Image: Jane Sherman

Welcome to a La Niña winter, known for its huge levels of precipitation, at the foot of the Cascades, one of the steepest ranges in the country. We have snow, we have mountains—and yet no one seems to know where can a Seattleite go sledding. What gives?

Despite the dozen ski areas across Washington, there are few accessible spots for the toboggan set. Crystal Mountain Resort and Stevens Pass Ski Resort both ban sledding (even at the latter's Nordic Center, which used to allow it). Which means that before Summit East opened its chairlifts this year, families crowded the Snoqualmie Pass ski area despite the giant "No Sledding" banners posted at its base. The hunger for snowplay is so strong, you sometimes see impromptu sled hills on the Exit 42 onramp on I-90 (don't do this). 

It doesn't mean there are no options. Summit at Snoqualmie has its own tubing hill with 20 lanes and a covered lift, but no personal sleds are allowed. Tickets must be purchased in advance but weekend days have been selling out in advance—even with tickets priced at $35 for anyone over the age of seven. Nearby Hyak Sno-Park is a state-run area dedicated to snowplay: a groomed slope but no other supervision. Parking is $20 per day (or $80 for annual passes) and the area, given its proximity to Seattle, can get crowded.

A full two hours from the city, options expand near Leavenworth. The south section of Lake Wenatchee State Park has a DIY tubing hill, with the same parking fees as Hyak—but snow levels can vary, so it's worth calling the park to check for adequate coverage. The Leavenworth Winter Sports Club offers two separate slopes: a tubing hill with a rope tow and 100-foot drop (tickets $23 for six runs, with a webcam broadcasting current lines), and a separate walk-up sledding hill with a $9 fee (no metal runners). As with Snoqualmie Pass, weekends can get busy and Covid-uncomfortable.

Our national parks contain some of the snowiest terrain in the state and are usually a solid bet; however this year Mount Rainier National Park will not open a sledding and snowplay area at Paradise as usual. (Update 1/11/21: Despite early plans to forgo the groomed snowplay section this year, MRNP officials announced this weekend that the gentle hill near the Paradise visitor center is now open for masked, distanced recreation.) Sledding in other ares of the park is prohibited due to the dangers of tree wells, avalanche, and other hazards. On the other hand, Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park—which gets an average of 400 inches of snow annually—will open its safe tubing hill this year ($14 per hour, including tube, plus park entry fees), though the road from Port Angeles is only open weekends when crews can safely plow.

Most of the state's Sno-Parks, motorized and non, are not particularly meant for sledding; they may not be near hills, and routes are often designated for nordic skiers, snowmobilers, or even dog sledders. Still, they tend to be accessible to most cars (buy a Sno-Park parking pass in advance) and can provide easy access to terrain fit for a snowball fight or snowman assembly. Take care to wander the opposite direction from the ski tracks, dog teams, and brrrrrppping snow machines.

So where to find solitude for your classic Red Ryder? The state is full of secret spots; forest roads at high elevations lead to quiet corners of the forest, and as you may remember from your summer hiking, hardly any part of the Cascades is truly flat. Be careful on snowy roads—park before the snow gets deep, not after—and don't expect to have cell service if you get stuck. Avalanche danger is rife on steep terrain, especially chutes; take a free virtual class from the Northwest Avalanche Center to learn how to avoid bad areas.

Of course, you could simply wait for the rare city snowfall to sled down Denny. But if you do find that coveted private, natural sledding hill deep in the woods, feel free to keep it a secret—or perhaps become the hero of your neighborhood play group. 

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