Usually I ski about 25 days in a season. My home areas for day trips in the past 12 years have been Liberty and Whitetail in Pennsylvania. Since I live in the northern Shenandoah Valley, I’ve been fortunate to have four ski areas within a 90-minute drive and eight more areas less than three hours away. For overnights, I try to arrange a road trip or two to the Northeast, and I go on a family-and-friends weekend at West Virginia’s Snowshoe Mountain Resort.
Needless to say, this season has been different. I’d bought season passes in early March 2020, not knowing that the COVID-19 pandemic would shutter the 2019-20 season by mid-month and persist eleven months later. Slowed down by an October knee mishap, a warm December, and a wintertime spike in COVID incidence accompanied by new sequestering requirements in Pennsylvania and points north, I faced an impasse. Isolating out-of-state for a week and obtaining a virus test for even a day trip to Whitetail or Liberty was impractical. Where can I ski? Are there any discounts to help reduce the expense?
Doors had closed north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Doors were opening, though, as my knee strengthened and I considered the options available with my Indy Pass. Not only were nearby Bryce, Massanutten, and Canaan Valley on the Indy, but three ski areas further southeast sat within a half-day: Winterplace, Ober Gatlinburg, and Cataloochee. Since anticipating a trip brings joys of its own, I quickly put together a week-long skiing road trip to Appalachian Dixie (to borrow Southern Snow author Randy Johnson’s term) as I cancelled plans for Vermont, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
Articles, trip reports, and posts here on DCSki.com have made my skiing a great deal more fun since I clicked into skis again in 2003 after a 30-year hiatus. Below I report on my seven-day road trip through the Southeast in the hope of returning the favor, at least in small part, to readers of DCSki. Bear with me: the mountain scenery and the ambience of any area are important parts of my ski experience. I write about them, as well as about the ski runs.
Day One, Sunday January 24, 2021 began under sunny skies that yielded to intermittent rain and snow showers by midday. I reached Winterplace after a four-hour drive through the mountains on interstate highways and a court summons near Covington VA for an expired inspection sticker — an oversight during the pandemic that set me back $106. Not covered by my Indy Pass, unfortunately. (My wife asked.)
Located in the heart of West Virginia’s coal country near Beckley, Winterplace has a modest 600-foot vertical but spreads out for a mile along its Allegheny ridge. Ski runs get progressively more difficult as one moves from the base lodge to looker’s left. All but three main runs were open, and coverage was substantial and side-to-side for my visit. The steeps — including Plunge and Nose Dive — match or exceed the challenge of Whitetail’s Bold Decision, while wanderers like me can enjoy Winterplace’s Country Roads, Ridge Runner, and Compromise.
Passing showers, softening snow, and a mined landscape could be depressing, but that’s not the vibe at Winterplace. Lift towers and chairs are brightly colored and freshly painted. Clear and frequent signs direct newcomers to ticket windows, restrooms, and compatible trails without excessive head-scratching. Lift lines and concessions were managed efficiently, and weekend skiers observed virus-related protocols with only occasional reminders needed from patrollers.
After four or so hours I was soaked. It was time to call it a day, a good day, at Winterplace as the rain picked up and lights came on for night skiing.
Into every road trip some rain must fall. Showers continued off-and-on last night and through most of my second day as I headed toward the Great Smoky Mountains. Although I’d considered taking advantage of my second free Indy Pass ticket to ski the morning at Winterplace, poor weather conditions put me on the road. Waves of mist draped the mountain coves and silhouetted the tree-sentinels along the soggy corridors cut for Interstates 77, 81, and 26. Hey Joni Mitchell, clouds didn’t get in my way today; they made my way more beautiful.
I hadn’t planned on visiting Wolf Ridge Ski Resort today. Their open runs were limited, and my Indy Pass provided two tickets for the ski areas situated at each end of this segment of my road trip. But breaks in the clouds teased me as I-26 climbed the Bald Mountains southeast of Johnson City, TN. Shortly after crossing into North Carolina, I turned off the expressway and followed the twisting road past two (very) small-scale snow tubing operations toward Wolf Ridge. At the gatehouse, the guard provided a free parking permit, informing me that I was entering a private development and venturing anywhere else would be trespassing. Fine by me.
