I can't forget my first trip to West Virginia's ski mountains, a few years back. En route alone, I was caught at night in a surprise snowstorm that all but blinded my way as I drove over one of the state's typically winding, precipitous back roads. Narrow and poorly marked, it led up hill and down through what seemed an endless forest, no sign of human solace anywhere. If my aging car faltered, I thought, I might freeze to death out there, wherever I was, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
The car plowed on, and I arrived safely. But to this day the impression that remains strongest with me is how absolutely remote West Virginia's handful of major ski resorts are -- way off to the west of Washington in the high Alleghenies, somewhere in the middle of a wilderness nowhere.
The plus for skiers in this isolation is that you don't run into the big crowds up for the day that can overwhelm resorts closer to the city. The drawback -- there's always one -- is that the going is very slow over those tortuous roads, a drive of four to six or seven hours depending on the resort you are headed for. It's true even when the weather is clear, which is something you don't want to count on.
The trip, however, is worth it, especially if you plan to stay for at least two nights or more. You could, quite agreeably, spend a week's vacation instead of making a costly flight to the Rockies or a full day's drive to New England. West Virginia skiing isn't quite the big time -- the slopes aren't all that much challenge for experts -- but for most of the rest of us there are thrills aplenty and lots of friendly homespun hospitality. Snowshoe, the state's largest resort, has lodging for a full 6,000 skiers and -- except for some busy holiday weekends -- the lifts and slopes to handle them without terrible lift lines.
Year after year, West Virginia offers the longest season -- usually from Thanksgiving into April; the most snow -- annual averages of 150 to 200 inches or more; and some of the best downhill and cross-country skiing to be found in the mid-Atlantic region. And the scenery, if you are a skier who appreciates one of the finer aspects of the sport, is gorgeous. All of that surrounding wilderness puts on a wonderful show.
A perennial lament from resort operators is that Washington skiers don't realize there's usually plenty of good skiing in West Virginia long before the first snowflake floats down upon the capital and long after spring flowers are in bloom. Often they close at the end of March with deep snow still on the trails because the skiers have stopped showing up. I stopped by Snowshoe in mid-March this year and trail conditions were excellent, and so was the weather. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the sun was so warm I left my jacket back in the lodge.
As I grow older, I find myself judging a ski mountain less on the challenge of its trails and more on how cozy and comfortable the lodge is at the end of the day. Give me a roaring fire and, maybe if I'm lucky, a bubbling hot tub and afterward a good meal, and my weekend is a success no matter how I managed on the slopes. Deep in those backwoods of West Virginia, the folks can provide all of these pleasures.
And at a pretty good price, too.
Silver Creek, a self-contained resort hidden away at a 4,800-foot elevation in one of the snowiest areas of West Virginia, is making a big effort this season to attract midweek skiers. It is offering midweek lodging and lift tickets at 50 percent less than on weekends. A room for two that is $80 on Friday and Saturday nights is $40 a night the rest of the week. A Saturday or Sunday lift ticket at $26 is $13 a day Monday through Friday. The half-price rate also is good every day from Dec. 11 to 24 and again from March 1 to 20.
These days, a skiing vacation doesn't get much cheaper -- and, as a muscle-relaxing bonus, Silver Creek has an outdoor heated swimming pool.
There's a rustic charm to West Virginia's resorts that reminds me of some of the Colorado resorts 25 years ago, before they went all glitzy. Dress is country casual to the point that fancy duds -- on the slopes or after hours -- have a way of looking out of place. Practicality seems more important. If it keeps you warm, then wear it. On these mountains, the weather can get bitterly cold.
Of course, you will hear a mountain twang from a lot of lips -- this is Appalachia, after all. But don't think that because these folks are so isolated they don't know their skiing. The resorts have invested heavily in up-to-date lifts and in snowmaking equipment, should snowfalls be less bountiful than normal. Still, city slickers may find their urban sensitivities shaken occasionally. At Auntie Pasta's Ristorante in Snowshoe, it seemed that half the males having dinner that night had forgotten they were wearing their caps. They never took them off during the whole meal.
