Q:

Can I Find Good Skiing Down South?

Settle a bet between me and a buddy. He said there are a couple of pretty good places to ski in the South. I say there’s no such thing as good skiing in the South. Who’s right?

Snowshoe Mountain.    Photo: Philip Duncan/Snowshoe Mountain

A:

Well, you definitely wouldn’t travel to the South specifically to ski. And rare is the day when you can celebrate a foot of fresh pow beneath the Mason-Dixon line—where a half-inch can cripple local roads for days. But in the high elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, the temperatures stay consistently cool enough for a decent snowfall or two and, at the handful of resorts there, you’ll find plenty of snowmaking each winter. So, to answer your question: yes, you can find some good skiing, if you know where to look. These three destinations—one backcountry route, one resort, and one old-school ski area—are where you should start.

Mount Mitchell, North Carolina
Snowshoe Mountain, West Virginia
Cataloochee, North Carolina

The South's Best Skiing: Mount Mitchell

Pretty self-explanatory.   Photo: scgustinwdw/Flickr

The tallest peak east of the Mississippi, 6,680-foot Mount Mitchell is also the prime spot for backcountry skiing in the South. Skin or snowshoe to the open, forbidding summit, and you might be one of only four or five people to ski down its frosted slopes the entire winter. You have to strike while the iron is hot—or in this case, cold—immediately after a big snow, which only happens a couple of times each winter. Take the 5.6-mile Mount Mitchell Trail from the Black Mountain Campground to get to the top of the mountain. The ski run on the way down will drop you 3,500 vertical feet, provided there’s snow covering its entire length. Even under the best conditions, you won’t blink and think you’re in the Rockies, but navigate the rocks and roots, and you—and not many others—will be able to say, “I backcountry-skied in the South.”

The South's Best Skiing: Snowshoe Mountain

Snowshoe Mountain, take two.   Photo: Philip Duncan/Snowshoe Mountain

If Snowshoe seems almost identical to a high-end resort out West, only smaller, there’s good reason: it’s owned by Intrawest, which also operates Steamboat and Winter Park, among others. You’ll find all of the amenities—from a quaint-but-not-over-the-top central resort village to immaculately groomed slopes buried beneath thick carpets of snow. Even during dry winters the skiing is still top-notch, as long as there hasn’t been a big melt and freeze, due to the resort’s expansive snowmaking equipment. The climate at the base (3,300 feet) is surprisingly frigid and more comparable to New Hampshire than what you might think for a Southern state. The main drawback is the size. Snowshoe’s vertical drop is 1,500 feet, and its 57 trails, served by 14 lifts, can get crowded on weekends with college students from western Virginia and escapees from Washington, D.C. 

The South's Best Skiing: Cataloochee

Cataloochee at night.   Photo: Courtesy of Cataloochee Ski Area

There’s something eerie about skiing down a mountain and seeing the brown, bare ground flanking both sides of the trail. Yet the conditions at Cataloochee are surprisingly excellent from December through March. Perched at 5,400 feet by the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, this tiny ski area (where the vertical is a modest 700 feet) gets cold enough nearly every night in the winter for its snow guns to blast thick powder onto the trails as soon as the three lifts close, but it warms up during the days so that anything dumped by an occasional storm melts within days. Cataloochee truly is a place where the tobacco-chawing South meets the Alpine world (complete with glove and parka rentals in the lodge’s upstairs equipment shop). You’ll see New England Yankee transplants snowboarding down the 17 trails next to teenagers from Alabama who just emptied off of their church group’s bus for the day. 

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