What is the toughest slope in the Mid-Atlantic? This question could stir an enjoyable exchange about the best tests for skiers and snowboarders in our region.
As a recreational skier like many of you, my knowledge base has the limitations of an amateur. I kept my snapshot commentaries on various ski areas very simplistic to minimize the “B.S.” factor. I welcome elaboration from all readers.
I’m no super expert, but I like to sample ski resorts and I’ve been capable enough over the last 30+ years to ski everything I’ve seen that passes for a black diamond run in the Mid-Atlantic. My assessments are not meant to be authoritative, but are offered for entertainment value on a subject of interest to all serious skiers and snowboarders.
Picking the “toughest” of anything is a subjective exercise. An expert skier from New England, the American West, or Europe might chuckle at the premise of really tough slopes anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic. Certainly the geography of our region precludes seriously extreme terrain; nor do we have the kind of steep, lengthy in-bound runs found elsewhere that can turn your legs to jelly and set your lungs to heaving after one descent.
I could argue, however, that everything is relative. Something of a challenge can be found at almost all of our local ski areas for the average Mid-Atlantic recreational skier or boarder.
We all have a gut feeling on what’s the toughest slope, but the more I thought about it, the less cut and dry the answer became. An intermediate trail covered with icy bumps can be much tougher to handle than a perfectly groomed black diamond run. “Steeper than hell” is the obvious first qualification (a number of tough slopes around the country bear this moniker), but weather and grooming also factor in to the slope difficulty equation, including snow/ice conditions, presence and size of bumps, narrowness, trees and glades, and the unpredictability of off-the-trail-map terrain. You could even consider the physical condition of the individual skier/boarder and the condition of their equipment as a difficulty factor. Enough boneheaded philosophy, here’s my two cents on the subject by state.
In the state of Virginia there just isn’t a real tough slope. I’ve never been to The Homestead. My impression is that they have a terrific lodge/resort complex with a small, benign ski area added for the enjoyment of winter guests.
Bryce Mountain is a great little beginner and family mountain about two hours west of D.C. on I-66. Bryce offers a relaxing trail system. The narrow little trail “Hangover” presents an opportunity to link a few quick turns, as might White Lightening, but everything else is pretty much easy cruising.
Wintergreen, down near Charlottesville, is not quite as tame and offers a greater range of intermediate and advanced runs. It’s been three or four years since I’ve been there. From my experience, when “Upper Cliffhanger” was bumped up it delivered enough challenge to demand close attention. I don’t remember similar steepness or bumps on “Wild Turkey”, another black diamond slope at Wintergreen.
I’ve skied quite a bit at Massanutten near Harrisonburg. While the two enjoyable runs off their quad chair, “Diamond Jim” and “Paradice,” are designated as expert only terrain, neither has any seriously steep sections. I’ve found that the top of “Dixie Dare” off the Rebel Yell double chair is more likely to be the toughest slope at Massanutten, especially by mid-season when management usually allows it to develop pretty good sized bumps.
My vote for the toughest slope in Virginia is “Dixie Dare” at Massanutten.
Wisp, the only ski area in Maryland, does not contain anything more difficult than can be found in the state of Virginia. Wisp lies in the far western corner of Maryland and gets a relatively generous dose of natural snow. It is located near Deep Creek Lake, which presents some nice views from the top of the slopes and great summertime diversions. Wisp has a number of interesting and well maintained intermediate runs, but there is nothing there to really rattle your teeth.
I have never been to Winterplace in southern West Virginia, but I have not heard of any fearsome terrain there.
The terrain at Canaan Valley ski area in the northeastern quadrant of West Virginia is comparable to Wisp and Wintergreen. I enjoyed the variety of undulating intermediate runs. I haven’t skied there much, but the run “Gravity” seemed to be one of their steepest offerings. I am not aware of any hair raising runs at Canaan Valley.
Timberline ski area is just a couple of miles from Canaan Valley. It also features mostly intermediate-friendly runs. However, many of the runs at Timberline head straight down the fall line adding a bit more challenge, if less duration. (In this regard it is reminiscent of Whitetail in Pennsylvania.)
“The Drop” at Timberline is pretty steep. I am not sure about the difficulty level of two additional black diamond runs between “The Drop” and the lazy two mile beginner slope “Salamander,” as they weren’t open during several visits I made to Timberline.