Two long, steep stairways led from the parking lot to the building I presumed to be the lodge (it was). Hmm. I’d been doing the your-car-is-your-base-lodge COVID thing up to this point. Given the location, weekday date, and lack of other vehicles nearby, I decided to schlepp my gear to the lodge and boot up there rather than clomping uphill all that way in my heavy ski boots. Good choice. Aside from a few families, the staff, and a small school group, I seemed to be the only person skiing this afternoon. Even better, Wolf Ridge tickets are complimentary for persons 65 and over, so I was officially inducted into ski geezerhood at the ticket window as I received my first age-related skiing freebie.
Wolf Ridge is decidedly, probably determinedly, old-school and rustic. Given the look of the lift towers, I might add rusty, but I genuinely liked the unpainted base lodge, classic fireplace, and unassuming decor. Snowmaking had opened the teaching area and a single route from the summit: Viewfinder > Midway > Lower Streak > Goin’ South. Bare ground showed through elsewhere. The meandering, narrow-ish route down the 700-foot vertical drop was fun to ski, as it contrasted strongly with the broad, heavily groomed, snow-holding slopes that are today’s standard. I earned no prizes for style as I tentatively worked my way down the trails.
My only reservation about Wolf Ridge is the trash that lines the lengthy approach road. Whether a paid staff or a more community-minded homeowner’s association is the better solution, the drive through the rhododendron-lined stream valley would be much more welcoming if its appearance matched those of other recreation developments. I criticize gently, grateful for my ticket and appreciative of the warm, homey feel of skiing at Wolf Ridge. I want to return when those other runs are open.
Ski Town, the sign proclaimed, as dusk fell and I entered the Great Smoky Mountains in Maggie Valley NC. While the sign’s large size and bright multi-colored lights fit the region’s tourism economy, I was surprised and delighted to see a community in the South adopting a winter sports moniker. Go Maggie Valley! And let me know when you’re done with that sign. I’ll rent a truck…
Like the majority of southeastern ski areas I visited on this road trip, Cataloochee is reached by a long, winding, steep, and scenic mountain road. White knuckles are guaranteed in slippery conditions. As a ski area access, the route to Cataloochee would be almost entirely out of place in New England (the climb to Bolton Valley VT is an exception) and uncommon even in the Mid-Atlantic (but approaches to Blue Knob, Wintergreen, and Snowshoe have earned their notoriety). Cataloochee’s 5,400-foot summit elevation often wins the ski resort bragging rights as the first to open, not only for the Southeast but also for the entire East Coast — probably to the chagrin of Killington, Sunday River, and other areas vying for that title.
Clear skies followed last night’s thunderstorms, which created an easy drive. I booted up beside my car, framed by rhododendrons and warmed by the morning sun. The first bluebird day of this trip. Cataloochee receives some criticism for not having many separate runs for its 740-foot vertical, but the two from the top branch quickly into three, and then four. Some are wide slopes, while others are narrower trails through the trees. Aggressive snowmaking paid off with a pleasant skiing surface. The lodge, lifts, and equipment all seemed to be well-maintained. If you like winter miniatures, be sure to check out the ski slope model — with bits of blowing styrofoam snow — in the base lodge.
I left Cataloochee in the early afternoon. A short hike to Soco Falls (full of water after several warm, rainy days), a drive-through lunch in Cherokee, and pulloffs for snapshots of resting elk and views of the Great Smoky Mountains broke up my 90-minute drive to Gatlinburg.
The name is revealing. So is the $10 parking fee. Vacation homes, roads, and stores sit on every developable and questionably developable square-foot of mountain land. Welcome to Gatlinburg. I’d visited before during other seasons, but I’d never made the trek up to the ski lifts or taken some runs down the slopes. If you want to ski in every US state with an open lift-served ski area, then here’s your only opportunity in the Volunteer State. The vertical drop is about 600 feet.
I was grateful for the shuttle from the resort parking up to the Resort Mall where you can haul your armload of skis past The Shops at Ober while trying to find out where to get your ticket, where the restrooms are located, and how to get out onto the snow. If you have an Indy Pass, as I do, you’ll waste your time, as I did, standing in a ticket line with only two open windows for visitors buying tickets and filling out lengthy equipment rental forms. Why was I wasting my time? Because when I reached the ticket window, I learned that Indy Pass holders had to stand in line at Resort Services. My bad. Both here and out on the slopes, I was escorted by kind and helpful staff members to my destination. Kudos to them and Ober Gatlinburg. Consider some signs as well.
