How I Came To View North Carolina As A Legitimate Ski Destination
A ski and snowboard vacation in the mountains of the Kitty Hawk state can be summed up in a variation on one simple phrase: “We’re in North Carolina.”
It can be used as an proclamation of surprise, the result of finding the type of first-class grooming normally reserved for the most posh resorts: “Dude, we’re in North Carolina!”
North Carolina has some legitimate skiing within a day’s drive of most of the Southeastern U.S.
It can be used as an excuse, the result of discovering that a weekend of rain followed by freezing temps has resulted in some of the iciest conditions known to man: “Hey, what do you expect, we’re in North Carolina.”
And then it can be used as a measure of gratitude, the result of actually making your way onto the snow by investing merely a day’s car drive and a few tanks of gas. As in a resident of the south saying, “With today’s economy, thank God for North Carolina.”
How do I know this? Because I uttered all three during last season’s Christmas break.
Keeping It Real
It may surprise you, but a lot of Floridians — like me — love to ski and snowboard. A lot of Georgians, too, and Louisianans, South Carolinians, Miss…well, you get the picture. Some have the means to head off to Utah, Colorado, or points beyond to get their fix. Others are forced to either daydream while playing a lot of Wii, or look a little closer to home if they actually hope to slide on snow each winter.
Faced with a slumping economy, that was my predicament this winter. After years spending a good portion of the winter enjoying Utah powder, I was looking at spending a winter on the beach in 2009. And needless to say, not the least bit happy about it. Enter, yes, North Carolina. My mother-in-law now lived there, and it seemed the perfect midway point to gather northeast and southeast family members for Christmas. But could a week in what is in essence the sunny south satiate my appetite for snow? I packed up the car, loaded up the family, and hit the road in search of the answer.
To be certain, there is the aforementioned “reality” to skiing or riding south of the Mason-Dixon line. On the plus side of the equation, it’s a mere day’s car ride from sunny Florida, and far less from a multitude of states across the nation’s southeast corner. That means you can actually ride snow without pricey airfares, resort town prices, or lengthy vacation commitments.
And as I discovered during my visit to the state, resort owners go to great lengths to provide it. Investments in snowmaking equipment are impressive, and in many cases, the amount of grooming and care given the slopes puts to shame some so-called big name resorts.
With that said, it’s also a decidedly southern ski location. That manmade snow will likely far outweigh any gifts from the heavens, and it’s subjected to the whims of Mother Nature. Conditions can be perfect one minute, far too warm the next. Maybe even raining. Slopes that soften up throughout a sunny afternoon often freeze up hard overnight, making for an icy crust come morning. A few rainy days will turn everything into an ice skating rink.
And then there’s the question of coverage. Depending upon that weather, slopes may be 100% open, or paved with the infamous white ribbon of death, a single lane of manmade that funnels everyone present – from seasoned pro to rank beginner — into one perilous runway.
So what did I find? On with the story.
Impeccable grooming helped to overcome Appalachian Ski Mountain’s diminutive size for the author.
The first stop on our NC journey was Appalachian Ski Mountain, at only 365 feet of vertical one of the smallest resorts I’ve ever skied at, but one that somehow still managed to be surprisingly fun. Located between Blowing Rock and Boone, Appalachian opened just before Thanksgiving last year, and planned to stay open until the end of March. All totaled the resort offers 10 named runs; its longest, Orchard Run, offers a half-mile of length. That’s not much, and at Christmas, most of the smaller trails still lacked coverage.
So why the fun portion of the equation? Two well-done terrain parks, as well as a near impeccable job of grooming.
Appalachian Ski Mountain trail map
Locals told me that App is known for its two parks — the rail-heavy Appal Jam and the jump-oriented Appajack — and from the resort’s 9 a.m. opening to 10 p.m. closing, there is no shortage of riders sessioning a mix of rails, boxes, and jumps scattered between the two areas, which are situated on opposite sides of the resort boundaries. Surprisingly, there are no real beginner terrain features; you either step up to the adult stuff, or lurk on the outskirts watching those who do it best. Appalachian State University’s snowboard team calls the place home, and as such you’ll find some impressive riders mixing it up within.
For those who don’t care to slide and grind, two runs stand out. Carving away in a gentle P-like shape from the summit, Orchard Run is the intermediate’s choice, dropping off to skier’s left before hooking up with the other runs near the base lodge. The lone “expert” run open early in the year, the black-diamond Upper Big Appal, drops straight down the mountain. At other resorts it might be a blue at best, but don’t tell that to my young daughter, who seemed quite proud of the fact that she was tearing up the Expert runs while keeping pace with her relatives.
The only other run that got our attention was Strudel, a very tame blue off the resort’s lefthand side. Well, that and Appaltizer, a green where my 7-year-old hooked up with her three-year-old sister and allowed the latter to tear down the slopes at blistering speed while dodging a small army of beginners dotting the slope. Good times.
