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When it comes to local ski resorts, you (usually) get what you drive for.

By John Briley
The Washington Post
Sunday, December 6, 1998; Page E01

If you're a skier or a snowboarder, deciding which regional ski area to visit is a bit like trying to choose a surfing beach along the coastlines of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia: Your options range from poor to middling and, generally, the farther away from D.C. you go, the higher the quality of the natural assets.

But just as most of us can't afford the time and money to spend our beach vacations on the north shore of Oahu, every ski trip you take cannot be a fantasy jaunt to Jackson Hole, Wyo. There are plenty of reasons to go local. Whether you're squirreling away bucks for the big one, prefer not to fly, have only a day or two, or are simply satisfied to ski close to home, you have plenty of options.

In our region, there are a few dozen ski and snowboarding areas at distances ranging from one to five hours from the Beltway. The obvious question we wanted to answer: Are you rewarded for bypassing the close-in hills and driving the extra hours to resorts on the region's outer limits? The short answer, as our handy chart suggests: usually, yes.

The stark reality of geography finds D.C. pretty close to sea level. The gentle rise of the hills to the north and west conspire to make it so that the farther you go in those directions, the more suitable the topography for Alpine snow sports. (This fact is valid only to Ohio's eastern border, where Midwest geography flattens dramatically.) But the essential fact is this: The more time you spend in the car, the more likely you are to find a better skiing hill, at least as far as on-the-mountain conditions go.

Unfortunately, this is all complicated by the issue of amenities. Depending on what you seek from your getaway--entertainment for the snow-crazed kids, a romantic weekend avec fireplace and hot tub, serious skiing trails, a snowboardin' kind of crowd, a variety of wintertime recreation or some combination of these qualities--different ski areas will please or disappoint you.

Combining our own familiarity with regional mountains with the insight of numerous consultants--including well-waxed local adults and teenagers, the crowd at Adam's Ski Center in Spring Valley and representatives of the Ski Club of Washington, D.C., and the Baltimore Ski Club--we charted the estimated quality of the skiing/boarding experience at 17 regional ski hills relative to the driving distance of each from the Beltway (for consistency, all mileage is calculated from the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and the Beltway, in Bethesda). We also gave representatives from each mountain the chance to say why their area is more worthy than other hills within similar driving distance from D.C. (None claimed to be the next Aspen, although West Virginia's Snowshoe suggested it may be en route.)

But our quality rating takes into account mainly the "skiing or boarding experience"--meaning the factors that matter most once you're on the hill: terrain (breadth and quality, including height of vertical drop), amount of snowfall, base lodge facilities, crowd management devices and other on-site skiing-related amenities. We put slightly more emphasis on physical conditions and snowfall than on the other considerations, which explains why amenity-rich Seven Springs, a full-service resort with activities galore, rates behind Elk Mountain, a much better mountain than Seven Springs but with substantially fewer comforts and non-skiing activities. Had all factors been given equal weight, Seven Springs's extensive niceties would have balanced with Elk's more challenging terrain.

Massanutten, which doesn't offer the skier much more than Whitetail, Ski Roundtop or Ski Liberty, earned a higher quality rating than those three due to its popularity among snowboarders, who say the Massanutten snowboard park is among the region's best. Also, Massanutten has the largest vertical drop (1,110 feet) of any ski hill in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and that has to count for something.

All in all, we determined that there is not too significant a difference in quality between areas of comparable driving distance from D.C. That is, Liberty, Roundtop and Whitetail each have their idiosyncrasies, but the overall ski experience at each is fairly similar. Likewise for Seven Springs and Camelback (each about 3 1/2 hours away) and Wisp and Wintergreen (roughly three hours distant).

A notable exception is the Homestead, a resort and spa 4 1/2 hours from our starting line that includes a ski hill almost as an afterthought. For most visitors, the Homestead is a pampering retreat that just happens to offer (some, limited) skiing among its wide range of recreation options. It's not an area crafted primarily to attract skiers and boarders.

So consult the chart on Page E1, read each area's pros and cons (and the resorts' self-promotional shticks) and go after your own slice of Mid-Atlantic winter heaven, secure in the knowledge that there is plenty to keep you occupied and happy--and that your big-time Rocky Mountain vacation will be there when you're ready.

Regional ski resorts listed in approximate order from nearest to farthest from the D.C. metropolitan area:

SKI LIBERTY, Carroll Valley, Pa.

62 miles, 1 1/2 hours


$45 weekends/holidays; $36 weekdays; $25 nights; four-hour tickets available for $27 weekdays, $36 weekends.

Pros: Mountain has front and back sides for variety, with a snowboard terrain park on each side. Better bumps than Whitetail, more technical snowboard terrain, with superior tree runs. Reportedly excellent ski school, especially for small children.

Cons: Short runs, small vertical drop and no high-speed lifts.

Self-Promotion: Unhappy customers may return lift ticket within one hour of purchase for voucher . . . Fast skiing and jumping prohibited on front side of area.


80 miles, 1 1/2 hours


$42 weekend, $35 weekday, $25 nights, $27 weekday/$35 weekend for half-day. Open-to-close ticket (8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.), $50 all days.

Pros: Great amenities, high-speed lifts; southern exposure softens snow quicker, which makes better carving for boarders, who say the terrain park has big "hits" (jumps) and wide boarding area. Some say Whitetail is more challenging than Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop. Basically a day trip, but if the flakes are falling, you can stay over in Hagerstown, about 15 miles away.

Cons: Crowds can be bad, especially on weekends (high-speed lifts keep people out of line and on the slopes). The whole area is cut on one face, so variety is limited. Moguls tend to get choppy.

Self-Promotion: 400 more vertical feet than Liberty or Roundtop . . . Voted eighth-best ski area in East in Ski magazine readers poll.

SKI ROUNDTOP, Lewisberry, Pa.

100 miles, 2 hours


$38 weekends/holidays; $31 weekdays; $25 nights; $27/$34 for four-hour ticket.

Pros: Steeper than Liberty with better food and slightly lighter snow, insiders say.

Cons: Slightly less natural snow than local competitors.

Self-Promotion: More family-oriented than Liberty and Whitetail . . . Paintball offered all seasons, weather permitting.


120 miles, 2 hours

1-800-821-1444 or 540-856-2121;

$35 weekends/holidays, $25 weekdays.

Pros: Good racing program and instruction. Lodging in slopeside condos for $190 a night (two to four people per condo), with two-night minimum. Few crowds.

Cons: Least vertical drop, and least terrain variety, of any local resort.

Self-Promotion: Racing program has produced some of the area's best ski racers . . . Small, homey area creates family atmosphere . . . Rarely draws a crowd.


131 miles,2 hours


$42 weekends/holidays; $30 weekdays; $20 nights.

Pros: One of the best snowboard parks in the region, with big, well-maintained hits and designated lift. Diamond Jim and ParaDice are usually uncrowded. Indoor sports facility--with basketball, swimming pool, raquetball and more--is free to those who stay at the resort (hotel or condos from $75 a night, 540-289-4954).

Cons: Despite long vertical drop, often called "mass of nothing" by skiers looking for challenge. Beginner-intermediate lifts are crowded.

Self-Promotion: Vertical drop of 1,110 feet is most in Virginia, Maryland or Pennsylvania . . . All trails are lit for night skiing . . . Snow tube park has two T-bars serving six chutes, open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (tubing tickets sell out fast on weekends).

BLUE KNOB, Claysburg, Pa.

146 miles, 3 hours


$35 weekends, $25 weekdays, $18/$17 nights.

Pros:Tree and steep skiing favored by hard cores. New tubing chutes. Lodging in condos from $270 per weekend (up to six people per unit).

Cons: Lifts are slow and old, the food and lodge are mediocre. Tends to be icy due to shadowy location, making for a treacherous walk from the parking lot.

Self-Promotion: Highest-elevation ski mountain in Pennsylvania (3,172 feet) with the only bowl--a treeless depression wider than a trail--in the state . . . Challenging skiing.


151 miles, 3 hours


$43 weekends/holidays; $33 weekdays; $22/$18 nights (weekend/weekday).

Pros: Superb lodging, including the privately owned Trillium House B&B (doubles, $100 to $115 a night; 804-325-9126), beautiful rental homes (1-800-266-2444), plus an inviting base lodge and good food. Extras include indoor pool and hot tubs, free if you rent through Wintergreen. There's also a 36-hole golf course 20 minutes away. Good beginner slopes, children's program.

Cons: Mediocre ski hills. Some call resort "Bethesda West" due to high number of D.C.-ers.

Self-Promotion: Beautiful area . . . Abundant recreational facilities.


165 miles, 3 hours


$42 weekends, $35 weekdays, $21 weeknights (nights included in weekend ticket).

Pros: Lake setting (Deep Creek Lake) and views, reliable early-season snow due to elevation and location. On-site hotel, with doubles for $109 a night, weekdays and $159 a night, weekends. Nice homes available for rent.

Cons: Puny vertical drop (610 feet). Wisp lacks intermediate terrain. Very little to do at night.

Self-Promotion: Family area in beautiful region.

SEVEN SPRINGS, Champion, Pa.

180 miles, 3 1/2 hours


$40 weekend, $32 weekday, $25 night.

Pros: Voted one of Ski magazine's top 10 family resorts in North America and one of 50 best overall. Thirty well-maintained trails, nice lodge, lots of amenities (ice skating, bowling, movie theater), mountaintop condos. Snow-tubing park, snowblade rentals, lighted half-pipe.

Cons: Can be a zoo, especially on weekends, due to proximity to Pittsburgh. Small vertical drop (750 feet). Relatively expensive lodging and food (rooms about $160 to $170 a night).

Self-Promotion: Something for everyone (including two video arcades), with most activities housed in main lodge facility . . . Eight-chute snow-tubing area.


