Snow in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia and Maryland has been known to fall anytime from October through April, and in several spots the annual snowfall has averaged nearly 200 inches. So load up the four-wheel-drive vehicle of your choice and hit the highway. Starting near Linwood, W.Va. and running north to McHenry, Md., Highway 219 passes five ski resorts and nearby towns loaded with great restaurants, bars, and music. You can even get a dose of backcountry skiing in along the way. This is ski highway.
Day One: Snowshoe
Grub, Drinks, Music
Highway 219 drops into Linwood, W.Va., at the base of Snowshoe Mountain Resort. There you’ll find Elk River Touring Center, including the Elk River Inn, Restaurant, and Ski and Snowboard rental gear shop. Last month, they expanded their operations to include the Fiddlehead Bar and Restaurant located smack in the foothills of Snowshoe Ski Resort. The Fiddlehead is brand spankin’ new and already offers a steady schedule of live music. New Year’s Eve weekend featured the Davisson Brothers Band and Vern’s Pot of Chili, two great acts out of the West Virginia mountains.
The Fiddlehead offers upscale bar food and great beers, both of which are a worthy accompaniment to a night of friends and live music. The locally-supplied trout sandwich is delicious, but you just can’t go wrong with three-dollar Mahi Mahi fish tacos. The brew highlights are their three featured taps from West Virginia’s own Mountain State Brewing Company. Try the crisp, hoppy deliciousness of the Seneca Indian Pale Ale.
The Place to Crash
In 1998 Will Fanning and his two sons began working on a pine-log structure that would become the Brazenhead Inn in Mingo, W.Va., named for the oldest pub in Fanning’s hometown of Dublin, Ireland. It’s just seven miles north from Snowshoe up Highway 219. Brazenhead is old-school; if you’re looking for flatscreens and shot-skis, you’ve come to the wrong place. But the inn is truly steeped in charm and features a traditional Irish-style pub and a dense musical heritage reflecting on the Fanning’s family background. Guinness and Smithwicks are always on tap, along with traditional Irish Whiskies behind the bar for a nightcap. But the highlight sits just alongside the bar. While they regularly house live music, they also stock a piano, fiddle, banjo, accordion, guitar, and a handful of other instruments already set out in a small bar corner with a few stools for anybody to sit down for a jam session anytime. Fanning and his wife will join you if you ask.
The cozy rooms boast a cabin feel, with old-timey pictures and paintings on the wooden walls and not much more than a bed, a place to wash up, and a dresser with some select reading material. No cable here, fellas. If you’re coming here, you’re coming for music, character, skiing, and the Brazenhead spirit.
When Snowshoe resort is lacking snowfall, there’s usually snow along the stretch of the Highlands Scenic Highway, the highest major roadway in West Virginia, which runs through the Monongahela National Forest. The road remains unplowed for the winter and is a popular spot for cross country skiers, but downhill adventure-seekers drive up the scenic byway as far as possible. About three miles up the highway, just off Highway 219 and east of the Cranberry Wilderness, there are some north-facing stashes that hold snow all winter long, just waiting to be shredded.
“You can hit Shearers Run Loop, the Warming Hut, or Red Lick, which is four miles and pops back out onto the Scenic Highway,” says local mountain bike and cross-country ski guide Greg Moore.
If you’re more likely to stick to the resort area, you’ve got options there too. From the Top of the Mountain area at Snowshoe there is a stash of backcountry playland locally known as the Old Hawthorn Slopes (named for the previous name of the golf course) that run all the way down to the base of Snowshoe. They are steep, extreme, and often shrub-covered, but on the right day, there’s some serious terrain waiting to be carved. Leave a car at the bottom, head back to the parking lot at the Top of the Mountain area, and access it next to the heli-pad.
For more information about Snowshoe Mountain, check out http://basecamp.blueridgeoutdoors.com/?p=2543
Scenes from the Ski Highway:
Day Two: The Valley (Timberline, Canaan, White Grass resorts)
Grub, Drinks, Music
If you’re heading to any of the three ski resorts that surround this area (Timberline, Canaan, or White Grass), look no further than Davis and Thomas, W.Va. Highway 219 will drop you right into Thomas, the northern town of the two sister towns, which are only a couple miles apart. The tourism industry has been good to these old mining and logging towns, and today there are almost too many great places to hang out.
For a brewpub hop, start in Davis at the Blackwater Brewing Company. They feature Italian and German cuisine, the latter of which features generational family recipes handed down by the mother of the original owner, Rosalinde Benson. Get some quality grub into the ol’ belly before the night begins, then dig into the beers. Blackwater features six beers all brewed behind the bar in their three-barrel micro-brewing system, including a wheat beer, a gold ale, a marzen, an Indian pale ale, a porter and a stout. Try the stout (arguably their forte). It’s bold and smoky with almost a hint of a chocolaty body that goes down quite smoothly. The place has been taken over by brewer Lincoln Wilkins, a man who has returned to his native home for good. A traditional Belgian/German style brewer, Wilkins plans to expand the reach of Blackwater beer here beyond the pub and experiment with new brews.