Given the relative pint-size description of Appalachian, you may wonder why I seem to be giving it some love. And the answer would be the grooming. It’s a big claim, but I dare say the grooming at App rivaled, even exceeded anything I’ve seen at the best resorts. Between day and night skiing, the resort closes and a small fleet of cats charge onto the slopes, paving the way for the crowds that come to ski and ride under the lights.
More impressive is the attention to detail in the morning. Often, resorts groom away late night, then allow all that precious, damp corduroy to set up hard by morning. Not here. Instead, groomers were again on the job before sunrise, once more working the snow and taking a little of the stiffness out of the slopes. During the peak week between Christmas and New Year’s, staff was in the aforementioned terrain park until the wee hours of the morning. We know – we stayed in a house across the street.
Of course, with only 17 acres of skiable terrain, they have that luxury. Still, the attention to detail scored in my book. Sometimes good things really do come in small packages.
Give Me Some Sugar
Sugar Mountain contains North Carolina’s longest runs.
Sugar Mountain trail map
After spending multiple days at Appalachian, however, we were ready for something new (not to mention something bigger), and in that regard Sugar Mountain fit the bill.
On the grand scale of things, Sugar is the flip side of the North Carolina coin. Founded in 1969, its terrain is the biggest in the state (115 acres), its vertical (1,200 feet) the tallest in the state, its peak an impressive 5,300 feet, and its longest run a welcome 1½ miles long. Sugar also offers no less than 20 runs when fully covered.
We arrive at Sugar first thing, and waste little time getting our lift tickets and heading up the first chair in sight, which takes us all the way to the top of Sugar’s peak. It’s early and things are pretty icy from the cold temps the night before, so our first run follows the Northridge and Switchback blue trails, which winds us around the property’s righthand edge before depositing everyone back onto Upper, and then Lower, Flying Mile, the latter of which becomes a gentle green toward the base. Snow guns are in full effect, but it’s a nice long run, which after the shorter runs of the previous days is a nice change of pace.
A few runs in our legs and we opt to go left off the chair, descending the black diamond runs of Boulder Dash and Tom Terrific. Warning signs noted the conditions were still extremely icy, and I’ll admit I was a little gripped as I sat to strap in to my bindings, only to find myself suddenly sliding down the slope in rapid fashion. Soon, however, I began to truly appreciate the benefits of a new board, Lib Tech’s Magne Traction-edged Skate Banana. Yes, the marketing spin is that the board turns ice into powder, but I had never tested the claim outside Utah. This was East Coast hardpack, and yet I was carving while all around me were skidding their way through turns. I can now say I’m a true believer.
At this early stage of the season, much of the resort was still decidedly green. Only about half of both Upper and Lower Flying Mile was covered in snow, a fact that made a few crashes all the more spectacular as skiers and riders cartwheeled off the snow and into the grass and mud. Sugar’s terrain park was not yet open, but Easy Street, its beginner slope, was nicely covered, as was Big Birch, a short but fun blue that offered a nice view of several slopeside homes from the chairlift. Late in the morning I found my sweet spot in the remaining powder and skier and rider-chipped shavings piling up at the far left and right-hand side of each run. Yes, the crowds were building fast, and yes timing was becoming crucial to get down the slope without numerous stops to avoid the congestion, but it was actually quite fun. A bluebird day in North Carolina.
(photo: Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc.)
No, it didn’t last. Shortly after noon, the Christmas vacation crowds began to seriously outweigh any fun to be had. Two of my more experienced riding partners, brother-in-law Jim Bronson and wife Tricia, went mysteriously absent, only to be located at the bar. After witnessing all sorts of carnage, they elected to sit the afternoon out. My wife Kris also soon bailed, thanks to lift lines that had grown incredibly long, to the point where the wait to ride up was far more than the time required to make it back down. But hey, it was Christmas, so that’s probably to be expected. I could only dream of the fun I’d have with this resort practically to myself on a generic weekday away from the vacationing hoards.
Sugar has overhauled its snowmaking infrastructure for this, its 40th season with the replacement and upgrade of 2,500 feet of snowmaking pipes along the Big Birch slope. An additional energy-efficient snowmaking machine has also been purchased.
Ski The South!
So back to the original question, could a week in North Carolina at least temporarily satiate a serious need for snow? And the answer is yes, absolutely. True, the scale is small compared to the big-name resorts, and yes, conditions can go from stellar to far from ideal. And no doubt, holiday crowds can almost make it unbearable as the day wears on. I’ve never seen more beginners in one place in my life, a fact that’s great news for the North Carolina tourism industry, but not too welcome to experienced riders who don’t care to be taken out from behind by an out-of-control rocket blasting down the slopes.
But hey, as the saying goes…“it’s North Carolina.” A place that, as I discovered firsthand, is a surprisingly good alternative to spending an entire winter at the beach.
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