Winter WonderlandPublished 9:03am Thursday, March 1, 2012
West Virginia home to hidden gem of outdoor adventure
TUCKER COUNTY, W.Va. — One of the snowiest places on the east coast
is tucked along the western edge of the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia’s Tucker County.
A hidden gem anytime of the year, the region’s annual average of 60 inches of natural snowfall makes it a perfect destination for a mid-winter road trip.
Located off the snow-scraped winter path, Tucker County is worth the extra effort to get there. The 250-mile trip takes approximately a 4.5 hour drive by car and should be navigated with the help of a tried-and-true road map. GPS devices often lead their owners far astray from the populated areas and onto forest roads in the surrounding national forest and wilderness areas, which can be treacherous in winter weather.
“The Valley,” as Tucker County’s ski areas are known, is famous for its relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere.
“You are not going to a mega resort,” explains Bill Smith, Tucker County Tourism director. “You are going to two downhill areas and a premier cross country skiing area that is just focused on the sport.”
An abundance of small- and medium-size businesses that come together to provide the complete range of services to visitors, versus the big-business dominated resorts, allows visitors to get “more bang for their winter sports buck,” said Smith.
In addition to winter recreation, there are more than a few places to shop, eat, drink and listen to live music in Tucker County. The twin timber towns of Thomas and Davis host two microbreweries, a diverse mix of restaurants, small cafes, art galleries and a family-friendly music venue, which regularly hosts performances by some of the most talented, small musical acts in the world.
With a sundry collection of accomodations that range from slope-side lodge rooms to expansive vacation homes and cozy cottages, Tucker County offers something to fit almost every traveler’s budget.
A Package Deal
Visitors can ski both downhill resorts with a discounted lift ticket that provides access to Timberline Four Seasons Resorts and Canaan Valley Resort State Park. Together the two downhill centers boast a total of 76 runs, seven lifts, two terrain parks, an ice-skating rink and a tubing park. Available Jan. 7 through March 11, “Ski the Valley” passes range in price from $55 for a mid-week juniors pass to a $102 adult weekend pass. Buy-one-get-one mid-week lift ticket coupons for each individual resort are also available in the region’s entertainment book.
Timberline Four Seasons Resort
Timberline Resort has 37 runs including the more than two-mile long Salamander Run, the longest ski run in the south. Of its remaining 36 runs, 32 percent are blue, 34 percent are expert and 34 percent are rated easiest. They are served by four ski lifts. Timberline also boasts two tunnel features where trails go underneath resort roads, as well as a terrain park. There are also more than 25 kilometers of marked cross-country skiing trails throughout its 100 acres of skiable terrain.
Canaan Valley Resort State Park
Celebrating its 40th year, Canaan Valley has 39 slopes with a vertical rise of 850 feet, served by three lifts. It also has a terrain park and allows air boarding on selected trails. An airboard is an inflatable sled-like board with grooves on its underside that allow riders to make sharp turns and stop quickly in the snow.
Canaan Valley’s Snow Tube Park provides yet another way for visitors to slide down the mountain. A popular attraction for everyone ages 4 and up, the tube park features 600 feet of tubing lanes and a handle-tow. Open daily, tubing sessions are two hours each. Riders must be 42 inches tall.
Canaan Valley’s covered, outdoor ice skating rink, featuring an outdoor fireplace and views of the valley and surrounding mountains, is also a popular way to spend a day on the mountain. Sessions are also 2 hours long and rentals are available.
White Grass Ski Touring Center
For 30 years, a 500-acre rolling farm tucked between Canaan Valley Resort and Timberline State Park along the north facing side of the mountain is home to grazing cattle in the summer and the White Grass Ski Touring Center each winter.
A premier destination for cross-country and telemark skiing, White Grass boasts more than 30 miles of trails on its property as well as access to trails in the surrounding Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area.
White Grass, which founder Chip Chase explains, “is a working farm first” is owned, operated and run by skiers and could also set the bar for a green, sustainable business. The center is wood-fired and farms its own snow, preserving and maximizing the natural snowfall instead of making its own.
“We have to maximize all the snow that we do get. We put up over two miles of snow fence,” said Chase. Workers gather the snow blown by the wind and caught by the fences and then groom it using a unique method.
White Grass attracts more than 10,000 visitors annually, but is seldom crowded. It doesn’t mass advertise and depends on its loyal repeat customers and word-of-mouth to draw in new clientele.
