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Firsthand Report: Catskill Trifecta: Hunter, Plattekill, and Windham
By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist
February 16, 2009

We’re living large now with plenty of good local skiing in mid-February. But if you anticipate ski season all year like I do, it’s always shocking how fast the winter comes and goes in the mid-Atlantic. There is, however, an entertaining, inexpensive, and reasonably convenient way to extend your season by a few weeks. The Catskill Mountains of New York State are about a six hour (~330 mile) drive from Washington D.C. They offer a variety of attractive ski areas with a little more snow, vertical, and trails than our local hills. They become crowd-free bargains in the month of March and are accessible enough to make a very feasible spring-fling road trip destination.

In March of 2008 I took my teenage son and his friend on just such a trip north for a Catskill trifecta. We left on a Thursday evening after school and were in a motel at the southern edge of the Cats before midnight. We spent the next three days sampling a trio of the most interesting ski areas in the region and were back home in Northern Virginia by 10 p.m. the following Sunday night.

Hunter terrain park and base lodge. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Day one was a Friday spent at Hunter Mountain. We caught excellent spring conditions with sunny skies and high temperatures in the mid 40s. Just about everything was open, with a couple notable exceptions such as Annapurna and Westway in the steep Hunter West section of the mountain. In my humble opinion no ski survey of the Catskills is complete without a stop at Hunter Mountain. It’s been a skiing mainstay of the region for 50 years and has a 1600 foot vertical spread over a “dynamite” trail layout that is most unusual and memorable. A visit in March avoids the tremendous New Yorker crowds it’s known for in mid-season.

The cliffs of Hunter Mountain. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

I once read that the designers of the ski trails, Orville and Israel Slutzky, were road builders. It certainly appears that serious earthmoving bulldozer skills were employed when cutting Hunter’s trails back in the late 1950s. They’d never get away with such an environmentally disruptive approach these days, but it makes for an extraordinary setting with cliff lined ski runs and scenic views unbroken by tree lines.

The crowds were nonexistent on our Friday visit and the boys and I skied just about every open run. The moguls were soft on major league black diamond bumpers like Claire’s Way and K-27. The mountain and valley views from Jimmy Huega Expressway and similar upper mountain groomers were sensational. The terrain park on Lower Broadway beside the enormous Hunter base lodge was still in prime shape and featured big hits and an enormous halfpipe.

The next day, a Saturday, we visited Plattekill ski area. It’s a local’s favorite with steep runs, limited grooming, and a great, unvarnished vibe. This place makes Whitegrass, WV look swank. Unfortunately, even the Catskills are susceptible to variable March weather and Plattekill was hurt by rains before and during our visit. Too bad, I had specifically sought it out to give my hard charging teenage son and his double diamond-loving buddy a big taste of the throwback, all-natural type of skiing I experienced as a boy at Blue Knob, PA.

Plattekill base area. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Only about a half dozen trails were open for our visit. Plattekill’s premier black diamond bump run “Blockbuster” wasn’t one of them. We couldn’t ski it, we couldn’t even see it due to heavy fog/low clouds. Nonetheless, they still had a thousand vertical feet of skiing on several runs from each of the twin summits, including black diamond trails like The Face and Northface. We skied in a heavy mist from approximately 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then a deluge of rain drove us inside for lunch. Plattekill has a neat old three story lodge with rentals/ticket windows below, food service and two fireplaces/stoves at midlevel, and a bar with billiards on the top level.

Along with a reputation for challenging black diamonds, part of the charm of Plattekill is the truly hardcore operators and clientele. All morning in the mist junior snowboarders competed in the Catskill series finals of USES Boarder Cross racing. Toughing it out in foggy, heavy conditions, almost all of the racers were younger than the two teens I had with me. A cluster of parents and race officials cheered for them at the finish line. We hung around the lodge watching the race, eating our lunch and drying gear by the stove, but the rain didn’t stop and we bagged it at 3 p.m.

A typically dramatic March change in the weather occurred when a dry, cold front blew through overnight. We skied Windham on Sunday and the flash freeze made for frozen granular surfaces with a fair amount of icy patches. It was a tribute to the area’s top notch snowmaking and grooming team that the vast majority of Windham’s terrain remained open.

Windham main peak. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Like Plattekill, the Windham ski trails are laid out across two peaks, but there the similarities end. Windham has an urbane, upscale vibe with a large, state-of-the-art lodge and a batch of modern, high capacity lifts. The main peak (to the looker’s right) is served by the Whirlwind express quad (vertical 1550’). The east peak (with a vertical of about 1400’) also boasts a high speed quad. Both peaks offer a mix of runs of varying difficulty and length with a heavy dose of manicured groomers.

Windham has a humorous trail name theme, everything starts with a W. Some of the steepest examples such as Wheelchair, Winging It and Wicked were closed due to the ice, not a lack of cover. My young companions were not phased by the fast conditions and left me in their contrails flying down other black and blue cruisers like Wolverine, Wedel, and Why Not.

Trailside home with Windham east peak in the background. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

The breezy flurries and subfreezing temps of the morning gave way to calm, blue skies after lunch in the mammoth base lodge. The crowds were larger then we had seen the other two days, but no lift lines exceeded more than 60 seconds. More than perhaps any other Catskill ski area, Windham’s ski trails are lined with impressive vacation homes. One monster log home under construction on Lower Wipeout was surrounded by ski trails and accessible only by a private driveway-tunnel!

We stayed three nights at an inexpensive chain motel along a centrally located point of Interstate 87. From there we could reach all the ski areas we visited in about one hour, plus or minus a few minutes. During our travels we passed by Kaaterskill Falls near Hunter Mountain. It was most impressive in near-flood conditions. Lift and lodging prices are very competitive in the Catskills during the spring. Potter Brothers Ski Shops and Liftopia.com offer lift tickets to several areas for approximately $25 each. The skier’s refrain we heard all weekend was, “you shoulda been here a week ago.” Coulda shoulda woulda, the two teenage boys that accompanied me thought the Cats were great and did very well in the varied and challenging conditions. We all enjoyed the experience on a scale of terrain not available in our normal mid-Atlantic haunts.

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Woody
8 years ago
Jim, this report is packed with great tidbits. Although I’ve hiked, camped and backpacked extensively in the Catskills, I have never skied there. Hunter’s dynamite(d) trails have always intrigued me but the reported crowds have been a putoff. Next March, though, who knows? I’m trying to imagine the Platekill vibe after reading your comment that it makes Whitegrass look swank. A Plattekill trip would be worthwhile for that experience alone. I am wary about conditions there, though. Windham’s fast lifts sound like the best destination to visit with my son, who just must have fast lifts and big mountains. Thanks for the helpful report.
danielle
8 years ago
Thanks Jim for your report. Too bad you visited Plattekill on a bad weather day. The mountain really has some incredible terrain and truly embodies the soul of skiing not found anymore at most ski resorts… it’s worth another visit to try it out again if you can.
GRK
8 years ago
Ah man! My parents lived in Kingston, NY right by Hunter for years. Every time I visited them I wound up climbing the walls after a few days. It never dawned on me to learn to ski. 20 years later I am a skiaholic and think of the missed opportunities to ski Hunter, Bellayre, Plattekill, you name it. Thanks for the great article, you have me itching to load up the kid and drive up right now.
Catskills
8 years ago
If you go back try Belleayre. For the experts Belleayre has some of the best spring mogul skiing. Belleayre is noted also for its wide variety of excellent intermediate and beginner trails with low skier/rider traffic density and well groomed trails.

Everyone should try all four Catskill resorts Belleayre, Hunter, Plattekill, and Windham. You will be glad you did.
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