13 Wild Winter Adventures

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We are all explorers. In the spring we seek out the best trails; in the summer we look far and wide for the deepest, most refreshing swimming hole; in the fall, we climb mountains to find the best views. Now, winter is here, but that is no reason to pack that adventurous spirit in the attic with your Bermuda shorts and Tevas. Those same trails you trek in warmer months are still there, only now they are (hopefully) covered in snow, waiting to be rediscovered.

In the South, the white stuff can be non-existent or overwhelming; big winter storms may be years or days apart. The waiting can be agonizing, but when the snow does fall, the land is muffled by a blank canvas waiting for your skis to smear the first broad stroke. This is the essence of backcountry skiing: freedom, self-reliance, self-expression. In the backcountry, things begin to fall into their natural place without being hemmed in by lifts and ropes. So grab your glide wax, point your tips down the fall line, and explore this guide to the best backcountry in the Blue Ridge.

backcountry map

TENNESSEE

Roan Mountain Highlands

Activities – cross country skiing, downhill skiing, camping, snowshoeing

Roan may be the most important cross-country and backcountry ski zone in the South, and the most popular. During Nordic skiing’s heyday in the South (late 1970s and 80s) a group calling themselves the High South Nordic Guide Service ran tours out of Tennessee’s Roan Mountain State Park to modest success. Kristian Jackson teaches Recreation Management at Appalachian State University and has been skiing Roan for years.

“If snow conditions are good, [Roan] is as good as it gets anywhere: beautiful scenery, the snow is often really fine and powdery, and it gets really harsh snowy winter conditions with high winds and really cold temps,” Jackson says. “It can make for a really out-of-the-ordinary Southern experience. You can drive up there from the Piedmont and it’s like you went into Canada.”

Jackson says he watches for storms coming out of the northwest that bring buckets of snow and wind atop the 6,000-foot peaks of the highlands. The lee side slopes load up with windblown snow, creating pocket zones deep enough for face shots. Roan is such a big area, though, that there is ample opportunity to get off the beaten path and explore its bald ridges.

“The great thing about Roan is that it is such a vast mountain, you can get off the beaten track really easily and get into some very remote settings,” Jackson says. “There are some open fields and some bowl-like areas where you can get a bunch of turns in.”

When the snow is good and the massif is hopping with skiers and snowshoers, Roan may remind you more of Colorado than Tennessee or North Carolina.

Access

From the Tennessee side of the mountain, Carver’s Gap on Route 143 is the best and easiest access point. From the parking lot at 5,700 feet, head west on the road to the summit. The roads themselves make a great cross country ski tour to the observation tower at Roan High Bluff, or hop on the Appalachian Trail and make it a loop. Be sure to stop off at the Roan High Knob Shelter, the highest shelter on the A.T. that sits just below the summit of Roan High Knob.

From the North Carolina side, access the area from the end of Roaring Creek Road west of Carver’s Gap. The approach is steeper, but more angled terrain means more opportunity for downhill skiing. Get on the Overmountain Victory Trail and take it to where it crosses the A.T. at the huge Overmountain Shelter, a great place to overnight or set up base camp for tours in the area.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Activities – cross country skiing, camping, snowshoeing

When the seasons change and the crowds thin out, Great Smoky Mountains National Park can become an afterthought to the general public. This would be a mistake, says Randy Johnson, author of several hiking guide books, including the seminal read on backcountry snowsports below the Mason Dixon, Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie.

“The high crest of the Smokies, because it is so high, can really surprise you with the amount of repeated dumps at high elevation,” he says. “The hit on the Great Smokies is no one really knows about it. Even though the Smokies are more southerly, they are so lofty as a ridge crest, they create their own weather and often times have a microclimate of amazingly deep snow up there. In a good winter, when Roan is skiable and Mitchell is skiable, the Smokies can have six-foot drifts up there.”

Johnson says one of the aspects of GSMNP that gets overlooked is the winter access. The Tennessee Department of Transportation plows Newfound Gap Road, providing an easy approach to numerous trails along the way.

“The Newfound Gap Road that crosses the Smokies is a public highway, they have to plow it,” Johnson explains. “It may be closed under significant snowfall, but it always re-opens. It is not difficult to go up the Newfound Gap Road and park and find awesome cross country or snowshoe conditions.”

Johnson does warn that weather can move in fast on the high ridge of the Smokies, so snowshoes are a definite must-have.

