Last week, according to SkiSoutheast.com, between 18 and 22 inches of snow fell in North Carolina’s high country, more snow is falling (Ski Beech reported 9 inches of new snow overnight), and snow is expected to fall throughout the week. That’s good news for the state’s downhill ski industry, although cold temperatures alone is enough to make ski areas and their sophisticated snowmaking operations happy. The true benefactors of this ongoing dump of Mother Nature’s own?
Cross country skiers.
North Carolina has a spotty record when it comes to cross-country. There are no givens in the state; that is, no places such as West Virginia’s White Grass touring center, which gets 160 inches of snow a year, enough to warrant 50 kilometers of trail, some of it groomed. At best, North Carolina has Roan Mountain, which gets about 100 inches (but is a bear to get to when it snows); much of the rest of the high country is lucky to get half that much in a season. But on those rare occasions when the minimal 6-8 inches fall, it’s worth the effort. Here’s a quick cross-country primer:
Far as we know, only one shop in North Carolina rents cross-country skis, the Pineola Inn & Ski Shop in Pineola (it’s on U.S. 221 south of Blowing Rock). Skis rent for $18 a day, lessons are available for $40, $25 if you have a group. Obviously, when the conditions are as good as they are now, the skis are at a premium. 828-733-4979, or check out their Web site.
Places to ski
Old roadbeds (or, in the case of the Blue Ridge Parkway, new ones) make great cross-country ski trails. The minimal canopy allows the snow to reach the surface and pile, and because they are old road beds, chances are the grades aren’t severe. Thus, any hiking trail you’ve hiked that’s an old roadbed is likely a good cross-country trail. That said …
- Moses Cone Memorial Park With 25 miles of maintained carriage paths, this Blue Ridge Parkway venue is among the state’s most popular when there’s snow. Popular, too, because even if the BRP is closed (see below), there’s access from Bass Lake in Blowing Rock. Here’s a trail map.
- Blue Ridge Parkway With a minor exception or two, the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway — 252 miles of which is in North Carolina — isn’t maintained in winter. That means when it snows, the road is closed until the snow melts. And that means some long pulls on the Nordic skis. Check out the National Parks Service Web site for navigational help.
- Roan Mountain A favorite of more experienced skiers, in part because of the elevation (Roan tops out at 6,285 feet), in part because of the exposure and views (skiing atop three balds) in part because of the more intense climbing required. Hit Roan on a good day, though, and it’s a memorable experience.
- Beech Mountain Beech is know for being the home of the highest downhill ski area in the East, at 5,506 feet. But according to HikeBeechMountain.com, many of the town’s hiking trails double nicely as cross-country routes. Topping the list: the 4.5-mile Westerly Hills Trail, which takes in old roadbeds originally “roughed in for development.”
- Boone If road conditions are dicey and you’d like to avoid as much mountain driving as possible, check out the greenway trail in Boone. It may total just under 4 miles (3.84), but if you’ve never been on cross-country skis, prepare to have your sense of distance rescaled. (Read: Cross country is a solid full-body workout.)
- Mount Mitchell State Park / Commissary Ridge Trail This old roadbed runs just below the crest of the Black Mountains, the highest mountain range on the East Coast. The views of the South Toe River Valley below are stellar, there’s just one catch: Mount Mitchell is accessed off the highest section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a section that is frequently closed due to weather. When there’s enough snow to cross-country ski, there’s more than enough to close the BRP.
The trickiest part of cross-country skiing if you don’t live in the mountains is finding out the current conditions. Because there is no organized cross-country ski industry, there is no apparatus for getting daily updates. Thus, your best bed is word-of-mouth passed along by locals who happen to drop by their local outfitter and comment on the conditions. Not very scientific, not especially reliable, but better than nothing. A few numbers to call:
- Pineola Inn & Ski Shop Pineloa. 828.733.4979. The aforementioned lone-renter of cross-country skis in the state gets better feedback during prime conditions, such as these.
- Footsloggers, Blowing Rock. 828.295.4453. This popular mountain outfitter is a mile from Bass Lake and the Moses Cone trails. More importantly, the staff is well-connected, gets out a lot and is eager to share information.
- Footsloggers, Boone. 828-262-5111. The Boone store is bigger than its Blowing Rock satellite and has a broader geographic reach.
- ExploreBooneArea.com 828-266-1345. This arm of the Watauga County District Tourism Development Authority promotes the Boone area, and since the Boone area is all about outdoor adventure, it’s a primo source of information. Has one of the best rundowns of cross-country venues going.
- SkiSoutheast.com Is mostly about downhill skiing, but includes a helpful rundown of cross-country trails in North Carolina and throughout the Southeast.
You’re driving in the mountains in winter conditions. Two numbers you need to know:
- North Carolina Department of Transportation Find the latest on road conditions statewide online through NCDOT’s Traveler Information Management System or by calling the 511 Information Line.
- Blue Ridge Parkway Check the latest weather-related closures by calling (828) 298-0398; check for long-term construction and maintenance closures here.
Two good sources for checking the high country forecast: