Head to North Carolina’s High Country – the Ski Capital of the South
Antsy to learn how to ski? Want to hone your snowboarding skills? No need to head to Telluride, Aspen or Vail. North Carolina’s High Country is the Ski Capital of the South – and it’s in your backyard.
“In the winter, there’s just this great silence in the mountains and calmness that I think is the best thing ever,” says Candice Cook, executive marketing director of NC High Country Host, which promotes the Boone and Blowing Rock area. “Here, you can find that retreat or you can go and enjoy the winter sports around all of the people.”
Cook, who grew up in Valle Crucis, loves to sled with her three children, ages 1, 4 and 8, and hike on crisp winter days. “You can see forever,” she says. “Those views are just so clear, and it’s just so much fun to go out and enjoy the outdoors.”
When snow engulfs the Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds through the area, cross-country skiers flock to the closed white-covered roads. The area also boasts three full-service ski resorts with fun recreational activities from mid-November through March.
The highest ski area in the eastern U.S., Beech Mountain is home to some of the state’s finest skiing and snowboarding. With an average annual snowfall of 85 inches, this white wonderland is punctuated with trails that can accommodate all levels of skiers on 100 acres and 17 slopes. The family-friendly resort, which recently added two new Doppelmayr high-speed chairlifts, celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter.
“You can get a lot of vertical feet in a day of skiing here,” says Talia Freeman, Beech Mountain director of marketing and a longtime snowboarder. “That gives us a competitive edge.”
Guests can also rent snowshoes and explore 7 miles of cross-country trails (with or without a guide), practice their freestyle tricks at terrain parks for all levels, enjoy the 7,000-square-foot ice rink in the heart of the resort village or slide down the 750-foot-long run at the snow tubing park.
A favorite with the little ones is the youth sledding hill for kids 12 and under. It’s free and outfitted with its own snowmaking machine, just in case.
Another unique amenity is 5506′, a glass-walled sky bar at the top of the slopes whose name pays tribute to Beech Mountain’s lofty elevation. This prime spot, which also features a massive outdoor deck, serves up food, bar beverages and panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, all the way to Kingsport, Tennessee, and Howards Knob in Boone.
On the first Saturday after New Year’s Day, Beech Mountain Resort hosts the Winterfest Beer Festival. Save some energy to stroll the village at night and check out the lighted ice sculptures.
A few miles away, Sugar Mountain Resort offers 20 slopes for skiing and snowboarding, with full-day, half-day, twilight or night sessions. Go tubing, day or night, skate on the 10,000-square-foot outdoor rink, or take a guided snowshoe excursion. Come in from the cold and get pampered with a massage, facial or body treatment at Serenity Day Spa across from the resort entrance.
In nearby Valle Crucis, stroll through the original Mast General Store, constructed in 1883. Today, it houses the town’s post office and a wide selection of country gourmet foods, cast-iron cookware and 500 types of knives. “I love to tell people about the scavenger hunt there,” Cook says. “A lot of people don’t know that exists.”
Located in Seven Devils, Hawksnest is the largest snow tubing park in the Southeast, with 30 lanes in four separate areas and moving carpet lifts that take you back to the top. The attraction also features 20 ziplines, including four “mega zips,” and more than 4 miles of spectacular views from 200 feet in the air.
Between Boone and Blowing Rock, Appalachian Ski Mtn. claims the distinction as the first ski resort to open in northwest North Carolina, in 1962. It now includes 12 slopes ranging from beginner to advanced, along with the region’s only late-night skiing, three terrain parks and a carefully maintained outdoor skating arena overlooking the slopes.
Appalachian Ski Mtn. is also a great place to learn. It offers the only ski area in the Southeast with terrain park instruction, as well as the unique French Swiss Ski College, which caters to first-timers.
For a more laid-back experience, sit on the towering observation deck and watch your child take a skiing lesson or veteran snowboarders perform in the terrain park below. Or warm your hands by the fire in the lodge restaurant and check out the action from the oversized windows.
“I like being able to bring a friend of mine who’s never been before and see them have fun, or ride with people that are more experienced and find different jumps or rails,” says Drew Stanley, the resort’s marketing director and a skier since he was 18 months old.
On Christmas Day, the resort offers prepurchased, half-price skiing and snowboarding tickets to raise funds for the local ski patrol. Santa hands out candy and guests mingle in holiday garb. On New Year’s Eve, the slopes stay open until 11:45 p.m. Then, just before the huge fireworks display, ski college instructors zip downhill, hoisting lighted torches that create magical patterns in the snow. Stanley says, “All the slope lights are off, so it makes this neat light train down the mountain.”
If You Go...
Appalachian Ski Mtn.
French Swiss Ski College
(828) 295-7828, appskimtn.com
Beech Mountain Resort
(828) 387-9283, beechmtn.com
(828) 963-6561, hawksnesttubing.com
Mast General Store
(828) 963-6511, mastgeneralstore.com
Serenity Day Spa
(828) 898-3550, relaxatserenity.com
Sugar Mountain Resort
(828) 898-4521, skisugar.com
– Nancy Henderson