Make your hop from Davis up into Thomas to find Mountain State Brewing Company. Grab a homemade pepperoni roll—a traditional snack reminiscent of the early West Virginia mining days when the rolls were introduced and made famous in the state. They are a West Virginia staple made by, well, baking pepperoni into a yeast bread roll; simple, yet truly satisfying and a perfect prelude to a beer brewed in-house. If you’ve already tried their IPA, perhaps now is the time to go for the Miner’s Daughter Oatmeal Stout. There’s no better way to enjoy an oatmeal stout than perched on a saw-horse converted into a barstool in a small, dark, timber-raftered pub with a beautiful copper bar top and a warm, down-to-earth vibe. Check their schedule: if you arrive on the right night, you’ll be treated to live music in the dance-hall connected to the bar.
The Place to Crash
The Douglas Falls Bed and Breakfast, located just a mile or so outside of Thomas, is a quaint B&B and as peaceful a place as you can ask for. It’s fairly luxurious (on the inside, which is what counts, right?), for the price. Walk out the front door to take a stroll down the Blackwater Canyon Trail along the river. About a quarter mile up from the inn is the 35-foot Douglas Waterfall on the North Fork of the Blackwater River—not a bad way to spend a morning.
Back at the inn, enjoy the clawfoot tub in your room for a hot bath after a day on the slopes, or just step outside and make use of the jacuzzi. In the morning you’re served fresh, homemade breakfasts: apple pancakes or freshly baked quiche, coffee, sausage, freshly sliced fruits. After breakfast hit the road and you’re only 15 minutes from Timberline, Canaan, or White Grass ski areas.
White Grass Backcountry
White Grass Ski Touring Center is the cross-country mecca for Nordic skiers in West Virginia, or even the whole Southeast for that matter. Owner Chip Chase has created something unique in the small-time, easygoing atmosphere that White Grass embodies. He’s a cross-country ski bum at heart, but feels there is a growing scene between alpine-touring skiers, Nordic skiers, telemark skiers, downhill skiers, and snowboarders alike.
“White Grass creates this little energy field of trust, love, independence and just an affection for the outdoors without being pretentious or rule-oriented or grumpy or expensive,” says Chase.
White Grass is known for its fantastic cross country skiing and technique of snow farming (special fences are used to gather excess snow for cross country skiing), but there’s interest for adventure seekers looking for downhill backcountry as well. On the mountain behind the small lodge is a stash of impressive glades hand-carved out of the forests coming down towards the lodge. These glades boast 900 vertical feet of playland just waiting for ambitious skiers or snowboarders to hike it. With the lodge right at the bottom renting snowshoes and serving delicious food, you’re set.
“A lot of volunteering goes into clearing this backcountry out here,” says Chase. “All the best spots coming down from the trails on the top of the mountain have been cleared out.”
Day Three: Canaan Valley
Grub, Drinks, Music
The Purple Fiddle has housed The Avett Brothers four times and continues to book great bands from all around the region, drawing lively crowds every single weekend. They’ve got a large selection of food and a noteworthy selection of beer (featuring Mountain State Brewing Company on tap), but here the beer, the food, the picker’s décor, the foot-stompin’ knee-slappin’ music, and the good-natured people are all muddled into one big scene, and the only way to truly experience it is just to go. It’s truly a special experience to be standing on the worn, creaky, century-old wood floor with a mason jar full of cold beer in your hand watching bands that should probably be playing larger venues jamming away on the store-front-window stage.
Upcoming shows include Trees on Fire (Feb. 8); Dangermuffin (Feb. 18); Caravan of Thieves (March 12); and Bryan Elijah Smith & The Wild Hearts (March 17).
The Place to Crash
Next door to the Fiddle is a turn-of-the-century duplex named the Fiddler’s Roost, which has been converted into a cheap place of lodging for those on the lower end of the road-budget. They have five private rooms, which share bathroom facilities, as well as a communal lounge area and small kitchen area for everybody to use. It’s all part of the magical atmosphere that exists at the Purple Fiddle. The old Victorian buildings that line the streets of Thomas were once run-down, but now house packed storefronts and thriving businesses. Stop into one of the art galleries like The White Room. If you’re hungry, you’ve got options like The Flying Pig, a quaint and attractive dog-friendly breakfast and lunch eatery featuring locally grown farm-to-table produce. Or swing over to Davis for dinner at Sirianni’s Café, a local staple—a must-do on the pizza list. At the Fiddler’s Roost, look for rooms starting at $45 during the week, or head up on a weekend and catch some foot-stompin’ tunes with rooms starting at $65.
