Firsthand Report: Elk Mountain 4
By Brenton Archut

Some of the resorts I have been to throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are Killington, Okemo, Sunday River, Gore Mountain, Snowshoe Mountain, and Camelback. While some are more renowned than others, I rank Elk Mountain of Pennsylvania among my top three for sure, mostly behind Killington and Gore. That’s quite impressive for a Pennsylvania mountain, even if it has been ranked first by Ski magazine for snow, grooming, value, and weather in Pennsylvania since 2004.

Elk Mountain’s 27 trails cannot be beat. There is a great variety of terrain for all abilities, but its intermediate and expert runs stand above all others I have ridden in Pennsylvania. It does not claim to boast any double black diamonds, but I assure you that several of their trails could hold that distinction when compared to other double blacks in Pennsylvania. Elk is a privately owned mountain and its funding is not nearly as impressive as some other mountains in the area. However, Elk blows snow consistently throughout the season and rarely stops before mid-March. If you are looking for a terrain park here, you will be disappointed. This mountain is meant for those interested in downhill, not freestyle.

Many detractors have pointed out its lack of a high speed lift, but they are far too near-sighted. In my day at Elk, I was able to do every trail, except those with moguls, once, and most of them twice. The slow lifts preserve the surface coverage of the trails while allowing for skiers and riders to rest. Unlike many mountains with high speed lifts, I never become bored with the mountain and always leave yearning for more. With these thoughts in mind, I decided to take the one and a half hour drive to Union Dale, PA on March 11, 2008 to get a little taste of a big mountain in Pennsylvania.

No lift lines to speak of. Photo provided by Brenton Archut.

A friend of mine from home, Arif, recently relocated to Michigan to finish his collegiate career. Unfortunately for him, the mountains in Pennsylvania look massive compared to those he has been riding on. He was home on Spring Break, and being a second semester senior, I don’t have class on Tuesdays and Thursdays thanks to an easier course load. We awoke at 6:45 a.m. so that we could be at the mountain by the time they opened. We didn’t quite make it despite the great time we made on the highway (Mapquest says about two hours, but it took us one and a half), but its secluded location doesn’t exactly beg for foot traffic.

I am often impressed when I hear snow reports of how much more snow they get 100 miles north of Bethlehem (Elk often receives a foot of snow when Camelback only records 6 inches). It was apparent as the green ground around Bethlehem became increasingly whiter the farther north we went. In fact, there was about an inch of fresh snow coating the roads to Elk Mountain. We arrived at the mountain at 8:50 to an inch of fresh, a chilly 23 degrees, an empty mountain, and a space in the upper parking lot. It was 31 in Bethlehem.

Since my friend flew from Michigan, he was not able to bring all of his gear home with him. Luckily, he had a spare board and Elk offers Burton strap in boots for rent at $11. We quickly geared up, bought our passes, and hit the snow. The passes were $43 which really isn’t that expensive for the quality of skiing and riding, believe me. I usually go to Blue Mountain where I have my season pass, but I fell in love with Elk when I was 15, and have to go back at least once a year. To make it even better, and possibly induce me to come back a second time, Elk offers a $10 discount on your next 07/08 lift ticket if you redeem your old one. We hopped on the double lift in front of the lodge and our day began.

We began our day down Susquehanna, the trail directly beside the lift, and neither of us was disappointed. The corduroy was perfect, there was no ice, and it was impossible to catch an edge. The speed we achieved was stunning and there was no chance of falling. It was promptly decided that we would try to ride all the open trails except for Tunkhannock, their mogul trail. We then proceeded to ride down all of the trails to the left of the lodge, working our way methodically toward the quad lift servicing the right side of the mountain. The Mohawk, Iroquois, Tuscarora, and Slalom, all black diamonds on the left side, were in the same shape as Susquehanna. These trails all offer the same steep pitch and excellent grooming but are not nearly as wide. I found the only ice patch of the day, a 2x2 patch on the Iroquois. It was easily overlooked, especially since the work they had done from the weekend’s warm spell was phenomenal. After completing the Delaware, the only intermediate trail on that side of the mountain, and cruising through the modest terrain park, we headed to the right.

From the top of the Delaware. Photo provided by Brenton Archut.