Access

They don’t wait for the snow to close the Clingmans Dome Road to the iconic peak, so this is your best option for gradual cross country skiing. Pick up the road at Newfound Gap and follow it seven miles out and seven miles back. If you are feeling strong, the A.T. parallels the road and is a good loop option. Along the way is the Mount Collins shelter, roughly half way to the Dome. Numerous spur trails, like the half-mile Spruce-Fir Nature Trail are excellent options if the sun isn’t going down on you.

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NORTH CAROLINA

Mount Mitchell

Activities – cross country skiing, camping, snowshoeing

Mount Mitchell is not only North Carolina’s highest peak; it is also the highest east of the Mississippi, making it a great spot for winter play. Mitchell receives over 100 inches of snow a year, keeping the state park plows busy on the road to the summit. The mountain’s nearly 6,700-foot elevation can make for some epic weather conditions: the weather station recorded a record low of -34 degrees there in 1985 and 36 inches of snow fell in 24 hours there in 1992. State Park personnel are on staff there throughout the winter, so take comfort in that before heading out into the winter wild. The extreme weather and lack of long downhill opportunities may help thin out the crowds, according to Jackson.

“There are several Blue Ridge Parkway routes, and then there is the Mount Mitchell Road itself,” he says.

Although Mount Mitchell is mostly thought of as a cross country skiing or snowshoeing destination these days, there was talk at one time of making it a downhill ski resort. Though those plans never panned out, the mountain still boasts a good downhill run named Power Line off Route 128 heading to the Park Office. If portions of the upper peak are too windblown, head for lower elevation trails like Camp Alice or the lower sections of the Mount Mitchell Trail. If the snow is good, take the Black Mountain Crest Trail across the ridge to Mount Craig for a solid tour and great views.

Access

The state park works hard to keep Route 128 from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit parking lot plowed throughout the winter. If it is filled with snow, just strap on the skis and chug to the top. Once there, it is an easy snowshoe or skin up to the observation tower with 85-mile views of the Pisgah National Forest and Black Mountain Range.

If you need more of an adventure, try skiing up the Mount Mitchell Trail off of the Old Mount Mitchell Trail road.

Moses Cone State Park

Activities – cross country skiing, snowshoeing, downhill skiing

Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is a gem of cross country and Nordic skiing. The area outside Blowing Rock contains some of the best backcountry ski escapes in western North Carolina, and Moses Cone is near the top of the list. The park was formed to preserve the 3,500-acre estate of Moses “the Denim King” Cone, a noted philanthropist, textile magnate, and conservationist. The jewel of the park is Flat Top Manor, a 13,000-foot, 20-room mansion, now the Parkway Craft Center. In the winter, however, the park’s draw lies in its 25 miles of carriage trails.

“Moses Cone Park just has outstanding cross country and backcountry skiing,” says Jackson. “It’s very easily accessible from Boone and it’s very family friendly and beginner friendly. Experts can get in there and crank out miles and have a ton of fun too.”

The carriage roads wind throughout the property, connecting the central mansion parking area with its gorgeous white pine forests. Adding to the mystique of the park is the whimsical Gifford Pinchot landscaping and two high elevation, man-made lakes. The views of Grandfather Mountain from Flat Top and Rich Mountain make this a must-do winter activity for any cross country skier.

There are several opportunities for downhill skiing also, if you are willing to work for it. Along with the natural and carefully laid out man-made forests, the estate also offers steep glades and open meadows for a few hundred feet of vertical at a time. The area around Trout Lake is the best option.

Access

The entrance to Moses Cone is off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 294. You can also access it via a connector road of the Blowing Rock Highway, Route 221. The carriage trails lead from the manor. Take the trail past the Cone family cemetery and head for the tower on top of Flat Top or take the winding path to the top of Rich Mountain to the east.

NC Dreamland
Photo by Kristian Jackson

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WEST VIRGINIA

Dolly Sods Wilderness

Activities – cross country skiing, downhill skiing, camping, snowshoeing

During the warmer stretches of the year, Canaan Valley is a must-visit destination for mountain bikers and hikers, but when the snow starts flying in West Virginia, people begin to flock to the area to get their winter jollies. The valley boasts two legitimate ski resorts, Canaan Valley Resort and Timberline Four Seasons Resort, and one of the best cross-country centers in the mid-Atlantic at White Grass Touring Center. For the casual skier, these are great options, but for the backcountry enthusiast, there is plenty more to see and do in Canaan.