The best of West Virginia's resorts are grouped into two clusters on the very mountainous eastern edge of the state. One such cluster is at Canaan Valley -- a long, narrow valley near Davis surrounded by peaks reaching up to 4,500 feet. It is about a four-hour trip from Washington. The other is at Slatyfork, where Cheat Mountain climbs to 4,848 feet amid thousands of acres of national forest land. The drive is about six hours from Washington (and two south from Canaan Valley).
If a master planner had organized the clusters, he couldn't have done a much better job from the point of view of a skier looking for convenience. By good fortune, each cluster has been apportioned two downhill resorts and one cross-country resort. In effect, each has become a major winter sports center. Skiers can stay at one resort but take advantage of the slopes and trails of its close-by neighbors for more variety.
Slatyfork is home to Snowshoe, West Virginia's most complete resort; Silver Creek, which features a modern high-rise hotel catering to family skiers; and the Elk River Touring Center, a cross-country outfit.
Canaan Valley's two downhill resorts are the pleasant Canaan Valley Resort at Canaan Valley State Park, the oldest of West Virginia's ski mountains, and Timberline, a new ski operation that is part of one of Canaan Valley's ongoing vacation home developments. Both offer cross-country skiing, and their trails are linked to White Grass, a separate large and splendid cross-country center.
If Slatyfork gets the nod for best downhill skiing, Canaan Valley's strength is in its superb cross-country facilities. White Grass, by the way, recently opened a geodesic dome sauna to warm your bones and soothe your muscles after a day on its extensive trails.
West Virginia has one other major resort, WinterPlace near Beckley in the south central part of the state, but it is a 320-mile drive, which, at least for me, is too far from Washington to be considered a reasonable weekend destination.
For what seems like years, West Virginia skiing has been described in terms of its great potential. The mountains are there, and plenty of snow sweeping down in abundance from the north. But the problem has been to realize those dreams. Snowshoe, Silver Creek and Timberline all got off to a fast start with grand plans, and then stumbled along the way. Their maps of the future still show more trails, more lifts, more of everything, and these goals might yet be achieved.
Meanwhile, the resorts seem to be making an effort to provide good skiing at a good price, offered up in mountain scenery that rivals any on the East Coast.
Snowshoe at Slatyfork is one of those upside-down resorts -- "The Island in the Sky," it calls itself -- where all of the accommodations and dining are at the top of the mountain. This makes for stunning views from many of the lodges, but on a snowy day the winding drive up the top of the mountain can be tricky. Take chains if you have them.
I can't decide whether I like top-of-the-mountain resorts. It's nice in the morning to take a warm-up run down the slopes before climbing onto a lift. But I hate to end my day with the inevitable ride back up to the lodge.
Because of its size -- those 6,000 overnight lodgers make quite a crowd -- Snowshoe is popular with younger skiers who are looking for lively nightlife after a day on the slopes. On a weekend, they arrive by the busloads, and Snowshoe echoes with their exuberance. The busiest bar in the mountain is The Connection Club, where there's dancing nightly to Top-40 tunes.
But even more important than its apre's-ski are Snowshoe's 30 or so trails, ranging from novice to an honest-to-goodness expert's challenge, the mile-and-a-half-long Cupp Run. It's a solitary trail, dropping down the backside of the mountain, away from the rest of the traffic. The view at the top is gorgeous, and Cupp gives you a few moments of easy cruising to take in the scenery before it plunges over a waterfall of moguls.
A few years back, Snowshoe seemed deeply in trouble. Where once it had drawn up to 250,000 skiers a year, by the mid 1980s the number had dropped down to 115,000. What happened? "The value was not there anymore for what you were paying," says Danny Seme, a Snowshoe manager in its earliest days who was brought back two years ago as general manager to revitalize the resort.
One of his most successful efforts has been a hospitality program. He invited experts to Snowshoe to instruct the staff "on the fundamentals of being nice to people." It wasn't that they had been unpleasant, but many of them were shy and unaccustomed to dealing with hordes of strangers. Also, a new lift and new trails have been added to ease weekend congestion on the mountain. Last season, the crowd count was back up to 250,000 and more.
"What we've done is reestablish ourselves," he says, "and we want to continue to improve."
Snowshoe is a very smooth operation. Check-in for accommodations and lift-ticket sales are at the bottom of the mountain, a good idea because you get exact directions to your lodge. There are 18 lodge complexes scattered across the mountaintop, offering everything from single rooms up to four-bedroom condominium apartments and townhouses.