I have heard that some challenging, off-the-trail-map (and probably unauthorized) skiing exists at Timberline and in the nearby Dolly Sods wilderness area. This wouldn’t surprise me given all the telemarkers I’ve observed on the slopes of Timberline. Some telemarkers I’ve talked to were former alpine skiers who made the switch to introduce more challenge to their skiing and gain access to wilder terrain.
Snowshoe, in the east-central section of West Virginia, contains a good range of what I would call advanced intermediate slopes. “Cupp Run,” in their Northwest Territory, is one of the best and longest examples of this in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“Shays Revenge” parallels “Cupp Run” and also descends the same 1500 vertical feet. The upper portion of “Shays Revenge” is a cruiser’s delight, but the truly black diamond lower section features a headwall with the longest, steepest mogul field south of the Mason-Dixon line; i.e., Pennsylvania. Snowshoe blows a lot of snow on this steep section and it is generally open with big bumps for a major portion of the ski season. It’s a good bet for those looking for reliable access to a local slope with some serious challenge.
My vote for the toughest slope in West Virginia is “Shays Revenge.”
The southern third of the state of Pennsylvania contains seven ski areas; many have been enjoyed by Mid-Atlantic skiers for decades.
The toughest runs at Roundtop in south-central Pennsylvania are “Gunbarrel” and “Ramrod.” They contain steep and typically bumpy, but short pitches.
Nearby, Whitetail is noted for a 900’ vertical drop, the largest in close proximity to D.C. Several consistently steep runs descend from the Whitetail high-speed quad. At least one of them, “Bold Decision,” is allowed to bump-up and can provide considerable challenge.
Liberty, also located in this area of Pennsylvania, has a couple of short but very steep and moguled trails on the backside of their mountain, “Upper Strata” and “Ultra.” With a lighting system that provides nearly 100% coverage, Liberty has some of the toughest night skiing terrain available to Mid-Atlantic skiers and boarders.
I have never been to Hidden Valley or Laurel Mountain ski areas in southwestern Pennsylvania. It is my understanding that Hidden Valley caters to families looking for affordability and features moderate terrain.
Laurel Mountain, recently reopened after being closed for years, is said to have a very steep run called “Wildcat.”
Nearby, the venerable Seven Springs offers a great deal of ski terrain, including a number of short, relatively steep runs on the front face of the mountain. They are usually well groomed and very manageable, but moguls are allowed to grow on a couple, making them considerably tougher.
Last, but not least, is Blue Knob, also located in western Pennsylvania. Blue Knob contains several runs that are probably tougher than any found at the other ski areas covered in this discussion. The steep, bumpy, but relatively wide run at Blue Knob called “Extrovert” is perhaps a smidge longer and steeper than the headwall of lower “Shays Revenge” at Snowshoe, West Virginia.
The steep section of “Extrovert” has a significant vertical drop that I would estimate is in the neighborhood of 750’. A couple of narrow, advanced trails bisect “Extrovert,” adding a bit of a chaotic factor. The comparison between “Extrovert” and “Shays Revenge” is close, but Blue Knob’s legendary foul weather and less user friendly surface conditions make “Extrovert” tougher. I guess you’d call that a qualified nod to “Extrovert” and Blue Knob in general.
The obscure and all natural “Lower Shortway,” also at Blue Knob, contains a short, steep and extremely narrow (15’) segment. The steepest part of “Lower Shortway” demands the ability to make a series of quick linked turns. Other trails like “Edgeset” and “Lower 66” demand similar skill.
I am less familiar with the gladed terrain Blue Knob has cleared and officially opened up in the last few years. “East Glades Wall” parallels “Extrovert,” but is not as long a descent. It appears almost as steep and is heavily cluttered with trees and rocks.
My vote for the toughest slope in southern Pennsylvania and in my entire survey of Mid-Atlantic ski areas is “Extrovert.”
As I write this, the Mid-Atlantic is experiencing a serious January thaw. Let’s hope it ends soon. Early February usually brings the optimal weather and snow conditions for testing the best and toughest skiing and boarding terrain available in our region.
My racking and stacking of the toughest slopes in the Mid-Atlantic is all personal opinion and not backed up by any measurements or engineering surveys. If I’ve omitted, mischaracterized, or belittled your favorite run, go ahead and set me straight if you care to; for now I’ll stand by my toughest choices.
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.