When the sun starts setting before supper and the mercury sinks somewhere between frosty and frostbite, it's time once again to layer on the fleece, load up on lip balm and head for the hills -- winter sports season has arrived.
If you're a skier or snowboarder, you'll find that the theme this year at the region's winter sports resorts is more and better: computerized snowmaking, new trails, bigger terrain parks, faster lifts. Nordic skiers, too, can have their pick of miles of trails through forest and field. Not a skier? Not to worry -- you won't be left out in the cold either. Although skiing remains a prime attraction, it's only one option on a lengthy multiple-choice list of activities, some of which don't even require snow.
Even if you've long taken the view that the chilly season is best enjoyed in the abstract, preferably from indoors, beneath a toasty throw, with steam curling up from the mug in your hand, perhaps this could be the year at last to put aside those lingering childhood memories of stiff-frozen clothes and popsicle toes and venture outdoors. With ever-warmer cold-weather wear and lighter, more comfortable, more user-friendly gear, "winter fun" no longer has to feel like an oxymoron.
Going Downhill Fast
For the ski and snowboard crowd, 'tis the season for something new, starting with Maryland's Wisp Resort, which this year is opening virtually an entire new mountainside. Called North Camp, this expansion to Wisp's downhill terrain will add 10 slopes -- one expert, two intermediate and seven beginner trails -- along with two quad (four-person) chairlifts. Want to be one of the first on the mountain? Wisp will celebrate North Camp's grand opening Dec. 10. For the best bargain of the year, on Dec. 11 and 12 the resort will mark its 50th anniversary by rolling back prices to 1955 rates: $3.50 for a lift ticket, $7 for a lesson, $7 for equipment rental. (Don't worry, it's 2005 equipment.)
Last year, the Wintergreen resort in Virginia introduced two six-passenger, high-speed lifts. This year, Wintergreen opens a new, 2,200-foot single black diamond expert trail, which will be serviced by one of those lifts. Wintergreen also sings the praises of its snowmaking equipment. "Our system allows a great deal of control over the water-air mix to make it drier and also to make more of it," says Frankee Love, Wintergreen's director of public relations. "It pumps out a higher volume of snow that is higher and fluffier."
Pennsylvania's Liberty Mountain Resort has updated its snowmaking equipment with a computerized system on four slopes. "The system can sense different climate states at different levels on the mountain and adjust the snowmaking accordingly," explains Lindsay Penvose, marketing assistant for the resort. Timberline Four Seasons Resort in West Virginia has a new, professionally designed intermediate trail, Twister, which is one mile and, for novelty, passes through a tunnel under a road. Massanutten, near Harrisonburg, Va., adds a second quad lift, accessing its advanced terrain.
Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia has completed a "massive expansion" of its terrain park options, according to Adrian Mosby, communications coordinator for the resort. Included in the expansion is a pro-level park called Spruce Glades and a Super Park, spread across multiple trails. "Half-pipe, tabletop, jumps, rails, any terrain feature that the technical or extreme snowboarder or skier would like, we will be able to provide," Mosby says. There's also a dedicated area for beginners, as well as a "skier/boardercross" section, where skiers and boarders can race through a course of gates, berms and rollers.
At Liberty Mountain, beginner, intermediate and expert terrain parks are "a huge draw for us," Penvose says. "People will spend their whole day there." Liberty offers an "introduction to terrain parks" clinic to get boarders and freestyle skiers started. "It's about park etiquette, how to be safe, how to approach and clear a jump, building blocks for being a safe and courteous park rider," Penvose says. Thinking about trying something new on the slopes this year? From opening day ("probably by Thanksgiving, as long as the weather is ready," Penvose says) through Dec. 23, Liberty is offering free group ski or board lessons for all levels; details are available on Liberty's Web site at skiliberty.com.
If you hate a crowd, First Tracks, available only on Saturdays and Sundays at West Virginia's Canaan Valley Resort, puts you and a limited number of skiers first on the snow in the morning, with only the ski patrol for company. Wintergreen invites you to take advantage of the quieter early season with a "Ski Free" special through Dec. 2: $79 per person, per night (two-night minimum stay, two people per bedroom) includes lodging and a lift ticket per person. Back at Canaan Valley, kids 12 and younger can stay, eat and ski free throughout the season when staying in the lodge with their parents.