172 miles, 3 1/2 hours


$40 weekends/holidays; $30 weekdays; $25/$30 nights.

Pros: Eight new trails, sports club with raquetball, swimming pool, whirlpool, steam room and kids' soft-play zone. Hearthside Restaurant is said to be top-quality. Area good for families, beginners.

Cons: Little attraction for aggressive skiers, lacking night scene. 610-foot vertical drop.

Self-Promotion: New trails, snowshoeing, sleigh rides, tubing, Mountain Munchkins kids program.

CAMELBACK SKI AREA, Tannersville, Pa.

223 miles, 3 1/2 hours


$42 weekend/holiday; $36 weekday; $26/$24 night.

Pros: Two high-speed quads, one lift designated to serve snowboard park and lighted half-pipe, upgrades in past five years, extensive snowmaking. Good night life, with new blues bar and microbrew pub.

Cons: Location draws crowds from Philadelphia-New Jersey. Poor vertical-drop-for-hours-driven ratio.

Self-Promotion: Trail diversity and state-of-the-art snowmaking system . . . Family resort . . . Hotel Chateau, nearby, offer weekends from $196 a couple, with lift tickets.


177 miles, 4 hours


$39 weekends/holidays; $29 weekdays; $24/$17 nights.

Pros: Best suited for families, but proximity to more challenging Timberline (three miles) means something for everyone. Great snow, due to location. Light crowds, cheap lodging. Ice skating rink, adjacent to the elegant Aspen Dining Room. White Grass Touring Center, for cross-country skiing, is across the street from resort.

Cons: Little expert terrain or night life.

Self-Promotion: Variety of terrain . . . Lack of crowds . . . Family resort.


182 miles, 4 hours


$39 weekends, $29 weekdays, $22/$18 nights.

Pros: Well-cut mountain with lots of space, long runs (the two-mile Salamander Run is the region's longest), formidable moguls. Snowboard half-pipe and terrain convenient to top and bottom of lift. Thousand-foot vertical drop. Lodging in condos, cabins and houses, with three-night minimum, from $315/three nights.

Cons: Quad chairlift is not high-speed, and lift lines build up on weekends/holidays. Small lodge and smoky bar.

Self-Promotion: Exceptional mountain, with consistent vertical drop throughout area . . . All trails accessible from top.

THE HOMESTEAD, Hot Springs, Va.

216 miles, 4 1/2 hours


$40 weekends/holidays; $26 weekdays; no night skiing.

Pros: Best food, accommodations and setting. Also, ice skating and tubing. Pricey reputation belied by doubles at $128 per person per night weekdays, $140 weekends, including breakfast and dinner, lift ticket, ice skating and snow tubing.

Cons: Tiny ski hill (700-foot vertical drop), little terrain variety.

Self-Promotion: Customer service . . . Variety of activities.

JACK FROST, Blakeslee, Pa.

226 miles, 4 hours


$42 weekend-holiday; $36 weekday; no night skiing.

Pros: Kids program is strong. New this year: Free Domain, a six-trail "extreme" skiing area. Parking, lodging and amenities are convenient to each other. Lodging in town houses ranges from $170 to $390 per house per night (houses sleep four to 10).

Cons: Long distance from Washington area relative to skiing quality. No night skiing (must go to nearby Big Boulder).

Self-Promotion: New Free Domain area . . . Convenience of mountaintop services.


251 miles, 5 hours


$44 weekends, $38 weekdays, no night skiing (go to nearby Silver Creek for $18).

Pros: Expansive resort for mid-Atlantic (56 trails, 1,500-foot vertical drop), getting bigger. Some of the money ($100 million over five years starting last year) is going to terrain expansion--Shay's Run added with 1,500-foot vertical and 55 percent pitch, and new high-speed quad. Mountaintop lodging. Lively apres ski. Some of best snow conditions around due to high elevation (4,848 feet at top).

Cons: Lift lines during busy periods. High elevation keeps the area quite cold.

Self-Promotion: Size, variety, something for everyone . . . great snow (natural and manmade).


279 miles, 5 hours


$40 weekends/holidays; $33 weekdays; $20 nights.

Pros: Decent vertical drop (1,000 feet); half the runs rated expert. Steep and big by regional standards, with challenging mogul runs.

Cons: Rural setting means severe lack of night life and limited restaurant options. No on-site lodging, but about 500 beds within 30 miles, with prices starting at $15 a night.

Self-Promotion: High attention to detail in care and appearance of mountain . . . Family-oriented.

Ski Ball: 3 Picks for . . .

Serious Skiing

Blue Knob


Elk Mountain

Family Skiing

Canaan Valley Resort

Seven Springs


Romantic Ski Weekends/ Yuppie Amenities


Hidden Valley

The Homestead

Lowest Prices (Lodging/Skiing)


Canaan Valley




Ski Liberty


No-Overnight Day Trips

Ski Liberty

Ski Roundtop

Whitetail Ski Resort

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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