The lodges vary in quality from swank to -- unfortunately -- unpardonably dumpy. Snowshoe's lodges are managed by individual condo-owner associations, and not all of them maintain the best standards. Query the reservations clerk closely on what you are getting to avoid being disappointed. Whistlepunk, Stemwinder and Powder Monkey lodges are regarded as the top of the line. The Mountain Lodge is also very nice and popular with families.
I have one other quibble, since ambiance has become important to me. Snowshoe's setting is spectacular, but the resort design itself fails to match nature's example. If I could redesign the place, I'd build a large village center -- a place for skiers to congregate at the end of the day. Instead, Snowshoe as it has grown sprawls haphazardly across the mountaintop, and you need a car to get between its shops and restaurants. What a shame, since Snowshoe has everything else going for it.
On the positive side, Whistlepunk, and some of the other lodges, offer as fine a getaway as you will find at any ski area. European in look, it sits on the edge of the mountain with a lift almost at its door. A glass-enclosed heated swimming pool or the hot tub is waiting when you finish your day. And afterward, it is only a few steps to the lodge's Red Fox Restaurant and Yodeler's Pub, regarded as among the best on the mountain. That's my idea of great skiing.
Silver Creek, just a mile down the road from Snowshoe, has made its biggest pitch for family skiers. Unlike Snowshoe, its lodging is concentrated in one 237-room high-rise hotel, the Lodge-at-Silver Creek, a surprisingly modern structure that looks as if it had wandered away from the big city and gotten hopelessly lost alone in the woods.
The advantage for families of a one-building resort, according to marketing director Bruce Chandley, is that parents and youngsters can find each other easily any time of the day. Off the slopes, there's only one place either could be.
The skiing is mostly for beginners and intermediates, which makes it a comfortable mountain for anyone who is just learning. Parents introducing their children to the sport can sign them up at the resort's Skiwee instruction program (ages 4 to 12) and maybe scoot over to Snowshoe for some tougher skiing after a day or two at Silver Creek.
Accommodations at the lodge range from hotel rooms to fully-equipped four-bedroom apartments, all with fireplaces and most with some wonderful mountain views. Within the complex are a deli, the Silver Dollar; a pub, the Silver Rush Saloon; and a restaurant, Silverado's. And, most inviting, there's an indoor/outdoor heated pool. You jump in from the comfort of indoors and swim outside to soak under the stars.
Two hours north of Slatyfork (and two hours closer to Washington), Canaan Valley Resort and Timberline both cater to families also, offering mainly beginning and intermediate skiing, although each rates one or more trails advanced or expert. Timberline lays claim to the "longest ski trail south of Vermont," a two-mile meandering beginner's run called Salamander.
Canaan Valley is one of West Virginia's excellent -- and moderately priced -- state park resorts, a 6,015-acre wilderness playground with 18 miles of cross-country skiing trails and an outdoor ice-skating rink. Accommodations are in a modern 250-room lodge and restaurant, designed in motel style, that is located about two miles from the ski lift area. A shuttle bus runs between the lodge and the lifts.
Lodging at Timberline, now in its second season, is in one of the slopeside condominiums or chalets. As a newcomer, Timberline is a bit short on in-place facilities right now and long on plans for the future for its 2,700 acres of woodlands and meadows.
New this year are an advanced trail called "The Drop" (bringing the total number of trails to 12) and the Mean Cuisine Restaurant and Raccoon Saloon overlooking the slopes. It will be open daily during the ski season for breakfast, lunch and dinner and evening entertainment on weekends. The resort also is introducing a ski lessons program for children.
The resort has a triple chairlift and hopes to add a new double chair this season. Other plans call eventually for indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a nordic or cross-country ski center at the top of Herz Mountain and such spring-through-fall amenities as tennis courts and a golf course.
Since my first venture into West Virginia, I've made it a point to travel in daylight in the winter. Partly this is for my own safety, but I also discovered that the countryside en route to the ski resorts is remarkably attractive. The drive is a long one, any route you take, so I figure as long as I have to be in the car, I'm better off going when I can enjoy the scenery.