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No Frills, Big Spills

By Jeff Schlegel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

By and large, skiing in the mid-Atlantic region is like eating a light snack: It's convenient and it satisfies a hunger pang, but ultimately it leaves you empty and yearning for more. So pardon my great skepticism when I heard that Pennsylvania's Elk Mountain was the closest thing the region offered to big-mountain Western skiing.

A two-day visit last week to Elk led to two conclusions. First, Elk will never be mistaken for a Western ski resort; a smaller, mid-Atlantic substitute for New England is a more apt comparison. Second, I walked away from the table, er, mountain, sated. Imagine that, a nearby mountain that's actually worth going to for the fun of it rather than simply an early-season, once-a-year tuneup before heading out west or going north.

Elk Mountain opened in 1959, so it's hardly a newbie on the scene. But its relatively remote location in the state's northeast hinterlands about a half-hour drive north of Scranton, and five hours from Washington, makes it less well known than other, closer ski areas.

The hills in Susquehanna County are known as the Endless Mountains, bordered by the Poconos to the south and the Catskills across the New York state line. There aren't many honeymooners or heart-shaped tubs here, or even many people for that matter. Elk Mountain has the air of a throwback ski experience, to a time when ski hills were simple outposts of recreation in the countryside without the crowds, condos and cutesy shops. The simplicity of the Elk experience, coupled with some tough terrain, attracts legions of dedicated repeat visitors.

"The runs are longer, the lift lines are shorter, and it's more challenging than other Pennsylvania mountains," said Bill Sutch, a longtime Elk fan from the Philadelphia suburb of Fort Washington, Pa. He was riding shotgun on my first lift ride and suggested I warm up on the blue Delaware trail. It was a good tip; the run had a long vertical pitch that quickly warmed me up to the mountain's fast terrain.

Elk's 1,000-foot vertical drop is comparable to other Pennsylvania mountains. But it seems to ski longer because the trails maintain their vertical pitch until the very end. The result: a greater rush and more exhilarating schussing than you'd expect on slopes around here.

Eleven of Elk's 27 trails are rated the most difficult black diamond, a surprisingly high percentage for a mid-Atlantic resort. "We don't have a lot of beginner's terrain, so we tend to cater to more experienced and discriminating skiers who want more of a challenge," said Gregg Confer, Elk's general manager.

Indeed, during my two days, I saw relatively few of the face plants or "yard sales" (people rolling downhill after a fall, leaving a trail of gear behind them) that are so common on more accessible mountains. The majority of skiers had good form, but unlike some Western ski areas (I'm talking to you, Squaw Valley), the skill came without the arrogance.

The terrain might be steep by Pennsylvania standards, but that doesn't mean it's not kid-friendly. That was evident Friday at twilight, when the day-trippers packed up, the lights went on and hordes of youngsters in youth groups and families descended the hill on their short skis and snowboards. Blowing snow fell from the moody mauve and pewter clouds as a two-man acoustic group played for the apres-ski crowd in the lodge lounge. The snow held out promise for fresh powder for Saturday, but my immediate need was finding grub and grog for the evening.

One doesn't come to Elk for the night life. The mountain has no on-site accommodations, just a clean, utilitarian ski lodge with a restaurant lounge, cafeteria and ski shop. It's all an eight-mile drive from Interstate 81 along a winding country road that passes farms, a smattering of houses and not much else.

That's not to say visitors must sleep in their cars. There are bed-and-breakfasts, inns and home rentals within 10 minutes of Elk. Some offer ski packages, as do several lodging chains 20 minutes away in Clarks Summit.

After I checked in at the Wiffy Bog Farm Bed & Breakfast less than five miles west of Elk, I drove back toward the mountain and went another couple of miles to the Stone Bridge Inn & Restaurant in Union Dale. The dining room's faux fire created a warm atmosphere, and the menu offered 23 different martinis. The Jamaican jerk roasted half-chicken was tasty, but the best of the meal was the dense chocolate lava cake.

Downstairs is a cozy bar decked out in wood paneling and a stone fireplace. The place was lively, but I was in the mood for a nightcap at Chet's Place, whose name says it all. Chet's is about two miles west of the mountain just off the main road -- look for the big arrow sign where the road makes a sharp left.

"Welcome to Chetsville," reads the sign above the foosball table. Chet's is a cross between roadhouse juke joint and country luncheonette. There's music on the weekends, $1 Yuengling drafts and six-ounce burgers for only $2.75. This evidently isn't a place for Francophiles; the round of burgers delivered to a nearby table came with side orders of "freedom fries." Chet's also rents cross-country skis and provides box lunches.

The nighttime snow amounted to only a dusting, but ski conditions the following day were still good. In fact, overall conditions were surprisingly fine considering the recent warm spell and the rainy New Year's weekend. Elk is rated tops in the state in snowmaking and grooming, the latter thanks to state-of-the-art equipment that grinds up the ice and crud into granulated snow.

I gravitated toward the black-diamond Tunkhannock trail, whose upper half featured manageable moguls followed by a steep, straight lower half that led back down to the austerely named E and F chairlifts. Elk isn't a frilly place, and its old-fashioned ski culture is one of its charms. There is no half-pipe for snowboarders or tubing for non-skiers. They don't play music over loudspeakers, and there aren't any high-speed lifts. On the slow ride up the mountain, all one hears is the gentle hum of the chairlift, the crunching of snowboards turning side to side, and the slicing sound of skis carving S turns. It's kind of like skiing through a bygone era.

Elk is a privately owned mountain whose owners take a deliberate approach to business. Snowboarding was only slowly brought into the mix, and there's a chance they might add lodging someday. For now, they're happy with their low-key, ski-centric approach.

The mountain is marketed as New England-type skiing without the drive (and, I might add, the cost). For sure, Elk is no Killington. But the surrounding countryside and the mountain's challenging terrain do resemble a Northern ski experience that's a viable alternative to the long schlep to New England.

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