By Roland Leiser
Western North Carolina boasts that it’s the “Ski Capital of the South.” Skiers and snowboarders carving turns on slopes in the southern U.S.? That’s a question my friends asked when I said that I was heading to the Tar Heel state for three days of skiing. “Yes, you can ski down in Dixie,” as the Peak Ski Guide once advised.
Yet N.C. is not quite the southern ski capital as the promotional materials boast. The last time I checked, Virginia was still a southern state and it offers Massanutten, Wintergreen, Homestead and Bryce. if you throw in the four ski areas of West Virginia, something about the Civil War–which some consider at least partly southern—the bragging rights become even more suspect.
That said, the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains serve up—are you ready for this—a total of six ski resorts and one tubing park ranging in size from 27 acres to 115 acres. If a 27-acre resort doesn’t turn on the juices, the region includes two areas that compare roughly in size to Pennsylvania’s Whitetail Ski Resort and Vermont’s Mad River Glen. Perhaps more accurately, North Carolina should be named “the Ski Capital of the Southeast.”
If you’re curious about N.C.’s two largest resorts, check out Sugar Mountain Resort and Beech Mountain Resort (formerly Ski Beech), with 115 and 95 skiable acres, respectively. Sugar, as the locals call it, and Beech aren’t huge in vertical drop (the distance to the highest lift-served point), but their summit elevations exceed 5,000 feet. Beech Mountains claim goes unchallenged as the east’s highest ski resort with a 5,506-foot peak. My itinerary also included Appalachian Ski Mountain and what was then known as Ski Hawksnest since converted to a snow-tubing only facility. Appalachian has added a new slope, increasing the terrain by two acres to 27, which is served by a double chair lift, reports Drew Stanley, director of marketing.
From Charlotte-Douglass International Airport, interstate highways bring skiers and riders to the three, family-owned resorts in two to 2.5 hours. And the trio is within a 30 to 45 minute drive of each other, according to North Carolina High County Host, a marketing organization. However, there are no interchangeable lift tickets for short-term visitors, although the idea had been kicked around. Some lodges do sell ski packages, which are worth checking out.
Natural snowfall ranges from 58 to 80 inches a year. Appalachian, Sugar and Beech provide 100 percent snowmaking, however, and Appalachian recently doubled its water-pumping capacity. “We’ll keep making snow right up to the last day of the season,” says Brad Moretz, Appalachian’s general manager.
Kim Jochl, Sugar’s director of marketing and a former member of the U.S. Ski Team, observes that “we stockpile snow and move it around where needed.”
For the North Carolina ski experience, think of daily helpings of grits (for you Yankees, that’s a hot cereal made from hominy corn), full-service base lodges, trails at all skill levels, snowboard parks, lodging from budget to upscale, night life in picture post-card towns, waitresses who call you “honey” and awesome mountain scenery. In winter, rhododendrons with drooping green leaves border miles of the region’s winding mountain roads.
For virtually 360 degree panoramic views rivaling the Canadian Rockies, take off a morning and head up to the 5,964-foot-high Grandfather Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains–admission is $15.
Of the three resorts visited, I found Beech Mountain Resort the best for advanced intermediates and cruising runs, although the resort’s tougher trails had been closed during my visit for lack of the natural stuff and cold weather for snow-making. At Sugar, 20% of the terrain is designated as expert, 40% intermediate and 40% beginner. Of Beech’s area, 30% is deemed expert, 40% intermediate and 30% beginner. From the numbers, Sugar and Beech seem suitable for families and mid-level skiers and riders. Sugar offers more trails and vertical drop than Beech but fewer lifts.
Lift tickets this season won’t break the bank at $39 (Sugar), $38 (Beech) and $35 (Appalachian) on weekdays but they shoot up during weekends and holidays.
All three include snowboard parks and night skiing. Beech has upgraded its terrain park with added rails, boxes and slides while Appalachian changes snowboarding features every other Friday. Sugar and Beech offer on-mountain lodging and are actually located in real towns, not ersatz Alpine villages. Nearby are the quaint and charming communities of Blowing Rock and Banner Elk for restaurants, shopping and night life.
The majority of resort visitors come from the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
Another plus for Beech is the covered loading area for quad chairlift number five to the summit—a plus in bad weather—and a covered unloading area at the top. A second lift, number six, a double, also goes to the summit. At the top, the blue Oz Run heads down the backside and has its own padded quad lift. When skiable with snow cover, a repeat visitor to Beech tells me “it’s a whole new world.”
Gil Adams, director-skier services, describes the terrain as “undeveloped on both sides with 600 feet of vertical.” Lift line waits at Beech were relatively short during a mid-week visit but yet the slopes were still crowded.
At Appalachian during the same week, the humongous 46,000 square foot base lodge got as congested as a New York subway at rush hour. But if parents are worried about losing their children on the hill, the compact, one-face Appalachian resort should be appealing.
Thanks partly to Sugar’s vertical drop, the resort’s 1.5 mile long Flying Mile trail should satisfy intermediates for a long cruising run. At Beech, the Upper and Lower Shawnee trails to Powder Bowl go for nearly a mile. Wolf Ridge Ski Resort, Cataloochee Ski Area and Sapphire Valley Ski Area round out the list of six.
The resorts generally open from around Thanksgiving and close for the winter around mid-March. For you mid-Atlantic visitors, come on down, y’all.
SUGAR MOUNTAIN RESORT
Banner Elk, NC
Vertical Drop: 1,200 feet
Summit Elev: 5,300 feet
BEECH MOUNTAIN RESORT
Beech Mountain, NC
Vertical Drop: 830 feet
Summit Elev: 5,506
APPALACHIAN SKI MOUNTAIN
Blowing Rock, NC
Website: www.appskimtn.com. Telephone: 1-800-322-2373
Vertical drop: 365 feet
Summit Elev: 3,635 feet
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