“Some winters are good and some are bad and it’s all according to the weather and the timings of the weekends,” said Chase.
Visitors come to White Grass even when the conditions are not perfect for skiing. People say they are attracted by the friendly, relaxed, and laid-back vibe that emanates like heat from the center’s woodstoves.
“Our clientele have their eyes on nature and the natural conditions. It’s not very dependable that way, but I think that is what makes it special. It’s a natural thing (that depends) on Mother Nature — if she delivers the goods,” said Chase.
“It’s almost the charm of it, is that it is not easy to get snow here. We do trail work and people wonder why we do it. It is so we can ski on an inch of packed snow. We want to make sure we can ski on one inch,” he said.
The White Grass Café and Ski Shop are destinations in their own right. The Café serves only hand prepared dishes with the freshest natural ingredients available. Vegetarian soups and sandwiches, home-baked cookies, cakes and pies are offered for lunch and an eclectic international Friday and Saturday night dinner menu is served sideboard style. Live music is always on the menu.
The White Grass Ski Shop boasts one of the best collections of cross-country, Telemark and snowshoe gear in the east. Chase said the staff prides itself on ensuring clients get lots of personal attention, advice and guidance. “We have great fit with ski gear,” said Chase. “You can try it, buy it new and used. You can trade it in, upgrade it. We are 100 percent customer-service oriented. We have lots of boots and boot manufacturers. In the type of boots that we sell, we have every type of boot.”
Equipment for all three sports is available for renting. “We get people out on the snow faster than any other ski area in the country,” said Chase. “I’ve never seen one as quick as ours.”
White Grass staff offers a variety of lessons, clinics and guided treks, many of them free to visitors.
Blackwater Falls State Park
Sandwiched between the historic timber towns of Thomas and Davis, Blackwater Falls State Park’s namesake is the 62-foot cascade along the Blackwater River. The river, deeply stained by tannins from the area’s forests, twists 8 miles through the gorge below. Although spectacular in any season, the dark water and crisp white snow create striking contrast.
“As with all the seasons, the beauty of the area is the biggest draw,” said Blackwater Falls Lodge Manager Lois Reed. “The beauty of the area is pretty magnificent when all the hemlocks and spruce trees are covered with snow. It’s postcard pictures.”
The falls are accessible via two trails. The Gentle Trail, which leads to an overlook from across the canyon is open year-round. Another trail, down a set of descending wooden steps, takes visitors closer to its cascade. It is occasionally closed due to snow and ice.
After getting the perfect snapshot, head to the park’s sled run. The 1,300-foot run, features a warming hut at its base, which serves hot beverages and snacks, and features a tow rope. Bring your own sled or rent one. The hill has two sessions daily from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., rentals are $7 for adults and free for children under five. Lift tickets are $7.
Cross country ski rentals and lessons are also available for visitors who want to explore the more than 10 miles of the park’s hiking trails groomed for winter activities.
The Purple Fiddle
Located in historic Thomas in the old DePollo General Store, The Purple Fiddle has become a destination for music lovers and musicians seeking an intimate, low-key performance venue where children of all ages are welcome.
Founded a decade ago by proprietor John Bright, a Charleston native, and his now ex-wife Kate, the Purple Fiddle is a treasure beloved by locals and tourists alike.
The Purple Fiddle hosts 300 performances a year including music every Friday and Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. The cover charge is seldom more than $7 for adults, and children under 12 are free.
Music varies from toe-tapping and bluegrass to reggae, blues and Latin music.
“I like to think we cross into all genres and music,” said Bright, adding the venue tries to avoid punk and hardcore “simply because this old building would not be able to withstand all the jumping up and down and it would take away a bit from the family part.”
Maintaining its family-friendly atmosphere is of the utmost importance, according to Bright, who said he believes The Purple Fiddle’s greatest accomplishment has been being able to provide a warm, cozy atmosphere where patrons can mix and mingle with musicians.
In fact, it is not uncommon to see children, adults and guest musicians gathered together playing board games or chatting in the late afternoon or evening, long before a music performance begins.
The Purple Fiddle’s small café also serves a variety of fresh, healthy sandwiches, homemade ice cream, hot dinner specials. They also offer a large variety of national microbrews as well as draft beer from the nearby Mountain State Brewing Company and a wine selection.