choices and planning. Tunnel Creek is a no parking zone—and also an incredibly large terrain trap with a long history of accidents. Parking at Stevens Pass is legal, but challenging due to its popularity and conflicts of interest with the resort. Check the Stevens Pass resort website for updates on parking on the pass. Other parking on Hwy. 2 is variable and inconsistent. The Smithbrook parking lot is the only official spot to park, and even there, you may get plowed in. The Washington’s East Side guidebook has parking recommendations and warnings which may be helpful in your planning.
There are several blogs out there with helpful beta on parking. Check them out:
Indigo Alpine Guides.com
Where is Kyle Miller – Ski Tours on Stevens Pass
“About Stevens Pass.” Stevens Pass Ski Resort, www.stevenspass.com/explore-the-resort/about-the-resort/about-stevens-pass.aspx. Accessed 25 Oct. 2023.
“Cascade Tunnel – Longest Railroad Tunnel in the US.” Cascadeloop.Com, 14 Dec. 2020.
“Stevens Pass Ski Area.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Sept. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stevens_Pass_Ski_Area.
“Stevens Pass.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Apr. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stevens_Pass.
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