Just outside the resorts, but still inside Monongahela National Forest, lies the winter wonderland of Dolly Sods. The atmosphere and climate of the area are often referred to as similar to northern Canada, not a bad comparison when talking about backcountry skiing.  The wilderness area is over 10,000 acres of highland plateau ranging from 2,600 to over 4,000 feet elevation. The high-elevation climate means the Dolly Sods gets and holds natural lake effect snow all winter. The Dolly Sods also gets its fair share of wind, as evidenced by the pine trees with branches only growing on one side.  The high winds help distribute the snow, creating large pockets and shots with deep wind drifts perfect for powder turns.

“The Dolly Sods, whenever it gets good, is probably one of the most exciting areas to ski,” said Chip Chase, owner of White Grass, and frequent Dolly Sods skier. “It has the most wilderness and sometimes is the most wind sculpted. It’s just vast; you can ski for a long time. A lot of times you can follow snow lines as opposed to trail lines, which is particularly fun.”

The area holds everything a skier could ask for: rolling meadows, challenging glades, and steep canyons. Chase says there is something for everyone in the Dolly Sods, including those looking to add a little natural freeriding to their backcountry excursion.

“There are little creek beds that drift over and you can do these little mini jumps,” he said. “Mini-terrain parks form in these little hollows. There are all sorts of little shots that are really easy to do. It’s never the same twice. There are still areas up there that have not ever been skied, that are still waiting to be discovered.”

Access

The easiest access to the Sods are the free parking lots at the base of White Grass Touring Center. Follow Forest Road 80 as far as you can, then hop on your skis or snowshoes to access the trailhead where the Breathed Mountain, Blackbird Knob, and Stonecoal Trails come together. The Breathed Mountain Trail is a good one to get oriented on.

Alternately, you can access from the east via Jordan Run and Route 19. Taking the Fisher Spring Trail will connect you to the Red Creek Trail and the Red Spruce forests of the Southern portion of the Dolly Sods.

Spruce Knob (Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area)

Activities – cross country skiing, downhill skiing, camping, snowshoeing

Just southeast of Canaan Valley is the Seneca Rocks, part of Spruce Knob National Recreation Area. This region in eastern West Virginia is a nationally renowned climbing area, and it boasts the highest peak in the state. The mountains surrounding Spruce Knob receive the same lake-effect snow as Canaan Valley and sit slightly higher, holding snow longer. The recreation area inside Monongahela National Forest holds endless miles of backcountry trails for cross country skiers to enjoy. The road to the summit and the Whispering Spruce Trail near the observation tower are mellow, but scenic options. Linking up the Huckleberry and Lumberjack Trails with the summit road is a great multi-day option also.

The cross country skiing is great, but the area also holds epic downhill options as well. The Sinks of Gandy and Pharis Knob are both privately owned mountains that get choked with snow and offer over 1,000 feet of vertical. Places like Bickle Knob and Cheat Mountain are also in the area, but the local’s favorite is Mount Porte Crayon. Porte Crayon has been at the center of ski resort rumors for years, but for now, if you want to ski it, you’ll have to earn your turns. This 4,770-foot peak is one of the snowiest in the Roaring Plains, and stands a couple hundred feet above the mountains of nearby Canaan Valley.

North-facing aspects help trap windblown snow in sweeping bowls. With over 2,000 feet of vertical, Porte Crayon contains some of the longest backcountry runs in the South if the snow is good.

Access

If Forest Road 112 and Forest Road 104 to the summit of Spruce Knob are not passable, then you will have to tour up to the summit along the road. Getting to Mount Porte Crayon is more difficult. It is one of the most remote peaks in West Virginia. The Roaring Plains Trail will get you near the summit, but from there, you are on your own. Head for the north side of the mountain for the best bowls and look for the open glades of red spruce.

Winter adventure

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VIRGINIA

Grayson Highlands/Mount Rogers

Activities – cross country skiing, downhill skiing, camping, snowshoeing

Mountain recreation in southwest Virginia is dominated by the highest peak in the state and its surrounding public lands, the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park, both of which lie inside Jefferson National Forest. At over 5,700 feet, Mount Rogers is tall enough to receive about six feet of snow a year. Not only that, but the micro-climate at its summit is cold enough that the snow sticks around. Mount Rogers is also home to rare Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forests, a visual treat during the winter months.