We rode down the slightly sloped crest of the mountain down to the Mahican. Combined with the Lenape, this trail is an excellent cruising trail that is nearly 2 miles in length. All of the trails on this side of the mountain, mostly Blue Squares and Black Diamonds, are exceptional and offer wide slopes with some steep headwalls and enjoyable rollers. One of my personal favorites, the Kickapoo, is a fairly steep square offering multiple curves reminiscent of a boarder or skiercross course. All of these trails end at the quad/double lift combination. Understandably so, the quad was the only lift open. While not a highspeed quad, it moves fairly quickly and travels over the Tunkhannock. This trail, which is a mogul trail, seemed to be in great shape. It is steep and was covered in snow. Due to the freeze thaw cycle common in many mid-Atlantic areas the ruts between the bumps were icy, but Elk tries to blow snow on the trail every night necessary to add carvable snow to the top of it. The night before we arrived they had blown snow on two trails and they seemed to be adding to the thin spots to ensure a late closing date. It was apparent that the warm spell had done some damage, but the majority of their trails definitely boasted their reported 24-48 inch base. After riding all of the trails before lunch in a speedy three and a half hours, we decided to stop for lunch.

Snow saved on the side for later bare spots or the Annual Slopestyle Competition. Photo provided by Brenton Archut.

The lodge is nothing special, but it has a rustic mountain feel about it. The roof, which used to leak when there was snow on top of it, was fixed last year and no longer leaked. Arif and I quickly grabbed a full pizza for an economical $10.95 and sat down with our Powerades to eat it. Their food prices are very affordable and don’t seem to be nearly as high as some of their Pocono Mountain competitors. We took our time eating, and after the hour break decided to use our pass, which ended at 4:30 p.m., to its fullest potential.

The temperature increased a surprising amount over lunch. The trails after lunch were still in good shape, with little hardpack and no ice, but some of the snow of the sun exposed trails was a little slushy and sticky. We tracked over some trails and were still able to find some untouched cord, but then we went to the largely untouched terrain park. Since Tuesday is $15 lift tickets for seniors, not many of them had been through. I attempted some 360s to no avail and then headed to the other side of the mountain again. We were able to ride about 6-7 more runs there before they began closing the quad at 4:20. We just snuck by a patroller putting a line across Hiawatha, a green trail that ends at an entrance to the upper parking lot, thus saving us a decent amount of walking. While Elk only offers night skiing on about 8 trails, almost all of which are accessible by the double and scheduled to stop the 15th of March, they pick some of their best and most popular trails for that distinction. After returning the rental boots we packed the car and prepared for the ride home. The roads were now clear and the thermometer showed a beautiful 40 degrees. We arrived at 6 p.m. at my fraternity house at Lehigh to a nice sunset in a 48-degree sky.

Looking up on the Double Lift and the Seneca Trail. Photo provided by Brenton Archut.

In my opinion, March is the month that defines the length of the ski season. Almost every mountain in Pennsylvania has begun offering March passes or discount coupons to keep demand up. Every weekend will get less busy and by the end it will seem like another weekday. However, the more we ski and ride, the longer they will go. Elk, like my home mountain, Blue, does not normally post a closing date until a week before, but since both mountains have made it into the first week of April the past several seasons, weather permitting, that is entirely possible again this year. Many mountains, despite the decent start to the season, are recording higher than normal levels of skier visits and with an early Easter, may be able to continue profiting at later dates. I hope that I will be able to use my discount this season, but if not, I am still grateful for the day I got. I know I sound like a broken record, but Elk really is worth the drive and the experience. It is one mountain in the mid-Atlantic that I would not be bored at if I were to spend several days there. If you can find a day or a weekend here during the late season, and the weather looks favorable, I plead you to make the trip. At this point in the season I can’t offer guarantees, but its unlikely that you’ll be that disappointed.

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About the Author

Brenton Archut lives in the tourist town of Bethany Beach, Delaware. He spends his summers working at Fisher's Popcorn. He enjoys bodyboarding and snowboarding and snowboards mostly in the Poconos, but loves to explore new places. Brenton is currently attending school at Lehigh University, where he is pursuing a business degree.

Reader Comments

Bill O
March 16, 2008
Your report reflects my experiences at Elk.
JFYI, discount passes are available to most PA ski areas through the PRPS (Pennsylvania Parks and Recreation System). Discounts range from $17.00 to $5.00 depending on the day and time. Elk has the smallest discount at $5.00 for weekends and $6.00 for weekdays. You can get the discount tickets at most municipal offices.
March 17, 2008
Enjoyed reading your report. I had the same great experience at Elk. Loved the place.
March 17, 2008
Thanks for your report and photos, Brenton. I've skied Elk only once because it's a 4-hour haul from the Shenandoah Valley. Like your visit, though, mine was mid-March and the conditions were quite good. I have to agree with you on your praise for Elk's layout and grooming. They do a fine job. Not sure I can make it back to the thriving metropolis of Union Dale before the season ends, but I'll put it high on my list for the next chance I get. --Woody
November 19, 2008
While it is a bit of a haul from the B-more/DC area, if you are already on your way to camelback, keep on going and go to elk. I've skied there once each of the past two seasons and it was an extremely enjoyable experience both times. I can't wait to get back up there this year.

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