Downhill Rater

Downhill Rater

You don't have to go out West to experience a great day on the slopes: Several local resorts make the grade for beginners and serious skiers alike

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The sun is just rising over the mountains to the east, casting a pink-and-orange glow on the freshly groomed snow as I ski-skate to the edge of the ridge. I point the tips of my skis downhill and glide through my first turn, my edges cutting fresh tracks across the corduroy of the groomed slope. White-cloaked trees bear silent witness from either side of the trail. By noon, this popular intermediate run will be as crowded as the Beltway. But for now, a wide-open white expanse lies below me with a bluebird sky above.

Feeling nearly weightless, I transition into my next turn on the run’s headwall, cold air burning my cheeks as I fly downhill. I roll from turn to turn in a meditative rhythm—and suddenly I’m at the bottom, cruising toward the lift to do it again.

This gorgeous ski run isn’t taking place in the Colorado Rockies or in California’s Sierra Nevada, but at Whitetail Resort in south-central Pennsylvania, just an hour and a half from Bethesda.

I discovered Whitetail in 2003, when my first job after college brought me back to the Northeast after four years in Boulder, Colo. I missed the Rockies terribly, but found solace skiing the bumps on Exhibition and bombing down the headwall of Bold Decision, two of Whitetail’s expert runs.

These days, I find a sense of community and purpose serving as a volunteer ski patroller there. Over the years, I’ve brought skier friends of all abilities to the ’Tail—beginners taking their first lessons, intermediates working through the kinks after being out of practice for years, and experts convinced they couldn’t possibly enjoy a worthwhile ski day so close to the Mason-Dixon Line. All have come back for more.

And Whitetail is far from the only place to “shred the gnar”—skier lingo for tearing up the slopes—within driving distance of Montgomery County. The vertical drop, or difference between base and summit elevations, may be diminutive when compared with resorts out West—roughly 1,000 feet at some of the bigger resorts near here, versus more than 4,400 feet at Snowmass in Colorado. But the payoff can be just as thrilling.

Whitetail Resort

Whitetail Resort used to have a radio ad bragging that “nothing else close comes close.” And I believe that to be true. Aspen it’s not, but with 935 feet of vertical drop and a high-speed detachable quad to zoom skiers to the top, Whitetail smokes its similarly located competition as far as terrain is concerned. Mogul maniacs will love Exhibition, arguably the best bump run in the region. Park rats will dig Jib Junction, the resort’s advanced terrain park, and groms (snowboarder speak for pint-size riders) will like Park Place, which offers tamer features.

Downsides: If you’re looking for sit-down table service or an après-ski drink, you’ll have to wander off premises. In a referendum last May, Whitetail petitioned unsuccessfully for the ability to hold a liquor license in Franklin County, so you can’t buy anything stronger than a hot cocoa at its multiple cafeteria-style eateries. And on sunny, cold, holiday-weekend afternoons, the most popular beginner and intermediate slopes can feel as crowded as D.C. in rush-hour traffic.

Location: 13805 Blairs Valley Road, Mercersburg, Pa., 717-328-9400, www.skiwhitetail.com

Distance from Bethesda: one hour, 30 minutes

Lift hours: 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Cost: $69 for eight hours, weekends and holidays. (Note: The price of lift tickets varies depending on weekend versus weekday, child versus adult and, in some cases, time of year. All prices provided here are mid-season, weekend rates for adults.)  

Top elevation: 1,800 feet

Vertical drop: 935 feet

Lifts and terrain: Twenty-three trails: seven beginner, 10 intermediate, six expert. Nine lifts, including one high-speed quad.

Accommodations: Whitetail partners with the adjoining Whitetail Mountainside Village for lodging. Visitors can choose between the upscale, hotel-style inn and individual condos, some of which are ski-in, ski-out. Rates can be found at www.whitetailresortrealestate.com.

Restaurants: Slopeside cafeteria-style dining areas include Marketplace and Windows, First Tracks Snack Shop and Starbucks, all located in the base area. Patrollers flock toward the giant salads and blue-plate specials at Marketplace.