“The Grayson Highlands area is awesome,” says Johnson. “I’ve done some of my best ski mountaineering, Nordic skiing, and snowshoeing up there. The southern division of the National Ski Patrol used to have their winter mountaineering course on Mount Rogers.”

The true wintery conditions that exist atop Mount Rogers make it a classic backcountry camping destination. While you may have to seek out downhill turns, the vast open meadows are perfect for exploring via cross country skis or snowshoes. With 200,000 acres and 500 miles of trails to explore, there is no shortage of space to spread out.

“The Mount Rogers area of Virginia has classic cross country routes,” said Jackson. “It’s not quite as classic for getting in turns, but the winter ski camping in there is superb. It’s almost expedition kind of skiing. It’s such a vast place, a lot of it is really open, you can just explore and go wherever you want up there in the winter.”

Those seeking more adventurous downhill turns should check out nearby Whitetop Mountain. Its open summit is the second highest in the state. For something more mellow, the Virginia Creeper Trail drops 2,000 feet over 17 miles for an easy stride and glide excursion if there is enough snow.

Access

Jackson says the best and most reliable access is at Elk Garden on Whitetop Road between Whitetop and Mount Rogers. A nice long uphill ski on the Virginia Highlands Trail will hook you up with the A.T. and the summit spur.

Another option is from the Grayson Highlands side, although Jackson says this route is a little trickier. Try the rugged Rhododendron Trail near the parking area for a short loop. A steep uphill climb from the car via the A.T. will get you high up on the mountain. There are several shelters along the trail, but this area is open, windy, and cold. Jackson suggests you be “on your game” if planning a backcountry camping trip in this relatively remote alpine area.

Mountain Lake

Activities – cross country skiing, downhill skiing, camping, snowshoeing

You may be filled with nostalgia when you approach Mountain Lake outside of Blacksburg, Virginia: this historic resort hotel was the main setting for the 1987 hit Dirty Dancing. Although that movie was centered on provocative boogying and summer romance, the property continues to be an outdoor recreation destination during all seasons. The property itself boasts over 22 miles of trail on its 2,600 acres, perfectly suited for cross country skiing. Plus, the trails are all over 4,000 feet above sea level, a surprising fact for the area around Blacksburg, and a crucial element of the movie, which was presented as being a resort in the Catskills of New York. Be sure to take a jaunt to the bald summit of Salt Pond Mountain.

Look beyond the Hollywood glitz and glam of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s old stomping grounds and you’ll realize this is only a part of what makes Mountain Lake special. Adjacent to the resort property is the Mountain Lake Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in George Washington Jefferson National Forest at 16,511 acres, almost twice as much as any other. It sits atop the same highland plateau as the resort property, making it an easily accessible ski destination for Blacksburg and Roanoke farther to the east.

“It’s a federally designated wilderness area,” says Johnson. “It’s pretty high up and if you leave the lower elevations of the Shenandoah Valley around Blacksburg, that’s a good nearby cross country ski site.”

The wilderness may be rugged, but the good news is the resort is right around the corner if you get too cold or worn out.

Access

The Mountain Lake resort property can be accessed by Mountain Lake Road off of Route 460 heading west out of Blacksburg. The wilderness area can be accessed via the Appalachian Trail out of the south via Route 632/Hutchison Road just west of Captain, Va. About five miles of the A.T. traverses the wilderness, crossing numerous ridge tops with great views.

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MARYLAND / PENNSYLVANIA

New Germany State Park, Md.

Activities – cross country skiing, downhill skiing, camping, snowshoeing

Stretch all the way out into the westernmost part of Maryland’s panhandle and you’re basically in the Alleghenies. Although the area does not receive quite as much snow as Canaan, it does get enough for the occasional ski outing and New Germany State Park is just the place for it.

The 455-acre park has been around since the 1930s, but is still considered a “hidden gem” of the area. In fact, New Germany was once the home of two ski slopes and a rope tow built by two foresters in 1940. The slopes were a hit with the locals…until they built a road across them. Today, the park is home to 10 miles of cross country ski trails that are tracked and groomed by park staff. The park also has a dedicated sledding hill and warming hut. Since this is not the most remote backcountry ski destination, you can also rent Civilian Conservation Corps cabins all winter long.

