Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Union Dale (PA) offers the best beginner through expert skiing in the Endless Mountains.
Elk Mountain offers a New England style ski experience in northeastern Pennsylvania. With a 1,000' vertical drop and the highest summit elevation of any ski resort in eastern Pennsylvania, Elk Mountain's stats tell a big part of the story. Consistent snow (about 25% more than its Pocono competitors) and colder temperatures translate into better surface conditions. However, what truly sets Elk Mountain apart as one of the best resort in Pennsylvania is its relaxed, classic ski experience.
Skiing in the Poconos is certainly a popular passtime for skiers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Busses full of schoolchildren, ski clubs, and families arrive en masse on weekend mornings. While Elk Mountain still gets a share of busses, the crowds there are a small fraction of what they would be at places like Camelback, Shawnee or Jack Frost.
True, skiers won't find any high speed lifts or a celebrity chef in the cafeteria. What they do find is great skiing that feels a lot more like Vermont than Pennsylvania. Elk Mountain's expert slopes are the amongst the best and most interesting in the state, while its beginner terrain makes it a perfect place to learn to ski.
Updated for Winter 2015-2016 - David B. Cronheim
The ski resort has two base areas. There is a small parking lot at the main base lodge (looker's left side of the trail map), but most skiers end up parking in the lower parking lot near the secondary base. All ticket sales are in the main base lodge, so skiers pile into the famous "Elk Wagon" - a pickup truck with racks that look more suitable for cattle than humans - to be whisked up to the lodge. Some skiers find this converted haytruck ride to be a bit of pain, we find it to be a loveably quirky piece of Elk Mountain's nostalgic charm.
There are four double chairs from the main base area. First time skiers head to the well-segregated Beginner Slope while more advanced beginners can head to the "D" Lift which goes farther up the hill and offers skiing on the East Slope and West Slope. The other two double chairs ("B" and "C") run parallel courses to the summit.
From the summit stations of "B" and "C" lifts, skiers can ski either the looker's left or right halves of the mountain. This is noteworthy because the looker's left portion of the mountain cannot be accessed from the top of the other summit lifts. The looker's left half of the mountain consists of Elk's original trails (The 1959 Pennsylvania ski championships were actually held on the Slalom trail before a lift to the summit was complete!). Susquehanna is the steepest of the black diamonds on this side of the hill. Slalom works slightly off the fall line which makes it a little less steep, but a bit more interesting because of its double fall line. Three short and less steep black diamonds (Iroquis, Tuscarora and Mohawk) are a great starting point for intermediates looking to improve. The only intermediate trail on this side of the resort is Delaware, which is a gentle blue cruiser and also is home to the resort's terrain park. The only beginner option is the oft-closed Lehigh trail - the longest at the resort - which does not have snowmaking.
The other half of Elk Mountain's terrain feeds down to a unique side-by-side quad and double lift base near the lower parking lot. all of the runs on this side of the hill funnel into an open bowl (Snow Bowl) near the base . Expert skiers will enjoy strutting their stuff on Pennsylvania's most challenging mogul run - Tunkhannock. Tunkhannock is steep even by New England standards and poses a real challenge to experts. Three parrallel black diamond runs (Wyalusing, Chippewa and Tecumseh) are the longest sustained expert pitches on the mountain, but are also probably the least steep of all of Elk's black diamond runs. However, intermediates will particularly enjoy this part of Elk Mountain. Wissahickon and Lenape are New England-style blue cruisers that feel every bit as long any most Vermont trails. Adjacent to Wissahickon, the blue Kickapoo trail's sharp switchback turns make it perhaps the most interesting run on the mountain. The lone option for beginners is Tioga, a solid if unremarkable green trail that returns skiers to the top of the "D" lift.
Beginner skiers at Elk Mountain follow a progression that allows them to grow in confidence before stepping up in class to tackle harder slopes. The starting point for first timers is the Beginner Slope. Elk Mountain's bunny slope is serviced by its own double chairlift and totally segregated from the rest of the ski resort. No expert skiers schussing by at high speed to worry about at Elk Mountain. The result is that learning to ski at Elk Mountain is a much more pleasant experience than at many Pocono resorts where beginners arriving by the busload are herded like cattle into huge lessons.
After gaining confidence on the beginner slope, beginners can head over to the "D" Chair on the opposite end of the lodge. This double chair goes halfway up the mountain to the top of West Slope. West Slope would be a fine bunny slope in its own right, but the fact that there are no first-timers on the slope makes it a wonderful place for improving beginners to hone their skills. Adjacent to West Slope is East Slope, which serves as the runout for the black diamond trails on the upper mountain, but also adds variety to the beginner experience off of the "D" Lift. Strong green skiers looking to step up in class can try the short intermediate Lackawanna Spur which is accessible from the top of the chair as well. A quick right at the bottom of Lackawanna Spur onto the Hiawatha trail brings skiers right back to the "D" Lift base.