Other activities: Like all resorts in the area, Whitetail offers snow tubing. Adults pay $28 for a two-hour tubing session on a weekend or holiday. Whitetail also offers a ski school and rental shop on premises.

What’s new: $1.6 million in capital improvements this past summer include upgrades to the snowmaking system and a new groomer. But it’s visitors who haven’t been to Whitetail for a few years who will be pleased to learn: The resort has cut two new beginner trails since 2008.

Roundtop Mountain Resort

Roundtop Mountain Resort requires a little extra time in the car if you’re traveling from the Washington, D.C., area, and serious shredders wishing they were out West will be bummed by the 600-foot vertical drop. The good news: The longer drive helps Roundtop stay less crowded than its sister resorts, Liberty and Whitetail. And the fact that some of the runs are short doesn’t make them any less sweet. Gunbarrel, a double black diamond run, has a cornice at the top that will take your breath away.

Downside: The closest lodging is a few miles away. People seeking ski-in, ski-out convenience will want to stick to day trips.

Location: 925 Roundtop Road, Lewisberry, Pa., 717-432-9631, www.skiroundtop.com

Distance from Bethesda: two hours

Lift hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; lifts open at 8 a.m. weekends and holidays.

Cost: $64 for eight-hour lift ticket, weekends and holidays

Top elevation: 1,400 feet

Vertical drop: 600 feet

Lifts and terrain: Eight lifts, three of which are quads. Sixteen trails: 29 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 41 percent expert.

Accommodations: Roundtop partners with several local hotels and inns, such as Blair Mountain Bed and Breakfast, located about 4 miles away in Dillsburg, Pa. Rates start at $109 per night (www.blairmtn.com).

Restaurants: Fireside Pub & Grill, located on the mountain, offers table service and serves steak burgers, pizza and other upscale pub fare, along with cleverly named drinks (a Ski-Bunny Cosmo or Yard Sale, anyone?).

Other activities: Ski school and rentals on premises. Snow tubing costs $28 per day on weekends and holidays.

What’s new: This season will bring lots of activities connected with the resort’s 50th anniversary celebration, says Chris Dudding, a spokesman for Roundtop. “We are also replacing a lot of snowmaking pipe—not exciting to look at, but it will allow us to be even more efficient in making snow.”

Liberty Mountain Resort

Liberty Mountain Resort is more than a ski area. With a hotel and multiple bars and restaurants on-site, it’s a real resort. It’s also the closest ski area to the Washington, D.C., area, making it a favorite among ski clubs at area grade schools. Also making it kid-friendly: Burton Riglet Park, where instructors teach kids as young as 3 the basics of snowboarding. Dipsy Doodle, a 5,200-foot beginner run, is a favorite among shredders of all ages.

Downside: crowds—especially on Friday nights and weekends

Location: 78 Country Club Trail, Carroll Valley, Pa., 717-642-8282, www.libertymountainresort.com

Distance from Bethesda: one hour, 15 minutes

Lift hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; lifts open at 8 a.m. on weekends and holidays.

Cost: $67 for eight-hour lift ticket, holidays and weekends

Top elevation: 1,190 feet

Vertical drop: 620 feet

Lifts and terrain: Sixteen trails: 35 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 25 percent expert. Eight lifts, including five quads. One T-bar. Two terrain parks.

Accommodations: Hotel on-site, with rates starting at $129 (www.libertymountainresort.com/resort-hotel/hotel/hotel-info.aspx).

Restaurants: Dining options include The Inn at Liberty Mountain Resort for sit-down service, with entrées such as New York strip steak and Scottish salmon; McKee’s Tavern for burgers and beer; and several self-service options, all at the base of the mountain.

Other Activities: Ski school and rentals on premises. Snow tubing costs $29 for two hours on weekends and holidays.

What’s new: Over the past few years, Liberty has improved its snowmaking system by adding more efficient snow guns. It also has added a Burton Riglet Park, and has remodeled most of its hotel rooms. Upcoming improvements include a new lodge with 30 hotel suites, two restaurants and an indoor pool. Construction is scheduled to begin in January.

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