Timing is the key to skiing and boarding in this “New Southern Winter” of sporadic storms interspersed with 60-degree days. You have to be poised and ready to strike, willing to leave work and chase the storms across the Appalachians at a moment’s notice. Given accurate beta (and an understanding boss), it’s possible to bag dozens of fresh powder days this winter. In order to guide you on your quest for freshies, we talked to snow gurus about their favorite local powder stashes. Consider this your definitive guide to Southern powder. 


West Virginia

Hands down, the best powder in the Southeast falls in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, particularly the section of the Monongahela National Forest located within Pocahontas and Tucker Counties, which feature some of the highest elevations in the Mountain State. West Virginia gets the majority of its snowfall from lake effect storms, which are generated from the “temperature contrast between the cold arctic air moving over the relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes,” according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. 


Chris Manly is the chief meteorologist for Snowforecast.com, an online weather center which focuses on resort conditions throughout North America. “The lake effect snows that develop on the backside of the storm system, which form when cold air flows over warmer water, stream in from the northwest and are able to reach the West Virginia Mountains. The snowfall that hits the northwestern slopes in West Virginia is enhanced by the upward push of the Allegheny Mountains, thus intensifying the snowfall for bigger accumulations.” 


Essentially, if you want West Virginia powder, you have to watch for storm systems that are traveling southeast from the Great Lakes. These storms can hit as early as November, but the heaviest snow tends to fall on West Virginia during January and February. Traditionally, March is also a snowy month, though most resorts tend to stop running their lifts around the middle of the month because many skiers in D.C. (where the majority of the resort business comes from) are already experiencing spring fever. If you’re willing to hike for your turns though, the highest elevations of the Mon will hold snow until early April. 





Where to Go: 


Canaan Valley and Snowshoe receive the lion’s-share of lake effect snow, averaging 150 to 180 inches of snow every year. If you like resort powder, Silver Creek (Snowshoe’s sister mountain) is your best bet according to Gil Willis, long-time local and owner of the Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork. “Most people head up to Snowshoe, which leaves the runs at Silver Creek less crowded on a powder day,” Willis says. “And Silver Creek has much better tree runs than Snowshoe.” 


Willis suggests hitting Bear Claw, a black diamond on Silver Creek that’s flanked by skiable trees on either side. Most advanced skiers head to the Western Territory after a big snow, leaving Bear Claw’s powder fresh all day. If you want powder on a more gentle run, Willis suggests skiing the edges of Snowshoe’s terrain parks. “These kids aren’t interested in powder, so they leave it alone.” 


If you want knee-deep powder for cross-country skiing near Snowshoe, Willis suggests heading to the Highland Scenic Highway outside of Slatyfork. Portions of the highway rise above 4,000 feet and the entire road remains unplowed throughout the winter. Look to the edge of the road where snow drifts collect next to the guard rails. There’s even a designated cross-country ski parking lot at the intersection of the scenic highway and 219. Red Lick Trail also begins at the same parking lot. It’s a north-facing trail that traverses the mountain and holds snow throughout the winter. 


For downhill backcountry turns, head to Gay Sharp Knob, also off the Highland Scenic Highway. Gay Sharp is an open bald sitting at 4,500 feet with roughly 600 feet of vertical drop, including some killer tree runs. 


In the Canaan Valley area, head to Timberline Resort for lift-served powder. “There are tree lines all over Timberline that hold powder all day,” says Leslie Mehl, who’s been skiing and living in Canaan Valley for 26 years. Her favorite powder run? “Dew Drop. It’s a double black that bumps up after some traffic on a powder day.” 


But you don’t go to Canaan Valley on a powder day for the resort runs. Canaan’s backcountry has more vertical drop than its resorts; you just have to be willing to work for your turns. If you stick to the trails and vertical lines above 4,000 feet, you’ll find consistent snow cover from January through March. Bald Knob sits at 4,308 feet, overlooking Canaan Valley, and has the most cherished backcountry lines south of the Mason Dixon. Chip Chase, owner of Whitegrass Ski Touring Center, has been skiing the area so long, he’s named many of the popular routes himself. For vertical drop off of Bald Knob, Chase recommends Baldy Steeps and the Cathedral. “These are the areas steepest and best glades. And they’re trimmed and gardened by volunteers and our staff, so they all offer clean tree runs.” 


If you want more vertical drop than Bald Knob, you go to Porte Crayon, a 4,770-foot mountain towering over the valley that locals claim is the snowiest mountain in West Virginia. Rumors of a new resort have been surrounding the mountain for years, and it’s no wonder. In addition to the copious amounts of snow, Chase says the Porte Crayon has the longest north facing forest of its elevation anywhere around. “Flatrock Bowl, off of Porte Crayon, houses the cleanest birch maple glades around, and you’ll get a glorious 1,300 vertical drop out of the run, all of which stays above 3,400 feet so it’s snow-choked most of the winter.” 








