By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
It would be easy to take this analogy too far, but there's something almost Himalayan about West Virginia's Canaan Valley. It's not the towering, rocky peaks -- there aren't any of those. There isn't a yurt to be seen and the place is certifiably yak-free. But somehow, driving up the foggy switchbacks of Route 93, cresting past the little town of Davis and looking down on a broad valley that's tucked 3,200 feet in the sky and rimmed by a stockade of snowy hilltops, you can just barely imagine you've entered some hidden Tibetan enclave -- Shangri-La with NASCAR prayer flags. It's about four hours of sometimes curlicue driving from the Beltway, and there's a we-finally-made-it isolation to the place that makes weekending Washingtonians feel as if they've gotten somewhere remote.
If Canaan Valley -- which claims to be the highest valley east of the Mississippi -- plays a "Lost Horizons" role for anyone, it's for mid-Atlantic skiers looking for something -- anything -- approaching the parka passions of Aspen, Tahoe or Park City. You'll never confuse these low-rise mountains for the Rockies, but with two separate downhill resorts, hundreds of miles of excellent cross-country trails and some of the region's heaviest snows (more than 150 inches a year on average), at least you know you're in a place where skiing isn't an afterthought. If you're in Canaan between January and March, you're probably here to schuss.
"It's not Vail, but you can ski all day here and feel like you've been skiing, if you know what I mean," said Robert Green, a Richmond downhill fan who makes at least one trip a year to a friend's slopeside condominium at the Timberline Four Seasons Resort. He was riding a chairlift, his green Elans dangling over the heads of skiers as they threw up white wakes on one of Timberline's steeper trails. "You get plenty of church groups and beginners here, but you also see a lot of people on the diamond runs, tuning up their form when they can't go out west. Between the two mountains, there's a lot to choose from."
The two mountains are this one, Timberline, and Canaan Valley Resort State Park, five minutes down the road. They are of similar size, with more than 70 slopes and trails between them, and many visitors ski both on a weekend visit (but they pay extra to do so, since each park offers a discounted two-day pass). And lying smack between the two is a very different ski scene, the homey and hippie White Grass Touring Center, where a morning of cross-country ends with lunch in the valley's best bistro.
As only an occasional skier, I still compare all ski resorts to the one from the original "Pink Panther" movie -- and usually find them wanting. To me, any ski experience that doesn't include Claudia Cardinale lounging on a bearskin rug and David Niven smirking archly over a champagne glass is a lesser skiing experience. Maybe it's because I cut such a Clouseau-like figure myself as I careen, poles akimbo, down any slope steeper than a driveway.
There's no Henry Mancini booming from the outdoor speakers here (Nirvana is much more likely), but on the gorgeous Saturday of Super Bowl weekend, Timberline was undeniably a sunny and appealing winter hive. On one side of the modest lodge, the most seriously dressed -- they of space-age goggles and robot boots -- zoomed out of the black runs and slid to smug standing halts in front of the lounge windows.
On the other side, the Salamander run -- a placid two-mile boulevard popular with preteens and other wobbly neophytes -- emitted skiers at a statelier pace. The youngest, including some poleless pre-K trainees, came sliding off the mountain like well-bundled dolls, stiff and upright on skis locked in the "full pizza" (the beginner's stable wedge).
Between the two lifts, the yard of the lodge was littered with castoff skis and poles as folks goose-stepped toward lunch in their unforgiving boots. The air was full of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and hamburger smoke from barrel grills on the deck. The tables were crowded with plates and mittens.
Suddenly a whoop emerged from the slopes. "Dude! Check it out!" Heads turned in time to see two slim young women ski by in nothing but boots and bikinis (well, the one in the neon two-piece also wore a flowing scarf), followed by a pack of nearly baying snowboarders. Good times at Timberline.
This is the most commercial of the Canaan ski areas, the only one lined with homes and condos. The houses are a pleasant, generic mix of stone and timber rentals tucked into the woods. We squeezed four families into one and appreciated how nice it was to walk to lifts, especially those of us who worked off the evening pasta with a few night runs. Timberline keeps one lighted trail open until 9:30 p.m., giving me a chance to learn that I ski with more abandon -- and even more like a slapstick French detective -- after a few glasses of shiraz.
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.
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."