From the summit, beginners have two main options for skiing Elk's full 1,000' of vertical. Tioga is the main green thoroughfare from the summit and one of the only trails on the mountain that can actually be crowded on busier days. Presumably to eliminate some trail crossings, Tioga's original routing was modified in late 1990's and the new version is not as strong as the original, but is still a serviceable green run. The second green from the summit, Lehigh, is rarely open as it is a natural snow only trail. If it is open, however, it's a must-ski for novices since it is the longest run on the mountain and offers great vistas of the surrounding Endless Mountains.
Intermediates have several options from the summit. The lone blue trail on the looker's left side of the mountain (Delaware) is a long cruiser with sustained moderate pitch that will not scare strong beginner skiers. Delaware Chute, a spur off of the main Delaware trail, is home to Elk Mountain's terrain park. The terrain park is serviced by its own rope tow.
Heading the other direction, towards the lower parking lot base, skiers can hop onto either Mahican or Schuykill which will bring them to the top of the best blue runs on the hill. The best blue run on the mountain is unquestionably Kickapoo, a windy switchback trail that zig zags down the mountain in a series of hairpin turns. Even expert skiers will struggle to stay on their edges for the entire length of the run. Two other intermediate trails are also accessible from the end of the Mahican/Schuykill trails - Lenape and Wissahickon. Lenape runs along the perimeter of the property and is the more gentle of the two. It's a relaxing low intermediate run from top to bottom with only one real pitch of any real consequence. Wissahickon has a bit more pitch, but is still on the easier end of the intermediate spectrum. The three parrallel black diamond runs (Chippewa, Tecumseh, and Wyalusing) are the steepest runs on this side of the hill. All three teeter on the edge of the blue/black desigation. In good conditions, confident intermediates will probably find these three runs to be a good, but doable test.
Elk Mountain's other three intermediate trails are accessible from the Tioga trail. A series of three possible left turns bring skiers onto, in order from uphill to downhill, Tioga Spur, Lower Tunkhannock or Lackawanna Spur. Lower Tunkhannock is the best open blue slope on the mountain and is the only real opportunity to carve big gs turns on a moderate pitch.
Moguls on Upper Tunkhannock
In keeping with Elk's reputation as a Vermont ski area plunked down in Northeastern Pennsylvania, its black diamond runs are steep and intersting. In particular, Upper Tunkhannock (pictured above) ranks as Pennsylvania's premier mogul run.
The expert skiing at Elk Mountain is split into two pods. On the looker's left side of the hill are the original black diamond runs. Susquehanna is perhaps the most well popular expert slope since it is the most direct summit to base run. The first few turns on the headwall are steep before giving way to a consistent pitch intermediate pitch with only a short runout. Seneca, underneath the dual double chairs, is often allowed to bump up, creating a less stiff liftline mogul examination than Tunkhannock. The Slalom trail is often closed for racing, but when open is perhaps the most difficult test on this side of the hill because of its double fall line. The three other black diamonds on the looker's left side of ski area - Tuscarora, Mohawk and Iroquis - are less steep. Tuscarora is the best and longest of the three and is the type of winding expert trail rarely seen in Pennsylvania.
The quad/double from the lower parking lot services five black diamond runs. It is important to note that skiers cannot access any trails farther left than Lackawanna without poling. Lackawanna is almost always groomed flat and has a pitch similar to Susequehanna, but is generally less crowded. Upper Tunkhannock is Elk Mountain's signature black diamond trail. Large moguls on its very steep initial headwall make it one of the hardest runs in Pennsylvania. Lastly, the three parallel black diamond trails that empty into the Snow Bowl are the longest black runs on the mountain, but also perhaps the least interesting with a consistently upper intermediate pitch.
Whether intentionally or by happy coincidence, Elk Mountain is an intensely old school mountain. Fixed grip double chairs and New England-style terrain lend an air of charm absent from many Pennsylvania ski resort. Snowboarders interested in ripping great terrain will find plenty of it at Elk. Terrain park options on the other hand are limited.
Elk Mountain has a single terrain park on the looker's left side of the mountain on the Delaware trail. The park is small, but is conveniently serviced by its own handle tow. To reach the park, take either of the dual double chairs up from the main base lodge and stay to skier's right on the Delaware trail.
The main base lodge is the place where Elk Mountain skiers congregate at lunchtime. The cafeteria serves standard ski lodge food - nothing remarkable, but the prices are lower than many of Elk Mountain's Pocono competitors.
The only option for bar service is the Winter Garden Restaurant. High windows provide great views of the slopes while bartenders pour generous cups of spiked hot chocolate.
Another option for groups is the original warming hut located on the skier's left of the West Slope. Elk Mountain will rent the space in the building to church groups, Boy Scout troops and the like. The picnic tables inside make for a great place for a skier to relax between runs.
Skiers should note there is a residential community near the base of the resort. Known as the Village of the Four Seasons, this village is not affiliated with Elk Mountain in any way; in fact the two parties actually engaged in litigation about whether Elk Mountain had to keep a gate into the resort open. There are no condos or houses in the Village of the Four Seasons available for rent by the resort.