Pocono Resorts
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February 19, 2001
I had an expedition to 4 Pocono Mountain Resorts in mid-January. The following facts and observations are passed along for the benefit of fellow DC area skiers.

The resorts I visited were in the vicinity of Scranton / Wilkes-Barre, PA. They are not "destination" resorts so you can stay in one of many inexpensive hotels or motels in these cities. Mnay of them offer discount lift tickets in conjunction with the area resorts.

The drive from DC / northern Virginia is ~ 225 miles or about 4 hours non-stop without too much highway stress. It's a straight shot up I-81 through east-central PA; pretty scenic, unless you're driving at night. I left after work on a Wednesday and, after a dinner stop north of Harrisburg, PA, pulled into my Wilkes-Barre hotel about 9 PM.

I skied at Montage Mountain on Thursday. It's just outside of the Scranton, PA city limits; I-81 Exit 51. Had the place pretty much to myself all day. I would go down many runs with no other skiers in sight. The lift operators would come out of their "warming huts" when I arrived at the bottom of the hill to dutifully help me onto the chairlift (no lines, no waiting).

Montage has a 1000 foot vertical drop and some fairly challenging terrain. Highball and Mainline are some beautiful beginner slopes: wide, smooth, and well-groomed. All of the intermediate slopes are accessible from the Iron Horse lift. These are wide to very wide cruisers with some gentle turns. A terrain park with various jump hills was set up on Upper Runaway. (I was amused by their warning sign: "Please! No inverted arials!")

At the bottom of all the blue slopes is the bottom half of Montage's mountain, where the grade steepens to the Black Diamond Lower Runaway; Lower Fast Track closed on the day I was there. From the bottom of the hill you COULD take the Long Haul chairtlift all the way to the top, but it was not operating that Thursday, undoubtedly because of low skier volume. Thus I had to take the Phoebe Snow lift to the lodge area, and then ski back to the Iron Horse lift. These lifts are VERY slow; total transit time to the top -- about 15 minutes. I'll bring a paperback novel next time to read on the way up.

Montage has 3 double-blacks to consider. Boomer was my first choice: some very steep sections on the way down, but lots of room to maneuver. Smoke was similar, but has one very steep drop-off near the top that is all bumped-out on the headwall. White Lightning was posted with another ominous warning sign about being one of the steepest bump runs on the East Coast. From the base of the hill, that looked to me to be no idle claim. I passed, and saw NO ONE on WL the entire day.

General impression: Exceeded expectations, good hill, good conditions, challenges for all skill levels, good variety, but very slow chairlifts. Go on a weekday and you'll think you own the place. But bring a book, or a conversational friend.

On Friday, I visited Elk Mountain, about 45 miles north of Wilkes-Barre: I-81 Exit 63 and then 9 miles east on "country road" Route 374. Elk is basically in the middle of nowhere. However ...

I will state unequivocally up front that Elk Mountain is the best place that I have skied in the mid-Atlantic area. It also has a 1000 foot vertical like Montage, but it is a much bigger mountain, with more trails at every skill level, more interesting and challenging trails, and (need I say) newer and faster chairlifts.

That Friday morning had fresh powder from the night before, with wet snow falling in the morning and dry snow in the afternoon, so conditions on the mountain were pretty awesome. I actually made "first tracks" on a few semi-hidden trails early in the day, just beating the Ski Patrol.

For beginners, try Tioga with its unusual switchbacks, or Lehigh, with its long meander down the side of the mountain to the base area. For intermediates, a whole network of blues starts from the top of the mountain (on the right from the chairlift). Start out from Mahican to Schuylkill, then pick up Kickapoo (lots of switchbacks), Wissahickon, or Lenape. If you're feeling confident, peel off Schuylkill earlier onto Black Diamonds Wyalusing, Tecumseh, or Tecumseh for a much quicker trip to the wide open and aptly named "Snow Bowl" at the base of all these runs. Elk considers Snow Bowl to be atril unto itself, and that is a valid claim in my opinion.

Elk has an extensive network of black diamond runs on the east side of the mountain, and they are long, wide, and steep. My favorites: Slalom, Seneca (long and relatively narrow under the chairlift), and Susquehanna (widest; enjoy the trtaverses on the way down). There are also some interesting short trails that traverse between the main trails.

I had the all-day pass ($40) which would have allowed me to ski until 10 PM if my legs had held up. I happily unbuckled my boots at about 7 PM for the drive back to W-B. A few more folks were skiing at Elk than at Montage: looked like retirees, and schoolkids who had a "snow day" off from school. But never a wait for a chairlift.

General impression: Without qualification, the best hill around in my experience: well-kept, challenging at all skill levels (helps you improve), friendly staff (retrieved my misplaced gloves), modern equipment. Modest complaint: poor illumination on some "lighted" trails at night. Now if it were only 100 miles closer.

On the begining of my return trip on Saturday, I stopped at Jack Frost in the morning and Big Boulder in the afternoon. I suspect my expectations were now high (or distorted) by my visits to Montage and Elk, but I was tremendously disappointed in both of these hills. Fewer runs, shorter runs, little variety, and BIG crowds of skiers on a weekend morning, which made for waits at the somewhat ancient chairlifts. At BB, lots of folks littering the mountain with free handouts from the YooHoo drink company.

Some Black Diamonds at JF and BB would be considered blues at Elk, or a similar run would be 3 or 4 times as long at Elk. BB did have some nice cruisers and beginner trails, while JF had some longer and slightly more challenging intermediates. The black diamond network at JF's "East Mountain" area struck me as basically one trail to the bottom, with minor variations. The most fun for me: skiing around all the crowds of less proficient skiers and boarders, and talking to strangers on the chairlifts.

General impession: If you want to learn to ski/board or improve your current skills and you like crowds, these are good hills. If you are looking for a challenge at every skill level, keep driving north to Montage and Elk.

If other DC Skiers have been to these areas, I'd be interested to hear their impressions.

Have a good winter, and watch out for those other folks on the slopes.

JimK - DCSki Columnist
February 20, 2001
Member since 01/14/2004 🔗
2,976 posts
What a great wrap-up. I've skied a lot of mid-Atlantic areas, but never these 4. I found your comments very interesting and close to what I have heard about them. They are sort of in-betweeners for me, too far for day trip from DC and too small to justify multi-day road trip (might as well go on to bigger stuff in NY or VT). I've long heard good things about Elk, but not with your kind of excellent specificity. Got a friend of a skiing friend in Scranton and may keep a future visit to the area in mind IVO the info you have presented. Additionally, I was at Camelback in the Poconos many years ago. Based on your write-up I would say it is closer to JF/BB than Elk, but it had/has quite a few lifts and shortish trails.

Ski and Tell

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