Virginia & 


NORTH CAROLINA

The Allegheny Mountains that form the border of Virginia and West Virginia keep the lake effect snow out of Old Dominion and North Carolina. “It’s just too far to carry that moisture up and over to the other side of the mountains,” Manly says. “Moisture is basically wrung out of the lake effect systems as they pass through the mountainous terrain into Virginia.” 


So forget the lake effect storms if you want to ski in Virginia and North Carolina, which are generally affected by the same storm systems. Instead, you’re looking for storms that are dipping in from the Central and Southern Plains. “These storms are able to tap into Gulf of Mexico moisture and then wrap it up into the mountains for a good heavy pounding,” Manly says. “Generally, areas just west of the low pressure center receive the jackpot of snowfall. This is the key area where moisture, cold air, and the dynamics of the storm produce the heaviest snowfall.” 


Manly says to look for storms moving north through Georgia and South Carolina up into the middle of North Carolina and Virginia for the heaviest snowfall in the mountains. Just like West Virginia, the snowiest months in Virginia and North Carolina tend to be late in the winter. The record-breaking snowfall of 1993, which is often referred to as “the storm of the century,” arrived in March of that year. 





Where to Go IN VIRGINIA: 


Locals tend to disagree about which Virginia resort gets the best powder. Their answer usually depends on which resort they’re loyal to. Honestly, there’s no clear winner, although Wintergreen is reported to have the best snowmaking capabilities in Virginia. Ironically, if you want the stuff that falls from the sky, you’ll have to look outside the resorts (see below). But when the powder does fall and you’re dead set on getting some quality lift-served runs, head to Paradice at Massanutten. 


“It’s a pretty long run for Virginia with about 700 vertical feet with a couple of nice drops,” says Chris Green, a Harrisonburg native who’s skied everywhere in Virginia over the past 25 years. “When there’s snow, some nice powdery moguls form. You just have to get there early in the morning. After a couple of hours, it’s crowded and the slopes get rutted out.” 


For backcountry action, Green heads into Shenandoah National Park after a heavy snowfall. The park has elevations that top 4,000 feet and typically has temperatures that are 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding valley. When the snow falls, Skyline Drive is closed to vehicles, turning the road’s higher elevations into cross-country ski heaven. For crowd-free downhill action, head towards Big Meadow. “There’s an area near Big Meadow that’s steep and long enough to get 200 vertical feet out of it,” Green says. “We’ll pack a lunch and hike and ski all day. It’s an open field up top, then it narrows to 20 feet towards the trees. There are also some big rocks you can jump.” Green says there are places that offer this sort of backcountry experience all over Shenandoah, you just have to be willing to hunt for them. 


If you want the most consistent snow in Virginia, you head to the highest elevations in the state. Grayson County, home to Mount Rogers and its surrounding 5,000-footers, is known as the “roof of Virginia.” It’s also home to arguably the best cross-country skiing in the state. Grayson Highlands State Park has ten miles of designated cross-country trails zig-zagging across 5,089-foot Little Pinnacle Mountain, which typically has enough snow to support the skinny-ski traffic during the coldest winter months. 


“On average, we get about six feet of snow a year,” says Daniel White, a ranger at the park. “We have a northern climate that surprises people. When you get a trace of snow in Roanoke, we’ll get several inches up here.” 


Check out the Rhododendron Gap Trail for a rugged backcountry excursion, or hit the Camp Road for smooth road grades on a powder day. If you want a mellow downhill, head to Whitetop Mountain in the Mount Rogers Recreation Area. The second highest peak in Virginia has a grassy bald for some quick vertical drop, but most people ski the Virginia Creeper Trail, which begins at the top of the mountain and drops 2,000 feet over several miles into Damascus. Think of it as the longest green run in the South. 





Where to Go IN NORTH CAROLINA: 


The heaviest snow in the state tends to fall along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, where high elevation balds can collect over 100 inches of snow every winter. Troy Clark, owner of the High Country Ski Shop, has been teaching people how to ski the backcountry on cross-country skis for 25 years. When the snow falls, he says most advanced skiers and boarders head to Roan Mountain, a 6,285-foot bald that traditionally gets more snow than the North Carolina resorts 45 minutes to the east. 


“You can ski the road up to the rhododendron gardens and then take the Appalachian Trail down the side of the mountain for a really nice two mile downhill,” Clark says. If you want straight vertical, the grassy slopes offer great downhill opportunities after a heavy snowfall. 


