Firsthand Report: Sugar Mountain (Mar. 7) 9
Author thumbnail By John Sherwood, DCSki Columnist

Photo by John Sherwood.
With a 1,200 foot vertical, Sugar Mountain is the largest East Coast ski resort south of Snowshoe. The mountain is Located in Banner Elk, North Carolina - a good 7 hour drive from DC, but less than three hours from Charlotte, Knoxville, and Winston-Salem, and a little over 4 hours from Atlanta. In short, it serves the robust and growing ski markets of the New South - markets many of our savvier local resorts are trying hard to tap into.

When I found myself in nearby Hickory, North Carolina, last week, I decided to dash over to Sugar to make some sweet turns. Thursday promised sunny, 60 degree weather, but Sugar still had a very healthy 20-40 inch base. I stormed out of my hotel at 7:30, anxious to get some tracks in while the snow was still cold and fast. The drive from Hickory to Banner Elk took a little over an hour. I enjoyed gazing at some of the high North Carolina peaks as I made my way through the Pisgah National Forrest on Highway 181. The resort actually routed me back to Hickory through Boone, but the 181 route had less traffic and was actually faster, and certainly more beautiful.

Turning into Banner Elk, I got excited when I looked up to behold the 5,300 foot Sugar Mountain glistening in white! From the road, Sugar looks far more impressive than any mountain in the Mid-Atlantic. It also sports more skiable vertical than any Mid-Atlantic peak save Snowshoe. Furthermore, despite all the warm weather, Sugar’s excellent snowmaking team had managed to cover nearly the entire mountain with a decent base. The mountain’s unusually high altitude means that it often holds snow better than many mountains here in the Mid-Atlantic.

My excitement waned a bit when I got on the yellow chair - the main lift up to the summit from the base lodge. The mountain was first developed in 1969 and this lift looked almost as old. Needless to say, it was agonizingly slow! The summit of Sugar is currently served by two slow doubles, and there are no plans in the immediate future to install any new, high-speed lifts.

I began my southern ski adventure on Northridge, a blue trail that looped around the steep, upper headwall of the mountain. The snow was still frozen, granular for my first run, which enabled me to slice down the nearly empty mountain at healthy GS speeds.

Worried about the impending warm-up, I decided to head next for Whoopdedoo - the only double black diamond south of Shay’s Revenge. To prevent newbees from accidentally venturing onto this trail, the run was fully roped off. I actually had to ski through a gate with a big “Experts Only” sign over it to access the trail. I peered over the lip of the run and looked down. Before me stood a steep, 60 percent drop with almost no recovery zone at the bottom. To exit the trail, you make a quick left turn at the bottom onto Switchback or else you eat wood. Two rather pale looking boarders standing next to me, said, “You first dude!” Never one to ignore a challenge, I pushed off. I cut some pretty conservative first turns and then let it rip at the end. This proved to be a mistake because there is small lip at the end which launched me into the air. I had to cut a very hard turn at the end to avoid hitting the line of trees at the bottom.

Photo by John Sherwood.
I skied Whoopdedoo several more times and then headed for Tom Terrific and Boulder Dash. These two black trails took a slightly less steep path down the mountain, but were nice and narrow, limiting your options and actually making for tougher skiing than the wider Whoopdedoo. True to Boulder Dash’s name, the trail actually skirts around some boulders, giving it an interesting alpine flavor.

Sugar Mountain flattens out considerably once you get beyond the headwall. In fact, the mountain management encourages less confident intermediates to get off at the mid-station, and leave the upper mountain for experts only. For those new to the sport, the broad, gentle boulevards of the lower three quarters of the mountain are a dream. After the challenge of the upper mountain, I also enjoyed cooling off on these gentle, lower runs.

By 11:30 a.m., the snow started getting mushy so I headed for the lodge to grab a bite. The Sugar Lodge appeared spacious and the food was your average lodge fare: burgers, fries, and rings. The place was empty the day I was there but according to Communications Director Kim Jochl, it is packed on weekends.

I made one more run before calling it a day. By noon, everyone was skiing in shirtsleeves and the snow was truly Spring-like. Since they had not been waxed recently, my skis really started sticking to the surface, slowing me down considerably. I will be sure to stop by Ski Chalet for a wax job before enjoying any more Spring Skiing.

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About John Sherwood

John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.

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Reader Comments

Jarrett Baker
March 12, 2002
Great Article, John! I was there last spring, and boy it is packed on weekends! The skiing is really great, but again, its that ice that I hate. When I went I had heard that the top was all ice, so i only skiied Northridge from the top down. Yes, the lifts are amazingly slow. If you want fast lifts with several less trails, go to Beech. It's only several miles away. otherwise, some great skiing that somewhat compares to the 'Shoe! In fact, im headed up to Snowshoe on Saturday, i'll email Scott with a report when I get back.
John Sherwood
March 13, 2002
Thanks Jarrett. You should definitely head back to Sugar midweek if you get a chance, and check out the steeper, upper trails. As my article suggested, I spent most of my time there.
Jarrett Baker
March 13, 2002
maybe next season...Im also hoping to visit my relatives in rockville and potomic and go to the cabin with them. I thiink they ski at Liberty or one of the others around DC. Anyhow, any skiing is better than none!
Gary Bishop
March 13, 2002
Good to see an article on real southern sking John .Sugar can be a zoo on the weekends but what resort isn,t . I have skied their a couple of times this season with shitsleeve conditions both times but the snow was good until late afternoon. Sugar usually stays open longer than any of the NC resorts with some of the best snowmaking around
John Sherwood
March 14, 2002
I asked Scott about the possibility of including resort profiles on the NC mountains on this site. I don't know if this would be beneficial to DCSki and its mission, but I am curious what he and others think.
Jarrett Baker
March 14, 2002
I think it would be a great idea. if he nesds any help, i can add my two cents on the places i've been in NC
August 16, 2004
can you please post a picture of the slope. I am curius about skiing it but i really would like to see a picture of it so i can see the grade of steepness. i dont want to have to go through those ropes that nobody dares crossing just to discover that the run is too steep and is a solid sheet of ice.
August 18, 2004
Check this out:
(you might have to copy and paste into address bar). Just a guess, but from John's description, maybe the trail on the right is Whoopdedoo? Click on "view full size" for better look.
April 11, 2006
Sugar's lifts are extremely old and very slow. Faster lifts can be found at Hawksnest or Ski Beech. Also sugar tries to cover their entire mtn with snow all at once and is notorious to have more bare spots and thin areas than the other NC resorts. Sugar is also the most expensive. Their snowboard park is a joke - hit Hawksnest or App for a decent park. Do not think of going on a weekend. All you will do is stand in a lift line and then ride a lift for 20 minutes just to repeat again when you dodge all the people on the slopes to reach the 1 hour lift wait. Sugar was the worst place that I have ever skied.

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