BLOWING ROCK, N.C. -- Skiers in North Carolina have an unusual treat this year: The Blue Ridge Mountains are dressed in winter white from an early snowstorm coating native rhododendrons in iridescent crystal ice and creating a solid base on the slopes. The ski resorts and snow guns are going full bore.
The largest and best known ski areas are Sugar Mountain and Ski Beech, along with nearby Appalachian Ski Mountain that has a run playfully called “Candied Appal.” These areas boast well-groomed trails, crisp clean air and views that won’t quit. At the tops of these mountains, you’ll see the eponymous blue-gray haze swirling around gently undulating peaks. Beginners have no trouble finding ample room and more than enough runs to keep them busy throughout the day and into the evening. A couple hours away are Wolf Ridge ski area and Cataloochee, which offers skiing in the winter and horseback vacations in the summer. The elevations range from about 4,000 to nearly 6,000 feet.
“It’s all about having fun here,” Cataloochee’s Tammy Brown said. “I think sometimes that’s what folks forget — we want you, your family and your friends to come to Cataloochee ... and have such a blast that you go home talking about your next visit.”
These ski spots, as in other parts of the country, offer much more than skiing. There’s snow tubing, ice skating — Sugar has a 10,000-square-foot outdoor rink — and even zip-lining, where you’re attached to a cable in a sort of aerial slide. Nearby Hawksnest describes itself as the biggest snow tubing center in the East with 20 lanes.
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This season was jump started. Just ahead of the winter solstice, a big storm blew in, sending up to 2 feet of snow across N.C. ski country, delighting skiers and operators alike.
But snow can be unreliable in this part of the Blue Ridge. If snow turns to slush, there’s plenty to do off the slopes, as well as on — and all within an easy drive. In an hour or two, you can hit discount furniture stores, soak in a hot mineral bath deep in the woods, tour a city sometimes called “freaky,” and even visit a town where legend says it snows upside down.
Welcome to Western North Carolina.
Take a stroll along the streets of Blowing Rock, a graciously quaint village that was established in the 1880s and where there actually is a blowing rock.
“They say it’s the only place it snows upside down,” volunteer historian P. Coleman Ratterree said, explaining that the wind blows up from a gorge on the side of the mountain and that inversion sends snowflakes in the opposite direction.
If sophistication, or “freakiness” as the locals like to say, is your speed, head on down the mountain into the hamlet of Asheville.
Restaurants, jazz clubs, art galleries, antique shops and craft stores are too numerous to name. Asheville also is home to the worldfamous Biltmore Estate, built by George Vanderbilt and still owned by his descendants.
The Estate includes a mansion, gardens, inn and special seasonal events.
About 40 minutes from Asheville, you’ll find Hot Springs Resort and Spa, where staffer Abe Trammell said, “We’ve got sort of oddball lodging, but it all seems to work somehow.”
Guests have their choice of anything from campsites to the honeymoon suite complete with red heart-shaped tub. But locals don’t go to Hot Springs for the lodging. They go for the, yup, hot springs.
A series of hot tubs are dotted in the woods and along a river. The tubs are filled with the mineral water that bubbles up out of the ground. Massages also are offered and can be a comforting end to a long day of hard skiing.
Hitting the slopes is not only an adventure for visitors and residents alike, it’s also big business for the Tar Heel State. The latest figures available are from the 2002-2003 season and they show that skiing generated more than $120 million — all of that in about 100 days. The ski season in North Carolina runs from about Thanksgiving through the middle of March.
Most of the ski areas are smack in the middle of Christmas tree growing country. North Carolina is the nation’s second leading producer, behind Oregon, of Christmas trees. As you drive to the ski areas deep in the mountains, you’ll see the farms along the roadways crowded with Christmas trees in different stages of development — from the tiniest seedlings to mature specimens.
There is no shortage of accommodations in all price ranges — from the luxury of the Biltmore Estate to more rustic and charming inns and hotels throughout the region and at the ski areas.