Terrain, Views, RFID Ticket System, Gondola, Vertical Drop, Base Elevation, Snow
Expensive, Crowded, Cloudy, Layout
Crystal is about a 90-minute drive from my home so I've been here several times over the past few years. This year they've added a new gondola and an RFID ticketing system.
Crystal is ski area, not a resort. WA state does not have anything resembling the big resorts you'll find in other Western states. We're too granola. Most people here are rightfully day-trippers. There's very few amenities within even a reasonable driving distance. It's on US Forest Service land just outside Mount Rainier National Park and it seems like every improvement must go through a lengthy government review process. I'm fine with all that because I come here to ski until I drop, not vacation.
Crystal has average terrain for beginners, and intermediates but I think it beats other ski areas in WA for having a ton of advanced terrain. Three bowls (Campbell, Avalanche, Silver) off the "High Campbell" chair are all double-blacks and on entire swaths of mountain untouched by lifts. Powder Bowl, another double black, is very long and steep - scary to look at even from the bottom. Snorting Elk bowl and nearby terrain is an explorer's paradise - there's much more to be had there than you'd know from the official trail map. Basically there are a few designated runs there but everything is in bounds and fair game. Then there's the Northway - this entire area is black or double-black bowls, trees, and runs. Northway can be a challenge between snow dumps because you'll be dealing with moguls top-to-bottom, but then it's always empty. I rarely see more than a couple of people on the way down.
Crystal added a base-to-almost-top gondola this year. It's a fantastic addition for intermediate skiers because it's now much more practical to enjoy most of Crystal's respectable vert (3100') all in one run. Take any number of blues from the top of the gondola down to mid-mountain where you can then choose from either blacks, blues, or greens to get the rest of the way back down to the gondola base. Previously you'd have to take 2 chairs to get back to the top, with a 2-minute traverse between the chairs and the added wait in line. It just wasn't worth the time and effort. Now you just take the gondola. It's much faster and far more convenient. For people who really like the loooooong runs you get on a big mountain like Whistler this is the only thing in WA state that comes close.
The new ticketing system is great. You purchase your first "ticket" at the window. They actually give you an RFID card - like a credit card - that you keep in a pocket. It transmits a radio signal to gates at the lift that then let you through. On subsequent visits you don't have to wait in line at the ticket office - prior to leaving home you just purchase another day of skiing on their web site and your RFID card lets you through the gate again. You get a small discount for this advance purchase as well.
Crystal has some cons. My first thought its that it probably has the most expensive lift ticket in the WA state and charges a $5 premium for gondola access. Spent $73+tax a couple of weeks ago. This seems ridiculous to me. It's more than I have to spend to ski Whistler.
Second thought is that the beginner and intermediate terrain can get very crowded because there's not enough of it. The Forest Queen lift lines can be long on weekends - this chair serves the best beginner runs and the only terrain park so it gets packed. On the plus side, there are chairs that usually have little or no wait because they don't serve any beginner terrain - Green Valley and Northway are often wide open.
Another thought I have is with the visibility here. It seems like some areas a prone to getting very cloudy - especially between Silver Queen and Grubstake Point. I can recall several occasions where flat light and "fog" became outright dangerous. I couldn't see and features on the ground, and had to slow down to avoid suddenly crashing into people emerging from the mist. It helps to check the web cams if you want to avoid this. There are plenty of times I've been here where it isn't a problem. It's hit and miss.
Final thought I want to raise is layout. The Avalanche Basin and Silver Basin are very difficult to access and therefore impractical to ski multiple times in a day. Part of me wishes they would add lift access to these areas. Another layout issue is that most of the hill below the Green Valley lift is skiable only by double-blacks, long bumpy traverses, and a crap blue trail called "Kelley's Gap Road". This is a typical switchbacking, narrow, flat run that makes otherwise advanced terrain accessible to intermediates. I think Crystal could do a little better on this part of the mountain. It feels neglected. Final layout issue is that it's a bit difficult to get over to Northway without either a traverse or so a short uphill. On top of that the runs there get so bumpy between snow dumps - it would be great if they could groom some of it so you aren't burning out your legs the entire way down if it's later in the day and you're getting tired but still want to be in that area.