Canaan / Timberline Backcountry
Canaan Valley Ski Area has a long black diamond called the Dark Side of the Moon, which veers way out to the west side of the mountain. It also guards a stash of old runs that now lay dormant where the resort once existed.
Keep going beyond the Dark Side of the Moon and you’ll get into what they call The Spoon. On powder days, work your way across the flats and through the woods, then bust out to the headwall where the old ski lift was. When you get to the bottom, follow an access road and walk a quarter mile back up to the functioning lift. “It’s really fun. It’s a combination of old ski areas that were never connected but get linked by adventuresome alpine skiers,” says White Grass owner Chip Chase.
Another spot for backcountry action is the gas pipeline off the back of Canaan Resort. The pipeline runs both north and south of the resort, but the southeast area is where you want to hit it. Ride down a narrow, open gap in the trees as it drops about 2,000 feet in elevation all the way down to Laneville where you’ll hit a field that opens back up to County Route 45. Plan ahead and leave a car there. There are some steep bowls in there that can hold a lot of snow if the conditions are ripe.
At Timberline, there’s some good sidecountry where you can get out into the woods and come back around to the runs again to reach the bottom and still catch a lift ride back up. If you take Salamander Run from the top, you can sneak back into the woods for some good riding, but you’ve got to be careful not to go too far out or you’ll end up in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. If you ski to the right side of Salamander, work your way around the bend, loosely following the curvature of the run through the woods to ride down some woody terrain, eventually popping yourself back out on the steeper part of Salamander to get back to the bottom.
For more information about Canaan Valley Resort, check out http://basecamp.blueridgeoutdoors.com/?p=2545
Day Four: Wisp
Grub, Drinks, Music
The last stop on Ski Highway is Wisp Resort, situated just next to the small town of McHenry and right beside Deep Creek Lake. Whether you’re up on the slopes of Wisp or on a backcountry mission, time is well spent here.
Mountain State Brewing Company has their second location here, but you’re not necessarily going for just the beer and pepperoni rolls. Walking into the place, you’ll notice the toasty, cabin-fire feel of the place given off by the home-made natural soapstone hearth pizza oven, where they produce hand-thrown artisan pies. The best seller is the Fire on the Mountain pizza, a chipotle hot sauce and sausage masterpiece. If you’re really diggin’ the slope-side campfire spirit of winter ski life, you can try the Smores: nutella, marshmallows, and graham crackers toasted in the wood-fired oven.
Afterward, mosey on over to the Blackbear Tavern and Restaurant, the highlight of nightlife in McHenry, especially if you’re looking for a big sports-bar-style tavern, large crowds of partygoers, and the option for tavern-based or club-based live music. They’ve got a huge wrap-around bar in the center, pool tables and other bar games to keep you busy, and a bunch of great taps including the rich Old Dominion Bourbon Barrel Stout, which fits the surf-and-turf menu. The motto here is “Eat, Drink, Dance.”
The Place to Crash
The Lake Pointe Inn Bed & Breakfast is right off Highway 219 in the heart of McHenry and boasts an outdoor fire pit and wraparound porch with views of the lake. They’ll pamper you with complimentary snacks and drinks, available massages, and Egyptian-cotton towels and Italian linens. They offer discounted lift tickets to Wisp and lend out their own outdoor gear, including snowshoes for winter trail hikes. Sure, they get over 100 inches of snow per-annum and it’s going to be cold out on the slopes, but what’s cold got to do with it when your room has a fireplace waiting to warm you when you get back?
If you’re heading up to Wisp, there are plenty of places within the resort where you can sneak off the trails and get some woods-runs in, allowing the luxury of a lift ride back up. Or you can always scout the endless gas and power lines that run the mountains surrounding the area.
Just 20 miles east from Wisp on the south end of the Savage River Reservoir in the Savage River State Forest, there’s a huge, straight, perfectly northwest-facing ridgeline that plateaus at just under 3,000 feet elevation. The ridgeline is host to five wide-open bowls, each averaging about 1,000 feet of steep vertical, perfect for hike-to adventure seekers. Worried about access? Park at the boat launch: there’s a railroad that runs right along the bottom of the entire set.
“We typically either bootpack or skin up,” says Eric Recker, a local fly-fishing guide and ski instructor. “You can ski all five of those bowls. When you’re at the bottom you just hit the train tracks whichever way you need to go.”
Recker recommends waiting for a decent snow base followed by a good freezing rain layer to avoid tearing up your gear.
“It’s steep. Steep steep. We’ve triggered slides back there before. But that’s why we go there,” Recker says. “They’re northwest facing, have huge mature timber and no low growth. Everything’s wide open. There’s no brushy stuff that you’ll hit. We haven’t cleared anything. It’s just naturally like that.”
For more information about Wisp Resort, http://basecamp.blueridgeoutdoors.com/?p=2562