For various reasons, romance or otherwise, in my handful of visits over a 25-year span I had never experienced Canaan Valley when ski operations were in full swing. The 2005 January From Heck almost conspired to foil me again, but not so. Conditions at Canaan Valley Ski Area have improved dramatically since winter returned in mid-month. 33 of 37 trails were open in time for a marvelous visit I made with my family over the last weekend of January.
A West Virginia adventure always begins with the drive. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, optimal travel routes can be a riddle wrapped up in a mystery for infrequent visitors. This time I solved the riddle by fleeing northern Virginia at the height of a Friday evening rush hour on the Dulles Toll road and Greenway. We averaged 60 MPH all the way to Leesburg.
We experienced 5-10 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic around the Leesburg Bypass and then continued on at posted speeds the rest of the way via Routes 7, 50, 93, and 32. Since I don’t travel to the Canaan Valley frequently, I can’t offer detailed comparisons, but the 3-4 dollars in tolls using this route seemed like money well spent over my other main westward rush hour option, I-66. The 180-mile drive from the DC area took about 3.5 hours.
Our accommodations on this trip were at the Canaan Valley Resort & Conference Center. This well managed, 250-room complex has been a year-round lodging anchor in the valley for decades. It offers winter vacationers a full plate of varied activities highlighted by skiing, boarding, and tubing at the Canaan Valley ski area about two miles down a service road from the hotel. The resort’s golf course serves as a cross-country skiing and snowshoeing venue. Amenities also include a well-appointed dining room, large ice rink, and an indoor pool with Jacuzzi - the latter spot being the first place my family hit upon arrival Friday night.
The self-contained resort center and ski area are connected by a free and frequent shuttle bus system. Embrace this system, it works! There is nothing like parking your car on a vacation and not touching it until departure time. Both days of our visit my son and I enjoyed early morning door to door shuttle rides to catch first tracks while the ladies in my group were able to sleep-in, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and prepare for a grand entrance later on the slopes. The resort bus system is a great facilitator for harmonious commingling of the hardcore and the softcore. Try that on most ski trips!
La Raison d’etre - the skiing. Considering the ski area suffered a near complete meltdown just two weeks before our visit, the skiing was excellent. I really enjoyed covering the variety of runs at Canaan over a two-day stay. Only a handful were not open at the time of our visit, most notably Gravity, a prominent black diamond run from the summit. But even Gravity received a blast of snowmaking all day on Saturday and looked primed for impending usage.
A couple of inches of wet snow fell Saturday night and when my son and I hit the slopes on Sunday morning we got some of the best runs of the weekend down a sweet, soft layer of corduroy on Upper Valley Vista and Upper Ramble. Visibility diminished somewhat on Sunday with intermittent fog, but the snow surface on all trails remained soft, forgiving, and fun. The Canaan Valley Terrain Park was open all weekend and featured several rails and a huge final hit. It had some of the best manmade snow coverage on the mountain and should remain in business well into spring.
Perhaps the highlight of the weekend for my two daughters and son was a ski lesson they took on Saturday with Ray LaMora, a veteran instructor with the Canaan Valley Ski School. Ray was friendly and patient and gave the kids a number of great form thoughts to focus on in the future. The one I’ll remember is “finish those turns” to check speed on steeper runs.
I was also very impressed with the large number of volunteer courtesy patrollers on the slopes. They were all over the place and provided a very well monitored environment. I seemed to cross paths with one tall fellow named Randy at regular intervals. He was there to assist customers at the ticket window in the morning, manage the (short) lift line at the beginner chair at noon, and clarify trail map questions at the summit late in the day. Good job Randy! I hope you got in some runs for yourself.
During our stay the lodge was full of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and church groups. Despite this, my wife, the light sleeper, said the resort grounds were very quiet during the wee hours. Canaan Valley may do big a business with groups, but here’s the single most valuable tip from my reconnaissance: lift lines never exceeded a minute or two during perhaps the premier weekend so far this winter for satisfying a great deal of pent-up mid-Atlantic skier/boarder demand. My sources in the skier grapevine indicate that while those of us at Canaan Valley were enjoying great conditions, lots of terrain, and quick lift rides, patrons at most other mid-Atlantic ski areas were enduring epic mobs and long queues.
State ownership may have its challenges, just ask any local about the story of Bear Paw Lodge. But from what I saw Canaan Valley Resort & Conference Center is in good hands with managing concessionaire Guest Services Inc. Canaan Valley is the place to escape the frenzy when you venture outside the city for a ski weekend.
Key resort facts:
Top elevation - 4280’
Vertical drop - 850’
Longest run - 1.25 miles
Slopes - 37
Lifts - one quad chair, two triples
Snowmaking - 85%
Pizza - Sirianni’s, Davis, WV
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.