Eventually I reached the snow. A word to fellow first-timers: all the lifts you see do not serve ski slopes; some are for summer scenic rides only. And you can’t see the base of the base-to-summit lift from the place where you step onto the snow. What’s that Maine expression? “You can’t get there from here.” Well, you can. Put on your skis, work your way slowly to the right, get through the crowds lined up (even on a Tuesday) for the smaller lift, ease through the beginner classes and past those who are taking off or putting on their gear, and you’ll find a short drop to the summit lift. There was rarely a line when I visited, probably because few people know the lift’s location.
Once I got onto the ski lift and ski runs, the crowds were gone. Snow coverage was good on the open runs, although rains and warm temperatures had softened up the surface. I skied from the summit several times, enjoying the deep blue afternoon sky and distant views before calling it a day at Ober Gatlinburg and driving back across the Smokies to Maggie Valley.
Day Four (Wednesday, January 27) dawned brighter than forecasted and I’d rested well, so I decided to reserve a ticket at Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock NC. Driving up the Blue Ridge from Interstate 40 at Lenoir NC provided long views across the Piedmont and spectacular perspectives on Hawksbill Mountain, Table Rock, and other promontories along the escarpment. The upscale villages of Blowing Rock, Boone, Banner Elk, et al., here might best be described as spiffy: attractive, sturdily built, clean, and well-maintained. The shops (and shoppes) serve their tourist clientele year-round.
Appalachian’s parking lot is level, its walkways are paved, lifts and wood surfaces are painted in the resort’s brown-and-orange color scheme, snowmaking is top-notch, and ticket pickups are scheduled at 5-minute intervals to reduce lines at the indoor ticket windows. In these and other ways, Appalachian is the polar opposite of Wolf Ridge, a two-hour drive away yet still in western North Carolina.
All ski runs were open, groomed smoothly, and covered side-to-side with a thick base of machine-made snow. I took advantage of the opportunities and skied everything except the terrain park (pass required) a few times. Although none of Appalachian’s chairlifts are high speed, who needs speed when the vertical is only 300 feet? Masked and laden with water and snacks, I hung out on the second-floor deck twice, enjoying happy sounds of skiing on a warm winter afternoon. After buying a jacket patch and two ski pins, including a pin commemorating App’s 50th anniversary in 2018, I stowed my skis in the car and headed to my three-night rental in Banner Elk.
Temperatures dropped more than fifty degrees in less than a half-day, and a few inches of snow fell overnight. I waited out the roughest weather in the morning and then, around midday, drove up from Banner Elk (elevation 3,701 feet) to Beech Mountain Resort (base elevation 4,675 feet). Advice to first-timers: check out Fred’s Mercantile, a traditional stop for deli sandwiches and other essentials en route. Having arrived in the parking lot at 12:30, I didn’t reach the slopes until an hour later after a far-too-long weekday wait in an outdoor ticket line (it’s time for RFID and/or more window staff, Beech!) and booting up in the lodge to warm up.
Not surprisingly, snow conditions on Beech Mountain were mixed. Wind-scoured boilerplate patches emerged in some summit areas, but wind-dropped powder created fun in the lee of the trees. Most of the snow surface was comfortably skiable — quite a feat for the mountain operations crew under difficult circumstances. Difficult may well be the norm at wind-exposed Beech, however. Its summit elevation is the East’s highest: 5,506 feet. As my dad would have said, “Between here and the North Pole? Nothing but air!”
In the 1970s, the Land of Oz theme park operated on the summit ridge of Beech. Complete with a yellow brick road, character actors, several buildings, and a ski lift designated as Dorothy’s Balloon Ride, the park was a top regional attraction until a fire, financial problems, and vandalism forced Oz to close in 1980. Portions of the restored park are now open for special events. Dorothy’s Balloon Ride was refashioned into a traditional ski lift that serves a delightful intermediate ski run called, of course, Oz. While the top hundred yards, including the access bridge, can become windblown, the rest of Oz often provides some of the mountain’s most enjoyable skiing because of the powder that builds up there.
In 2014, my son and I had a great time at Sugar Mountain on Thanksgiving weekend, so I had high hopes for my return to the only southeastern ski area I’d previously visited. Sugar did not disappoint. All of the runs were open, including several advanced slopes that were welcoming skiers for the first time during the season.
Most people who describe Sugar note the superlatives: the region’s greatest vertical drop (1,200 feet) and most acreage (115) of skiable terrain, and the only high speed detachable 6-pack chairlift south of Timberline, WV. Also noteworthy is the array of short but steep expert trails such as Whoopdedoo and Boulder Dash that drop off the summit ridge, plus Gunther’s Way, a longer blue-black slope on skier’s left. Novices have Easy Street, an area separated from advanced runs and served by its own lift, a detachable quad installed in 2019.
