North Carolina's largest vertical drop draws skiers from the surrounding states. With a summit elevation over 1 mile high (5,300 ft) and a strong commitment to snowmaking, Sugar Mountain offers a season stretching from November through March.
Skiing south of the Mason Dixon line is always a bit of a unique experience. Lifts and ski gear tend to be older and conditions can range from powder to dirt (sometimes in the same run). Limited natural snowfall, but high elevations make North Carolina uniquely suited to ski areas supported by snowmaking. In fact, without snowmaking skiing simply couldn’t exist this far south.
Sugar Mountain, or simply “Sugar” to locals stands apart as the best ski resort in the region because of its terrain. While nearby Beech Mountain may have a slightly higher base and summit elevation, Sugar’s vertical drop is nearly 400 ft taller and is the largest in the Southeast with the exception of Snowshoe Mountain (WV). On the downside, Sugar Mountain lacks even a pretense of charm. An outrageously ugly mountain top condo complex is the worst offender, but the resort could stand some updating.
The mountain itself has a unique layout. The main uphill options were two parallel double chairs went from the base to the summit. However, new for 2015-2016, Sugar Mountain has announced the installation of a brand new high speed 6-passenger lift to replace one of the dual doubles. Skiers can now enjoy the resort’s full 1,200′ drop by boarding at the bottom or take laps from the loading midstation below the expert area near the summit. On the looker’s left side of the mountain is a smaller, secondary hill serviced by two chairs that each step halfway up the mountain.
The best terrain is found off the summit, where a handful of legitimately steep expert runs and a new, long blue trail (Gunther’s Run) can be found. The bottom of the hill tends to be overwhelmed by falling beginners, making navigation quite difficult and incentivizing better skiers to stay near the summit.
Green trails comprise 34% of the trails at Sugar, but a far higher percentage of the skiers on the hill at any given time. Sugar attracts a lot of first time skiers and snowboarders, many of whom have (quite literally) never seen snow before. As a result, the bottom of the mountain can look like a minefield of fallen beginners.
A magic carpet provides the main children’s learning slope, while the Easy Street chair and eponymous slopes are the main adult learning slope.
There are no green trails from the summit, so beginners are confined to the lower half of the mountain. The longest green run is Lower Flying Mile, accessible by unloading from Chair 1 at the midstation.
The blue runs at Sugar Mountain offer the most variety of any of the classifications on the hill. Intermediate skiers can ski from the top of any of the lifts and have a lot of solid choices. Oma’s Meadow (formerly Big Red) provides a wonderful, wide intermediate slope to improve technique, while narrower trails like Northridge allow for a more New England style ski experience.
Recently, Sugar added what is arguably the finest intermediate run in the Southeast – Gunther’s Run. In tandem with Northridge, the trail drops almost 1,000 ft from the summit to the top of the Easy Street lift. Unlike many of the other runs (both at Sugar and elsewhere in the region), the trail is mercifully free from are junctions. No crossing beginners to worry about on Gunther’s run – just great fall-line skiing. It’s a run as popular with experts who enjoy high speed carving as it is with intermediate skiers.
Sugar Mountain can make a strong claim to the best expert skiing in the region. With the exception of a handful of trails in West Virginia, there is not a better expert run south of the Mason Dixon line than Whoopdedoo. Although it’s not overly long, it packs a pitch that would earn a legitimate black diamond rating even in New England.
There are also two single black diamond options from the summit – Tom Terrific and Boulder Dash. They run parallel and are of a reasonable pitch, but Whoopdedoo remains the highlight for strong skiers.
One of the truly enjoyable aspects of skiing at Sugar compared to other resorts in the region, is not only are the expert runs a lot of fun, but they’re emminently lappable. The summit loading midstation of Chair 2 provides a quick way to get lots of solid turns in without going back down to the base (and through the gauntlet of tumbling beginners). However, the addition of a new 6-passenger chair has made skiing the mountain’s full vertical far more doable.
Sugar Mountain does not have a slopeside village. However, the nearby town of Banner Elk is the best ski town in the Southeast. With a main street full of shops and restaurants, it is an attraction on its own merit. The downtown is far more crowded in summer months and some establishments do close in the winter. However, the vast majority remain open to cater to skiers in winter months.
The only on-mountain dining option at the resort is the base lodge cafeteria.
Downtown Banner Elk is home to over 30 restaurants and bars, but regional fare predominates. What would a ski trip to North Carolina be with out homestyle southern cooking??? We recommend the Bayou Smokehouse and Grill (serving up New Orleans style cajun and creole cuisine) as well as the Pedalin’ Pig for BBQ.
For upscale dining try Artisanal (www.artisanalnc.com).
There are a number of condos and private houses (of widely varying quality) available for rent. The resort maintains a central reservations line at +1 (828) 898-9746. Resort condos are generally comfortable but spartan and range from 1-6 bedrooms. Ski packages are available through the resort.
If looking for a more luxurious option, we recommend renting a private home in the area. There are a number of ski in/out houses on the mountain, including several in a new development near the summit. These unique high alpine homes provide both a remarkable degree of luxury and outstanding views of the western North Carolina mountains.
As mentioned above, Sugar Mountain is a popular destination for those in the Southeast who rarely see snow in their backyards. As result, Sugar offers a wide variety of traditional winter activities geared towards families. The most popular activity is snowtubing. The snowtubing center offers several lanes and a 700 ft. drop. It is located on the Sugar Mountain Golf Course near to parking lot.
Sugar Mountain is home a 10,000 sq. ft. ice skating rink located directly adjacent to the tubing hill. Rental skates are available. Snowshoeing is also available on certain days. Tours last one hour and include rental snowshoes.
Those less interested in wintertime pursuits can stroll the streets of Banner Elk, famous for its great antique shops and southern restaurants.
Sugar Mountain is located in the western part of North Carolina close to the border with Tennessee. Although snowfall in the winter months is highly variable, many of the local roads are mountainous and 4WD is always a good idea just in case.
Driving Distance / Approximate Drive Time
Charlotte, NC – 115 mi / 2 hour 15 minutes
Atlanta, GA – 270 mi / 4 hour 35 minutes
Nashville, TN – 325 mi / 5 hours
Top: 5,300 ft
Bottom: 4,100 ft
Vertical: 1,200 ft
Skiable Area: 125 ac
Annual Snowfall: 80 in
Lifts: 8 (1 express 6-pack)
+ 1,200′ vertical drop is highest in NC, TN, VA, MD, or PA
+ long runs by Southeastern standards
+ best expert terrain in the region
+ new 6-passenger express lift
– can be crowded at peak times
– limited natural snowfall
– one of the least charming ski resorts in North America
Updated for Winter 2015-2016 – David B. Cronheim