For the classic High Country cross-country ski experience, Clark sends people to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which isn’t plowed during the winter. “The Linn Cove Viaduct area is my favorite part of the parkway to ski,” Clark says. “The views are beautiful and there’s great skiing on the road, or off if you’re up for it.”


If you want the most consistent snow in the Tarheel state, you go to the tallest mountain in the East. Mount Mitchell averages 104 inches of snow every winter and holds the majority of North Carolina’s snow records (34 inches of snow in 24 hours, 50 inches of snow in two days during 1993). Most cross-country skiers stick to the old road beds that circumnavigate Mitchell. Check out the Commissary Trail and the Buncombe Horse Range Trail for powder mixed with views. Clark also suggests hoofing the mile hike up to the tower for a three mile downhill on the road. 


If you want on-piste action, locals say Beech Mountain (http://basecamp.blueridgeoutdoors.com/?p=2578) gets the majority of the resort-based powder. Beech is the highest resort east of the Rockies, getting roughly 80 inches of snow a year. “As a bonus, Beech has the most advanced terrain of any resort in the High Country,” says Robyn Green, owner of Farmer’s Ski Shop in Boone. After the powder falls, check out Oz Run, off the backside of the mountain. It receives less traffic than the front side and can hold powder well into the afternoon. •

DAMN

WEATHERMAN!

Okay, you’re angry with your local meteorologist—the one who always predicts a two-foot powder dump that turns out to be a cold winter rain. Hold the hate mail. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, snow forecasting remains one of the more difficult challenges for meteorologists. What’s the problem? The heaviest snow amounts fall in surprisingly small areas, and extremely slight temperature fluctuations mean the difference between rain and snow. 


“With snow storms, you have to take into account the track of the storm. A difference of 20 to 30 miles is all it takes for one place to get two inches rather than two feet,” says Chris Manly of Snowforecast.com. “Plus, storms interacting with mountain ranges can dramatically alter snowfall as well.”


This is why storms projected to hit your favorite ski resort often miss it altogether, dumping snow on the other side of the mountain range or in another state. If meteorologists are projecting a storm’s path from hundreds of miles away, and a 20-mile variance in its path means the difference between two inches of snow or two feet, they are unlikely to pinpoint snow falls very accurately. 


“Computer models have a tough time computing thousands of variables for a storm on the West Coast and pinpointing its mark on the East Coast,” Manly says. “It has to constantly ingest new data to refine its forecast.” 


Of course, what usually happens in the Southeast is the powdery snow storm that your weatherman predicts turns out to be three days of freezing rain. According to Manly, this is simply a matter of temperature, both at the surface where the snow or rain hits the ground, and in the middle of the storm, where the precipitation forms. The temperatures at both levels must be below freezing to produce the powder that all skiers and boarders dream of. 


And what about those popular ten-day forecasts that are all over the internet? How bankable are those projections? Given the multitude of variables that go into predicting snow several days in advance, you shouldn’t book any expensive ski trips based on what you see ten days ahead. 


“Having a model forecast more than three days or so in advance is risking one or dozens of those variables being off by a certain degree and snowballing from there,” Manly says. “Generally, forecasts beyond three days are more generic so as to leave room for fine-tuning along the way. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

SNOW

DAYS

Need another reason to head into the Mountain State for some lake-effect powder? Check out one of these snowy events. 





Snowshoe Run/Walk, Canaan Valley, W.Va. 


Organized by distance runner Dan Lehmann, the Snowshoe Run takes your average 5K and, well, adds snow. Runners strap fancy baskets to their feet and tackle the rolling hills of Canaan Valley under a heavy powder. There’s certainly no shame in walking this one. January 21. www.whitegrass.com. 





Backcountry Snowshoe Trip, Slatyfork, W.Va. 


Two days of snowshoeing the Monongahela under a heavy blanket of powder. You’ll explore 31 miles of trails with an evening tour also planned and the potential for winter camping. You’ll also learn leave-no-trace winter guidelines and discover why Slatyfork’s unique microclimate provides the area with deep winter snows. Check www.ertc.com for dates. 





Cupp Run Challenge. Snowshoe Mountain, W.Va. 


Cupp Run is a challenging enough trail with its 1,500-foot vertical foot drop spread out over a mile of snow and steeps. Throw in a giant slalom race and break-neck speeds and you’ve got one of the fastest and hairiest snow races in the East. www.snowshoemtn.com. 





NATO Telemark Workshop. Canaan Valley, W.Va. 


Learn how to make those crazy deep knee-bend turns from the best instructors on the East Coast. The North American Telemark Association sends pro instructors from Vermont to teach Southern skiers the beauty and joy of the telemark turn. The more powder, the more fun those turns will be. www.whitegrass.com.