Visitors are also rewarded by views of rugged mountain scenery, especially the rocky ridge of Grandfather Mountain, which many, including me, consider the most distinctive peak in the Southern Appalachians in terms of landscape, animals, and plants. Vistas from Sugar’s ski runs are marred, however, by the massive condominium development on adjacent Little Sugar Mountain — a monstrosity that triggered enactment of the state’s Mountain Ridge Protection Act in 1983.
The overall feelings I get from being at Sugar Mountain are bigness and efficiency. Big mountain, wide runs, high-capacity lifts, large base lodge, and extensive vacation-home developments. Upgraded snowmaking, good shuttle system, detachable chairs, well-maintained facilities, and modern lodge design. As more than one observer has remarked, Sugar is often considered the region’s best. And they know it.
On my last night in the Southeast, I stepped out of my rented apartment and watched plumes of machine-made snow rise from the edge of Beech Mountain, illuminated by night-skiing lights and a full moon. My week had been full as well. I drove home on Saturday, January 30, in about six hours. The tally: seven ski areas in seven days, only one of which (Sugar) I had skied before. Tickets to three areas were covered by my Indy Pass, I paid for three other tickets at the window or in advance, and I received a comp ticket at Wolf Ridge because of my status as a senior. Also I added six ski patches, six ski pins, and a handful of trail maps and ski tickets to my collection. A year earlier, I hadn’t expected that any of these areas would appear in my ski itineraries for 2020-21.
Season pass deals are usually announced in early March. I wonder what options for 2021-22 will be offered in the wake of the abrupt early closing a year ago and the challenges of operating during the pandemic in 2020-21. And I wonder how circumstances several months afterwards may, once again, change what I actually end up doing. My wish is simply for more opportunities to leave tracks in the snow.
Woodward S. (Woody) Bousquet began skiing in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts at Bousquet Ski Area, which was founded in 1932 by his grandfather Clarence Bousquet and later managed by his father Russell and his uncle Paul. A professor of environmental studies and biology, Woody recently retired from Shenandoah University (Winchester, VA) and is past president of the Virginia Academy of Science. He and his students have been active in investigating water quality, protecting natural areas, and informing the public about nature and environmental issues in the Shenandoah Valley.
Love this! A man after my own heart. Love that you skied TN. It is one of 4 "skiable" states I have not skied. You should of pushed on to CloudMount in AL!
Thanks Woody. I have been wondering about some of the southeastern skiing and this gives me somethings to consider. Sorry for your misfortune with the Covington trap. This is a known location for robust ticketing on I64.
Denis, oldensign, and Cycleski, thanks for reading and commenting.
Oldensign, Cloudmont AL is on my radar screen too, even though it's quite a haul from just about everywhere else. Unfortunately, it's difficult to learn much in advance whether Cloudmont will truly be open.
Denis, some of my road trips are like this one was: pack in what you can along the way as well as while you're there. Short story: at the end of a week-long stay in Maine (I'd visited Roundtop PA and Wachusett MA en route up there), I left Bethel, Maine in mid-morning with 11 hours and almost 700 miles ahead of me to get home ... that day, by myself. Of course, I had a few places in my sights on the route back home. I ended up having a delightful 2 hours skiing and the best burger in the Northeast at, where else?, Northeast Slopes in East Corinth, VT. Gotta be realistic: there's no practical difference between arriving home at 10:00 p.m. and arriving home at 1:00 a.m., right? You're dog-tired either way, but the smile on your face is bigger if you've skied.
Cycleski, in regard to Covington VA. Now I know(( To you and all, I'll warn about speed cameras east of Hagerstown MD between I-81 and Ski Liberty PA. Ouch. Double-ouch, actually. My fault entirely; I'd sped up before I was beyond the city limits.
Hey cousin! Great article! I love your pictures too. I would love to ski at Sugar someday and connect with Kim (Schmidinger) Jochl who started out at Bousquet and who’s dad (Elmar) coached my son. Bousquet has made lots of updates this year that will continue into next year, so perhaps we can get in some runs together when you can safely get back to MA. Meanwhile, the snow at Jiminy Peak has been spectacular! (LB)
I really enjoyed your ski trip report from down South. Congratulations on your retirement and enjoying more slope time.You are relatively young so get as much skiing in as possible.
The Colonel aka Morgan Birge