Surrounding New Germany is the greater Savage River State Forest. This area is chock full of additional trails for cross country and the occasional open glade and meadow to get some turns in.

Access

Take New Germany Road south off of Interstate 68 to park headquarters.

Ohiopyle State Park, Pa.

Activities – cross country skiing, sledding

This state park in southwestern Pennsylvania is a summer adventure paradise. The mighty Youghiogheny River and its world-class whitewater flow through the heart of the park and the stacked looped trail systems hold over 80 miles of multi-use trails. Ohiopyle’s high elevation and family friendly atmosphere make it a great destination for winter activities also. Along with the existing 40 miles of multi-use trails suitable for Nordic skiing, the park has a designated cross country ski area featuring the Sproul Trail and Kentuck Trail. There is also a sledding hill at the Sugarloaf Snowmobile and Mountain Bike Area.

If you want to get off the beaten path, wait for a good snowfall, then hop on the Great Allegheny Passage as it follows the river through the park. This 141-mile rail trail provides level grade biking in the summer and cross country in the winter spanning Cumberland, Md. and Pittsburg, Penn. The Great Allegheny Passage hooks up with the Kentuck Trail in the northern part of the park.

Access

Out of Confluence, Penn. head west on Sugar Loaf Road to the park entrance.

Winter Camping

Having the right gear is essential if there is a chance for low temps and snow during your travels in the backcountry.

WINTER TENT //Make sure you can guy out to buffer against the wind and blowing snow.

HEAVY SLEEPING BAG //That 40-degree summer bag is not going to cut it when it’s 10 degrees and snowing on the ridgetop, so invest in something in the 0-degree range. Jackson also suggests doubling up on sleeping pads to protect against the cold.

CLOTHING //Make sure you have technical base layers for wicking sweat during the trek in, an accessible shell for the way down, and a down jacket for the campsite. Multiple hats, gloves, and goggles can also make or break your trip.

ENTERTAINMENT //The sun goes down early in the winter, so make sure you have a lantern and a way to entertain yourself, be it whiskey or a deck of cards (or both).

PRO TIP //a small toboggan style sled makes a great tow-behind trailer for all your camping gear.

Backcountry Options

If you are heading out into the backcountry, here are your options for travel.

BOOTS //Waterproof boots are fine for a light hike in a flurry.

SNOWSHOES //  When the snow gets deep, snowshoes are essential to staying on top of the powder. Trust the experts: Inuit have been using snowshoes for centuries.

CROSS COUNTRY // Skinny skis, whether they are waxed or scaled on the bottom, will get you where you need to go on most trails. With long poles and a stride and glide method, you can shoot across flat land and climb switchbacks with surprising ease. The technique can be difficult to master, so make sure you get some practice before getting to far from the car.

TELEMARK //  The free heel of the telemark set-up allows for the same uphill capabilities of a cross country rig if you have skins. A fatter ski helps you stay on top of deep powder and provides much better control when heading downhill.

ALPINE TOURING //  Bindings such as Fritches fit regular ski boots and perform when locked in place, but they can be modified by releasing the rear portion for uphill touring. Dynafit bindings have a pin mechanism and work essentially the same way, but with a softer, more mountaineering-oriented boot.

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Secret Stashes

ELK KNOB STATE PARK, N.C.

Elk Knob has been on Tarheel backcountry skiers’ radar for years, but only since it became North Carolina’s newest state park in 2004 has it been totally legal. Unlike other state parks, the area not only allows skiing, but encourages it. The summit is accessed via a two-mile trail, but the open meadows and glades on the mountain’s steep eastern slope are the real attraction. When the blizzard hits, trade in the skinny skis for the fat daddies and find your line.

LINN COVE VIADUCT, BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

If the snow is deep, there is no better place to cross country ski than the Blue Ridge Parkway between Linville and Blowing Rock. This section around Grandfather Mountain has some of the most scenic views on the parkway, and is mostly closed during the winter. It also features the Linn Cove Viaduct, the premier segment to ski if you can catch it right. Because it is so exposed, the viaduct is often windblown, but the views are some of the best in the area.

MAX PATCH, N.C.

This Southern Appalachian Bald is accessible enough to make for easy turns and steep enough to have a blast. With the grassy ridge free of debris, the only thing you’ll have to worry about is colliding with all the kids on sleds. Get there after a big snow, or when the weather is less than optimal, and you should have enough room to really lay down some arcs.

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