My family and I made our first ever visit to Hidden Valley ski area in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania on Saturday, January 19, 2008. We had a great time on good snow with manageable crowds serviced by a vibrant lift, lodge, and snowmaking infrastructure in full swing. As many regular DCSki readers know, Hidden Valley is under new ownership this season by the Pittsburgh-based Buncher Company. I can’t compare the “new” Hidden Valley with the old, but based on my wide ranging travels I can compare it to every other ski area in the mid-Atlantic and let me tell you, for families and weekenders it compares VERY FAVORABLY.
After a first glimpse at the steeper terrain facing the access road like Thunderbird and Cobra slopes, the second thing I noticed upon arrival was resort staff stationed all over the place. They were there to oversee the equipment drop-off zone and manage customer parking. They were courteously opening main lodge entrance doors and buzzing in and out of the guest services office. On the hill they were studiously assisting chair loadings and watching over lift lines, not that we ever waited more than a couple minutes in one all day long. This touch of class, service, and attention to detail did not go unnoticed by the women folk in my party either. I would hear more positive impressions in this vein from my wife and daughter as our day progressed.
However, my raison d’etre is skiing, so without much delay we headed out for a couple hours of family-friendly runs together. I guess I was expecting a very small mom and pop layout, but as we began to explore the terrain I was surprised by how many ski lifts were in operation at Hidden Valley including two triple chairs, one quad, and three doubles. A carpet lift serves the beginner area conveniently located next to the base lodge and there’s even a handle tow providing a fast surface connection with the quiet “backside” of the mountain. A satisfyingly high percentage of the 28 trails were open, spreading over 470 vertical feet of hillside sprinkled with vacation homes in a manner that reminded me of Bryce Mountain, VA.
We were also impressed with the quality of the skiing surface as we took our first runs down mellow trails like Continental and Rambler. Like virtually every trail on the mountain they were covered with fresh, nicely groomed man-made snow on Saturday, despite the fact that mixed frozen precipitation had splattered the Laurel Highlands a day or two before our visit. It wasn’t long before we hit the lengthy, lazy Voyager Run on the backside of the mountain. My easy skiing wife Kathy enjoyed it enough to request an encore. This trail pod, identified on maps as the North Summit Slopes, also includes some steeper runs like Comet, which my son and daughter schussed several times in succession as Mom and Dad dallied on Voyager.
The temperature was about 25-30 degrees on Saturday and the Hidden Valley snowmakers were busy with some of their equipment readying steeper, unopened runs in this vicinity called Charger and Outback. Of interest to lift junkies, the North Summit trail pod is served by the Avalanche quad chair with a people-mover/conveyor type loading platform. It’s a fixed grip lift, but with a comfort factor similar to a detached quad. Ideal for beginners and children, my wife deemed it a very civilized loading experience.
I made it a point to ski pretty much every open run when my teenage son Vince and I paired-off to cover more ground. Hidden Valley’s sweet spot is family friendly terrain, not killer steeps. However, we managed to find some advanced fun on the front side of the mountain (the Valley Slopes). If short, but steep runs like Firebird and Thunderbird were left to grow bumps they’d be reminiscent of Liberty Mountain, PA’s Upper Strata and Eastwind. My favorite run of the day, however, was a narrower, easy black diamond with a lot of untracked snow on it called Road Runner. Vince and I did our best to cut up the soft, six inches of crud along the edge of Road Runner. This task was made easier by repeat rides up the empty Blizzard double chair lift it runs under.
During our visit I got a chance to talk with a couple of Buncher Company officials, the dynamic father and son combination of Bill Doring, executive vice president and treasurer, and William Doring, controller. These are the folks (along with all the Hidden Valley/Buncher team including VP Ed Very) that deserve great credit for the bold remake/renovation of the area. Both gentlemen were busy doing hands-on stuff on a busy MLK Holiday weekend, but from my brief chats with them their enthusiasm for the resort was obvious.
The Dorings have skiing in their blood and have been long-time home owners at Hidden Valley. They appear to be invested in this mountain in more ways than just financial. William was seen roaming all over the lodge and around lift loading areas. He gushed most proudly about a lengthy list of on-hill improvements this year such as 30 TechnoAlpin M18 Automatic Pole Mount Fan Snowmaking Guns, two new Pisten Bully groomers, new chairs on both triple chairlifts, the new Emmegi Loading Conveyor installed on the North Summit quad, a Zaugg Half Pipe Cutter, ten boxes and rails for Terrain Park, and a 60% upgrade of the rental inventory with hundreds of new Elan skis, Dalbello ski boots, Atomic snowboards, Salomon snowboard boots, and Boeri helmets. Talk about having your priorities straight!
The attractive main base lodge features several food service options and a clock tower with a portico that reminded me of Whitetail, PA. The Dorings are taking care of a lot of that less glamorous, but essential business off the slopes too, like new roofing, paint, carpets, signage, access road pavement, and handicap access. My daughter loved the jazzy music piped through an outside PA system on the grounds. My wife liked cloths in the cafeteria on tables inhabited by what appeared to be a young, well behaved crowd. Both wife and daughter noticed spotless Ladies Rooms with non-slip floor covers.
As we left Hidden Valley the chimes of the clock tower played us a 5 p.m. farewell and I think I finally got it. Now I understand why there has been so much DCSki Message Forum chatter on the rise and fall and rise of Hidden Valley. This place is too darn special to let go to the dogs! From what I’ve seen of this season’s “new beginning” under the Buncher Company that threat to a piece of Laurel Highlands Heaven has ceased to exist.
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.