We woke early on December 28, 2004 for the 100-mile drive from Statesville, N.C., where we had spent a day visiting family, to Boone, a town not far from North Carolina ski country where one can find numerous inexpensive lodging options. Conditions couldn’t have been better for skiing: the sun was shining and temperatures approached 40 degrees. We checked into the Boone Red Carpet Inn before heading south to Ski Beech. With its 5,505-foot high summit, Beech is the highest ski resort in Eastern North America, but with the exception of a few switchbacks leading to the base parking lot, the drive is easy. I purchased lift tickets while Travis rented boots, and we hit the slopes just after noon.
It was obvious that neither of us had been on the slopes since March. Travis’ ski fell off as we were loading the lift on the first trip uphill. He managed to successfully disembark at the summit, and a nice group of snowboarders in the chair behind us brought his ski up. “This will be a whole lot easier with two skis!” Travis said on our second trip up the hill.
Our first runs were on Upper and Lower Shawneehaw and Upper and Lower Robin’s Run. Both slopes are very popular with intermediate skiers, but Robin’s Run was less crowded. The slope veers left off of Shawneehaw and the entrance is adjacent to the expert run Southern Star, which makes Robin’s Run difficult to see. As such, the run is less crowded and the snow is better.
After warming up on the intermediate trails, Travis and I skied the expert slope White Lightning for the remainder of the afternoon session. White Lightning offered varied conditions: some portions were slightly bumped, others were groomed, and we even found a few ice spots.
We stepped into the View Haus cafeteria for a late lunch around 3:00, but the line was very long. I grabbed some ham sandwiches, beef jerkey, and a bottled water from the truck for us to munch on instead. A concession truck is a handy alternative to going into a lodge for food and some Mid-Atlantic resorts with crowded lodges on weekends might benefit from establishing similar outside concessions for hungry and thirsty skiers.
Beech Mountain was crowded the day I skied there. The wait at the double lift was about five minutes shorter than the wait at the quad lift. And while the quad was a quicker ride than the double, neither lift offered “high-speed” access to the top. At both lifts, waiting in line and riding to the top took 26 minutes.
“[This lift line] is not worth $50,” Eric Nicolas commented. Nicolas, an interior designer in Atlanta, Ga., spent 13 years working as an instructor in the French Alps. Talking with him made the long line at the double lift go much faster. As a kid growing up in France, he used to ski every day after school for his physical education class. Why didn’t I go to school in France? I would have enjoyed that kind of “liberty, equality and fraternity.”
Shortly before the lifts closed at 5 p.m. (reportedly, operating hours were extended because a lift broke down), the conditions began to change. White Lightning iced up, so Travis and I moved back to Shawneehaw and Robin’s Run, and stayed there for the remainder of the evening.
The lifts closed from 5:00 - 6:15 so the groomers could work their magic. Travis and I used the break to fill our stomachs at the Beechtree Bar and Grill. My chicken sandwich was excellent, and more importantly, cheap: $6.75 for the sandwich and $2.00 for a 24 oz. Mountain Dew. After dinner, Travis and I decided to stay on the blues and take it easy. Robin’s Run was nearly deserted and offered better conditions than Shawneehaw. Before leaving, we returned to the Beechtree for hot chocolate. The restaurant serves some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had - much better than Starbucks - and it only cost $1.50.
We decided to ski Appalachian on Wednesday morning. We would have made it to the resort in five minutes, but I took a wrong turn. Thirty minutes later, while listening to the hits of the “80’s, 90’s - and today!” on 97.3 WKBC-FM, we were passing Grandfather Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway! Fortunately, the drive wasn’t a waste of gas. The views of the mountain range were breathtaking. As we approached Blowing Rock, I saw a sign that said “Boat Rentals.” I was puzzled - who would rent a boat in the mountains?
Lake Price, created from the dammed Boone Fork, sat around the next bend. The lake was created in memory of longtime Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company President Julian Price, who died in 1946. Price owned 4,200 acres and planned on using the land as a backcountry retreat for his employees. After his death, the company donated the land to the National Park Service.
The crowd showed up in full force the afternoon we skied App. Most of them stuck to Orchard Run and Upper/Lower Big Appal. Orchard Run is an intermediate slope that jogs away from the lifts and then returns at the base of the mountain. Big Appal starts as an expert slope and then becomes an intermediate slope at mid-station. For some additional perspective check out the resort’s webcam, which is aimed at Big Appal.
I was glad the masses stuck to the two wider slopes because my favorites were Thin Slice and Hard Core - two narrow, tree-lined slopes that resemble Snowshoe’s Grab Hammer trail. The conditions on the two trails were superb, with just the right blend of hard-packed base and loose snow to enable S-curve after S-curve. Suffice to say, Thin Slice is my favorite slope in North Carolina. While Appalachian is the smallest ski area in the Tarheel state with only a 365-foot vertical, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon or evening session. The lift lines move quickly and it’s possible to make close to ten runs an hour when the conditions are right.
We called it quits when the lifts closed at 4 p.m. and headed into Boone to eat dinner at Macado’s, a hangout for students from nearby Appalachian State University. Appalachian State is one of few colleges in the south with an active ski racing program. We planned to spend Thursday morning, Dec. 30, at Hawksnest, another small resort with a vertical drop of 669 feet. Unfortunately, the resort did not offer morning half-days. We were disappointed that we did not have the opportunity to ski the Hawk. However, two of their four expert slopes were closed (Narrow Gauge and Top Gun, if memory serves me correct), making the mountain less appealing to two skiers used to the terrain offerings found further north.
Varied conditions and crowds seem to be the norm at ski resorts in the mid-Atlantic and southeast during the holidays. I will not lie: while I enjoyed most of the runs I made at Beech and Appalachian, my money would have been better spent at Snowshoe or the resorts of the Canaan Valley.