Enjoy epic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Roan Mountain range, located on the North Carolina/Tennessee border. / Photo by Travis Bordley
Cross-country skiing—also known as Nordic skiing—evokes thoughts of the far north. Places where the thermostat stays below zero and snow blankets the ground for months on end. With fewer winter whiteouts in the South, you have to strike fast when there’s fresh powder in the Blue Ridge backcountry. From a Metro-accessible greenway to secluded wilderness areas, here are some top spots to explore on skis when fresh snowfalls in Appalachia.
To glide through the snow in eastern Pennsylvania, look no further than Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Located along the Delaware River on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, this national park offers cross-country skiers over 70,000 acres for an off-the-beaten path winter adventure. Visitors can ski along the frigid Delaware River from campground to campground, stopping to admire the cliffs, wetlands, and lakes. Delaware Water Gap is also home to some of the few remaining old-growth hemlock trees in the eastern United States. There is no entrance fee to the park and it is open year-round. Only hours away from Baltimore, Cumberland, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, this park is truly worth a winter escape.
Just outside Pittsburgh is the scenic Roaring Run Natural Area. Most of the nearly 4,000-acre park is wooded, featuring eight marked trails, including old logging roads, which together account for a network of 15 miles of excellent cross-country skiing territory. Along the way, skiers get to experience mountain streams, rich hardwood forests, wildlife, and icy waterfalls, all within an hour of the Steel City. Camping is prohibited, but there are a number of bed and breakfasts in Stahlstown, less than 30 minutes from the park, making for a weekend trip that is both thrilling and relaxing.
Many are familiar with Grayson Highlands State Park for the wild ponies that graze the rolling, open meadows. These same meadows receive a bounty of fresh powder each winter, setting the stage for Virginia’s best cross-country ski destination. While there are designated trails throughout the park, the area is so open and sprawling that skiers can feel free to spread out and explore over 200,000 snow-covered acres. With access to Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia, the park offers breathtaking views and a unique, high-elevation wintery climate—open for exploration with more than 500 miles of trails when including the adjoining Mount Rodgers National Recreation Area.
Cross-country skiers seeking solitude would do well to explore the Cranberry Wilderness within the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. One of the largest wilderness areas on the East Coast, the 47,815-acre forest has a network of over 200 miles of remote trails that vary in difficulty and length. Visitors should prepare themselves for a challenge, as many skiers find themselves off trail for miles, navigating the elements that a truly wild landscape offers. The area has seven camping shelters and four campgrounds, so serious skiers can go deep into the winter wilderness for days at a time.
For urbanite adventurers in the nation’s capital, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Historical Park offers 185 miles of skiing in a flat, lowland forest with wide paths and open views. In addition to the beautiful natural landscape, the park features centuries-old canal structures including locks and aqueducts that were used during the Civil War. Private and public camping options are available and, for a small fee, visitors can also spend the night in a restored 19th-century lockhouse along the canal. For residents of Washington, D.C., this is the spot to come for winter adventure on the weekend, or even after work during the week.
With evergreen forests, wide-open grassy balds, and over 100 inches of snow annually, Roan Mountain State Park leaves visitors feeling closer to Ontario than Asheville. The Roan Mountain range is ideal for skiers seeking a real challenge as the steep terrain offers highly technical routes. Most of the range is over 6,000 feet in elevation, offering stunning views of Tennessee to the north and North Carolina to the south. Located along the Appalachian Trail, Roan Mountain is the perfect spot for a southern ski-packing trip.
At mile marker 294 along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone, is the expansive Moses Cone Memorial Park. Known as one of the High Country’s best cross-country ski destinations, the park has 25 miles of trails that offer access to a serene winter landscape. The gently sloping carriage trails throughout Moses Cone Memorial Park make it a great option for beginners and families. Along the trails, skiers can admire the icy surface of one of the park’s lakes, trek to the summit of Rich Mountain, rest atop the Flat Top fire tower, and have a glance at the history of the Cone family at the Cone Cemetery. Centrally located a few hours from Charlotte, Roanoke, and Greenville, Moses Cone Memorial Park is truly a winter gem in the Southeast.
From Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks to Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest holds endless areas for cross-country skiing, and thanks to high elevations and cold climate, the region holds plenty of snow throughout the winter.
Alex Schlueter, a recreation manager for the area, recommends getting out on the Allegheny Trail. Although the trail runs from Virginia to Pennsylvania, the five miles that run through the national forest connect Blackwater Falls State Park and Canaan Valley State Park. Explore other trails, including Lundy Run, Mountainside, Pointy Knob, and Table Rock for a full day of skiing. Additionally, the Highland Scenic Highway running through the national forest is not maintained during the winter.
While you’re in the area, head to the White Grass Touring Center for over 40 miles of trails through pristine glades. The ski area prides itself on its sustainable operations and low electricity bill as it relies on snowfarming to collect natural snow and feed it to the trails.