Over Hill, Over Dale
If you're looking for even more solitude, then the cross-country trails are calling you. White Grass Touring Center in Davis, W.Va., is in the same high valley as the Timberline and Canaan Valley resorts, where the average annual snowfall is more than 150 inches. At White Grass, cross-country is the main attraction, with 50 kilometers (or about 31 miles) of trails; a ski school; rentals of backcountry, telemark and skating skis; and for that pre- or post-ski carb boost, a mellow, cozy cafe with an emphasis on natural foods, offering lunch daily and dinner Thursday through Sunday. There's also a well-stocked equipment shop. On Jan. 7, White Grass will hold its annual XC Ski Fest Day, for "all first-time interested skiers that want to try the dang stuff," as White Grass's calendar describes it, with free lessons and half-price rentals.
Though more familiarly associated with downhill skiing, both Canaan Valley and Snowshoe resorts also offer cross-country skiing. At Snowshoe, you can take a guided ski tour, and equipment rentals come with a brief introductory lesson; Canaan's marked trails and open meadows are free. There's cross-country skiing, too, on groomed trails at Blackwater Nordic Center in Blackwater Falls State Park, just down the road from Canaan Valley.
In Maryland, Savage River Lodge near Frostburg is set in the middle of 800 acres of the Savage River State Forest. "We have a working agreement with the state, and we maintain a complete network of trails on Mount Aetna in Garrett County," says Mike Dreisbach, who owns the lodge with his wife, Jan Russell (and dog Bodhi, "CEO of good cheer").
With 10 to 15 feet of snow annually, Savage River Lodge offers access to as many as 25 miles of trails through the forest during the winter. "Cross-country ski people want to get outdoors and into nature, and not where there are hundreds of people zooming by," Dreisbach says.
Lessons are available at Savage River Lodge, along with equipment rental (but call ahead to reserve), and for day visitors, there's a lean-to with a bonfire burning, for a warm spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. The daily user's fee is a bargain at $5, and the trails are free to overnight guests at the lodge.
"Cross-country skiing is not hard, and it's a nice aerobic activity," Dreisbach says. "This is an easy sport to learn -- it's almost like walking."
But Wait, There's More
Your appetite for winter fun is not awakened yet, you say? Familiar fare, this skiing and snowboarding? In that case, how about a water park?
Yes, a water park. Sometime this winter, Massanutten will open a 42,000-square-foot indoor water park, with six tube slides, a lazy river, water cannons, an 800-gallon tipping bucket, a special section for children and a surf simulator -- all of it under a vast, glass-walled pyramid so you can watch the snow fall while you disport in your Speedo.
At Snowshoe, you can swim through from the indoors to an outdoor heated pool, the resort's Mosby says. Add indoor water slides, hot tubs, a sauna, and, frankly, why bother going outside at all?
Well, you might be tempted to put your coat back on for the horse-drawn sleigh rides at Snowshoe. Or the guided snowmobile tours. Snowshoe's big new attraction this year, however, will keep you both warm and dry; it's the Big Top "family fun center," overstimulation heaven for the younger-than-18 set, all beneath a giant, permanent tent, fully enclosed and heated. Inside there will be a dance floor, pool and ping-pong tables, video games, a climbing wall, food, movie screenings and, Mosby says, Eurobungy: Imagine jumping on a trampoline while attached to a slingshot and you get the general idea.
Snow tubing, in which you ride a large inner tube down an individual lane, has become a standard feature at many winter resorts, all the fun of sledding without the usual thrills -- trees, thinly iced waterways and the inevitable collision -- of the neighborhood sledding hill.
Massanutten has gone from four to nine tubing lanes and added a carpet lift (you just step on and ride up the hill). Liberty Mountain introduced tubing in 2002; this year the resort will increase the number of tubing lanes from eight to 10 or 12, Liberty's Penvose says, and has added a carpet lift and doubled the size of the lodge that serves the tubing area exclusively. The Pebble Ridge Kiddie Tubing Hill has been relocated, too; it's longer now, and more exciting, Penvose says. "Tubing is so popular," she says. "It doesn't take any skills, it's fun for the whole family and it's less expensive than going skiing."
