by Jeanine Barone
When winter temperatures drop to a frosty chill, it’s oh-so tempting to just snuggle indoors, hibernating until spring. However, it’s well worth venturing outdoors with some cross-country skis to relish in the snow-coated pine needles sparkling in the sunlight like wee gems, with the air so still that even a wisp of a breeze can be heard. Although the ski resorts in the Northeast and West often get all the accolades for their extensive Nordic terrain and deep powder, there’s no reason to turn up your nose at the picturesque (and extensive) trail systems in the Southeast. In fact, with their intimacy, hospitality and (yes) powder, they won’t disappoint.
1. Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, North Carolina
When the weather cooperates, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park offers some fine cross-country skiing in an attractive and historic venue. This park along the Blue Ridge Parkway is the 3,500-acre former estate of the conservationist and industrialist Moses Cone. (The family donated the property to the National Park Service.) Most notable is the grand, turn-of-the-20th-century, colonial revival manse that was the Cones’ summer house. From there, carriage roads fan out through this wooded and meadow-draped property. One leads past an old apple barn, a reminder that the estate once cultivated dozens of different apple varieties. Continuing on, the path climbs a series of switchbacks through thick stands of white pines, oaks, hemlocks and maples that’s referred to as The Maze, though it’s unlikely you’ll become turned around here.
Equipment Rental: Drive 30 minutes from downtown Blowing Rock to the High Country Ski Shop in Pineola.
Stay: Book a room at the 42-room Chetola Lodge, bordering the estate.
2. Roan Mountain, Tennessee/North Carolina
Roan Mountain State Park, your base, sits at the foot of the soaring ridgetop for which it is named. Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Roan Mountain gets more snow than other local areas. It’s beloved by cross-country skiers for many reasons, including its variety of terrain — from scenic routes for novices to thrilling downhills for experts (though none of the trails are groomed). Park your car at Carver’s Gap, eight miles from the state park’s headquarters. Though cold and blustery, this high-altitude spot enwraps you in panoramic views of the peaks and valleys in North Carolina and Tennessee. Many skiers enjoy gliding up a gentle grade along the Forest Service road (State Road 1348) — it’s closed to vehicles in winter — that slices through woods of spruce, mountain-ash and Fraser fir. A side trail veers to a triad of loops through the Rhododendron Gardens (which are especially popular in June when they bloom pinkish-purple).
Equipment Rental: High Country Ski Shop in Pineola.
Stay: Roan Mountain State Park’s wood-paneled cabins are snuggled by conifers, maple and other trees.
3. Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia
This state park is named for the much photographed, tumbling waters that are stained ochre by the tannic acid leaching from fallen foliage. It’s a stunning winter paradise, laced with nearly 10 miles of cross-country trails. Coursing through forests and sometimes beside river banks, skiers will be treated to awe-inspiring views of the Blackwater River Canyon from the rim. A beginner-friendly trail that meanders through thickets of balsam fir trees is aptly named for this tree species. Intermediate skiers enjoy the undulating terrain of the Pase Point Trail that wends through a woodland so dense with hemlock, red spruce and cherry trees that you won’t see the gorge you’re paralleling until an overlook at the end. No matter what trails you ski, snow is abundant here and at the other two nearby resorts (10-20 minutes away) — Canaan Valley Resort State Park and White Grass Ski Touring Center — that share the Canaan Valley.
Equipment Rental: The resort rents ski equipment and gives lessons.
Stay: The 54-room lodge on the gorge’s south rim is closed for renovations. Stay at the Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center.
4. Canaan Valley Resort State Park, West Virginia
One of West Virginia’s largest state parks, Canaan Valley Resort State Park evokes a sense of serenity. There are over 23 miles of ungroomed trails — most are perfect for beginners — networking the resort, cruising up tree dense hillsides and across expansive fields and occasionally-frozen wetlands, distinctive given that this ecosystem sprawls inland. Many beginners enjoy skiing the golf course’s fairways, making sure to avoid crossing the tees and greens. The lovely Blackwater River Trail parallels the namesake river and frosty wetlands, running through a forest of hemlocks and maples. A variety of trees (from shagbark hickory to balsam fir) welcome skiers along the Club Run Trail, noted for its wildflowers in the spring. Among the most difficult routes that appeal to experts is the Bald Knob Trail that’s accessed by riding the chairlift to the top of the mountain, then skiing through pine woods to the 4,300-foot summit of Bald Knob, where panoramic views of Canaan Valley await.
Equipment Rental: The resort rents ski equipment and offers lessons.
Stay: The 160-room main lodge (Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center) provides guests with a heated indoor pool.
5. White Grass Ski Touring Center, West Virginia
Crisscrossed by an extensive trail system — just over 31 miles and many machine groomed — the White Grass Ski Touring Center huddles at the base of Weiss Knob (which is almost 4,500 feet high). The property’s former life as a downhill area makes for some exhilarating cross-country routes. Expert skiers delight in the glades studded with birch, cherry and beech trees and the steeps of Bald Knob. But it’s also the low-key vibe, sense of camaraderie and playful aura that endears White Grass to skiers of all stripes. Over a dozen shelters, some heated by a wood burning stove, sprinkle the trails, beckoning skiers to rest a while, snack on free granola bars or leave a creative sketch on the blackboard. For novices, the Three Mile Trail gradually ascends Cabin Mountain and the scenic Springer Orchard Trail rambles through an old apple and pear orchard field.
Equipment Rental: Rent equipment and sign up for lessons at the resort.
Stay: The Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center
6. Pipestem Resort State Park, West Virginia
The centerpiece of the sprawling Pipestem Resort State Park is the rugged Bluestone River Gorge that Native Americans had long relied on to traverse this wild landscape. It’s also said that the Native people (and, later, European colonists) would fashion tobacco pipe stems from the twigs of an herbal shrub, perhaps explaining the park’s name. With almost 15 miles of ungroomed trails, the park’s beauty is pervasive, with plenty of challenging routes. (You’ll also likely spot deer while skiing.) The 18-hole golf course is where you can get comfortable with your technique. Among the many scenic options for beginners are the pine-fringed Lake Shore Trail that circles Long Branch Lake and the hickory and oak tree forested Dogwood Trail. There’s also plenty of demanding routes for the experienced skier, such as the steep County Line Trail that travels through a pair of wooded hollows and rewards with views of Indian Branch Falls.
Equipment Rental: The resort rents equipment.
Stay: Despite ongoing renovations, the now 109-room McKeever Lodge with its canyon views is open year round.