From the top of the lift, with huge expanses of scrubby valley floor lying before you, it's obvious how unbuilt the area is. It's mostly some touristy country stores and restaurants along the highway and a few clusters of vacation neighborhoods. Much of the valley is public land, including the 15,000-acre Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest wetlands in Appalachia.
Over at Canaan Valley Resort and State Park, the trails and lifts are similar to Timberline's, but the slopes are notably clear of side development. There's tubing here and ice skating at a spiffy covered rink down at the Canaan Valley Lodge and Conference Center, a short shuttle ride away.
Skiing at White Grass Touring Center in W. Va's Canaan Valley.
I stayed there one night with my family. Rooms are immaculate and comfortable, with in-room coffeemakers and even a resident rubber ducky in the tub. And we spent happy hours in the indoor pool overlooking the snowy landscape. But the layout did leave me thinking that some government agency needs to regulate the use of the word "lodge" they way they do "fat-free."
The rooms at Canaan Valley "Lodge" are widely dispersed in a motel layout of disconnected outbuildings. You have to button up thoroughly to hike over to breakfast or fetch ice. Next time, we have our eyes on one of the 23 cabins pumping wood smoke at the edge of the forest.
By far the funkiest of ski options is the White Grass Touring Center, a cross-country outpost in the middle of Canaan's alpine extremes. It's a much more fleece-and-flannel scene, where sport utes are outnumbered by Subarus bearing Yakima roof racks and fading John Kerry bumper stickers. A carved Nordic totem stands chilly sentry outside the ramshackle building as skiers step-glide in from White Grass's 32-mile trail network, which in turn connects to the seemingly infinite networks of surrounding public lands.
"It would take you a week to ski them all," said owner Chip Chase, who started the center 25 years ago and has attracted a devoted following through his careful daily grooming of the trails. "The alpine skiing around here is pretty average. But the cross-country is world-class. It's a never-ending job for us. There's a branch falling somewhere on my trail right now."
Inside, to a soundtrack of West Virginia Public Radio begging for money, flushed and snuffling skiers lined up to order lunch. And not just skiers. The White Grass Cafe, which shares cramped space with racks of boots for rent and hats for sale, is renowned for its quirky, organic menu.
"Pizza soup," beseeched Ben Nelson, a bearded, lanky, bear of a fellow in a white apron. "Wanna try the pizza soup?"
The pizza soup, a one-off invention of Nelson's, was actually pretty good (he did a little touchdown dance when my 5-year-old was the first to order a bowl), but it couldn't touch the sublime spinach and feta soup or the towering grilled Cuban sandwich. The food here is so popular, and so good, that it's become an unlikely meeting place for the usually oil-and-water clans of cross-country vs. downhill skiers.
"The alpine skiers and especially the snowboarders want nothing to do with us during the day," Chase said, beaming under his ragg woolen cap. "But they all come here for dinner."
GETTING THERE: Getting to Canaan Valley, W.Va., from Washington is trickier than negotiating a double black diamond run. D.C. skiers endlessly debate the northern (I-70) vs. the southern (I-60) routes. Whichever way you drive, expect to be on winding back roads, including some steep ones. It takes about four hours to get there.
SKIING THERE: The two alpine areas, Timberline Four Seasons Resort (800-766-9464, www.timberlineresort.com) and Canaan Valley Resort and State Park (800-622-4121, www.canaanresort.com), slug it out like gas stations on opposing corners. A Saturday lift ticket (8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) at Timberline costs $43 and rental skis cost $21 ($28 and $16, respectively, for kids ages 6 to 12. Five and under ski and rent for free). At Canaan Valley, the weekend day ticket costs $47 and skis rent for $22 ($26 and $20 for kids 6 to 12). Both resorts offer an elaborate matrix of half-day, multi-day and evening passes (for lighted night skiing on some weekends), and prices across the board are cheaper during the week. Both offer day care ($55 a day for Canaan, $45 a day at Timberline) and ski school -- which is day care with skiing lessons thrown in -- starting at $88 a day at Timberline and $85 a day at Canaan. Cross-country skiing at White Grass Touring Center (304-866-4114, www.whitegrass.com) costs $12 a day ($3 for kids), with rentals beginning at $15 ($12 on weekdays). A lesson is $6.
EATING THERE: While the buffet breakfast at the Canaan Valley Lodge was fuel for the day and the grilled hamburgers on the Timberline deck were above average, the best food in the valley is widely recognized to be at the White Grass Cafe. Thoughtful soups and hearty sandwiches (around $6) fill the joint at lunch, daily during ski season. Dinner offerings (Thursday through Sunday) like Thai shrimp with cilantro and salmon with miso sauce are why you'll find the White Grass Cookbook in a lot of Washington kitchens. Entrees are in the $13 to $20 range.
STAYING THERE: The Canaan Valley Resort has 250 motel-style rooms starting at $122 a night for a weekend single (dropping to $73 March 6) and 23 cabins starting at $160 a day. A number of rental houses are available, including many that cluster around the slopes of the Timberline resort. Through Canaan Realty (800-448-0074, www.canaanrealty.com), we found one a short walk from the chairlift that easily absorbed four families for $816 for two nights. Many rentals require a three-night minimum.
INFO: Tucker County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-782-2775, www.canaanvalley.org.