For the traditionalist, there's good old-fashioned sledding to be had on a quarter-mile hill at Blackwater Falls State Park. With a rope tow to take you back to the top and sled rentals available on site, this is classic sledding with convenience.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before the extreme sports crowd turned their attention to sledding, too. After all, sledding has always lent itself to hair-raising excesses: the cross-stream jump, the underbrush obstacle course, the how-many-kids-can-we-fit-on-a-toboggan. This year, Canaan Valley will become only the sixth resort in the country to offer the Airboard, an inflatable sled with a grooved underside that makes sharp turns and quick stops possible in a new sport dubbed "snow-bodyboarding."
"This is like old-fashioned sledding going high-tech," explains Bryan Brown, spokesman for Canaan Valley. "The Airboard is about the same size as a body board you would use at the ocean, but several inches thicker. You lie on your stomach, and there are handholds on either side of the sled."
Because it takes about an hour to get the hang of riding an Airboard, Brown says, "this year, we are going to require a fun, one-hour lesson for everyone renting one." Then you'll be in for quite a ride. "We'll be the first resort in the country to offer Airboarding with terrain park," Brown says. A dedicated snow-bodyboarding area on the slopes, separated by snow fencing from skiers and snowboarders, will have terrain features that will allow you to take your Airboard airborne. Barrel rolls, anyone?
At the opposite end of the adrenaline spectrum, Canaan is one of several locations -- including Snowshoe, Wisp, White Grass, Savage River Lodge and Blackwater Falls State Park -- where you can rent snowshoes for a peaceful back-country trek. Snowshoes, like all outdoor gear, have come a long way in convenience and comfort, and no longer bear much resemblance to the oversize wooden tennis rackets of snow-lodge decor cliche. "If you can walk, you can snowshoe" is the motto of modern snowshoeing, and when field and forest are blanketed in white, "it's just you and the wind and the snow," Mosby says. At Canaan Valley, you can even rent a Global Positioning System device and go midwinter geocaching -- following clues and GPS coordinates found on the Internet (visit www.geocaching.com) to hidden caches that may contain all sorts of little treasures and fun surprises. For those in search of true relaxation, what could better top off a day on ski, sled or snowshoe than, say, an ayurvedic herbal body rebalancer? The Wintergarden Spa at Wintergreen has been expanded with its own locker rooms and more than double the treatment rooms (now 13), so you can be wrapped, rubbed, sweated, soaked and polished to perfection. Wisp opened a spa last year as well. The granddaddy of regional spas, however, has to be the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., where Thomas Jefferson once eased his aches in the mineral springs, and you can, too. The full range of winter frolics -- including downhill, terrain park, cross-country, tubing, snowshoeing and snowmobile tours -- are there for you to choose from at the Homestead, but if the weather outside is frightful, wouldn't a sea soak be so delightful?
One more familiar winter sport that's less commonly available at resorts -- ice skating -- is also offered at the Homestead, in an Olympic-size outdoor rink, as well as at Canaan Valley, in a covered outdoor rink with a fireplace for warming fingers and toes.
And on that topic, a few final words on staying warm. I'm sure I'm not the only one with painful memories of snow days that ended in a misery of cold, wet clothes and frozen hands and feet.
"We have a phrase here -- 'There is no such thing as bad weather, only poorly dressed people,' " says Sandy Cohan, general manager of Hudson Trail Outfitters, which has multiple retail locations in the Washington area. "Most people who are not big fans of winter, it's because they are not prepared for it."
The key -- stop me if you've heard this before -- is layers, Cohan says. "It's the best way to insulate your body and regulate your temperature."
But layers aren't the whole story. Examine your winter wardrobe. Anything cotton, terminate with extreme prejudice. "Cotton products . . . absorb moisture -- that's why a towel is made out of cotton. If your foot perspires even the littlest bit, then you have a wet sock trying to insulate a cold foot."
Cohan recommends wool, silk and synthetic fabrics such as fleece, with good wicking properties to draw moisture from the body. On the outside, choose a fabric such as Gore-Tex that isn't just water-repellant, but also waterproof. There's a difference, he says.
"Breathability is what you want at every layer. We sell a system for insulation and breathability that is four-season. If it's cold, add a layer."
You can learn the latest on dressing warm by reserving a spot at Hudson Trail's upcoming "How to Dress for Cold Weather" class Nov. 30 at the Rockville, Tenley Circle, Pentagon Row and Fairfax locations.
Then, laugh at the chill. There's a winter waiting for you.
Caroline Kettlewell is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Weekend whose favorite winter sport, besides cocoa drinking, is ice skating. You can find her online at www.carolinekettlewell.com.