Whitegrass’s iconic red base lodge
Every so often in our journeys at Ultimate-Ski.com we come across a place that doesn’t quite fit the mold of resorts we typically cover, but is so exceptional that we can’t neglect to inform our readers about it. Whitegrass Touring Center in Canaan Valley, West Virginia is just such a place. It’s not hyperbole in the slightest to say there is simply nothing else like it anywhere in the world.
In light of the foregoing it hardly needs to be said that Whitegrass is one of the most unusual ski areas featured on Ultimate-Ski.com. The resort bills itself as a combination nordic and backcountry/alpine touring area. There are no lifts, but the trail system stretches over 50 km and rises over 1,200’ from the valley floor to a summit elevation of 4,436′. While White Grass’ stats are impressive, it is the unique feel and flavor of the ski area that so caught our attention. There are few, if any, ski resorts in the United States that can match the character of Whitegrass. It’s as authentically West Virginia as moonshine and bluegrass (both of which we would bet are partaken on a fairly regular basis at the resort).
Whitegrass Skiable Terrain
Track-set trail near the Red Barn
The ski area is set high in the West Virginia “Snow Country” near two alpine ski areas – Canaan Valley and Timberline Four Seasons Resort. Whitegrass actually started its existence as a downhill ski area. Known as Weiss Knob, the original ski area was the brainchild of Princetonian Bob Barton who was looking for a place near to Washington, DC for members of his ski club to enjoy the sport. Barton stumbled across the Canaan Valle, where average annual snowfall is a staggering 180″. To put that into perspective, that is more than most New Hampshire ski resort and on par with southern Vermont. Of course, the region’s more southerly latitude means the stronger sun melts the snow more quickly so base depths grow far deeper in New England. Still, 15 feet of snow is nothing to sneer at and Barton enjoyed a modicum of success operating the ski area before competition from nearby Timberline and state-run Canaan Valley proved too strong.
In 1979 Whitegrass Touring Center rose from the ashes of the former downhill area. Many of the relics of the alpine area are still visible on the and around Whitegrass’ trails and the main slope above the base lodge is the original ski slope from the resort’s alpine skiing days.
Today, though the turns made at Whitegrass are mainly on nordic not alpine gear. Whitegrass takes advantage of the region’s natural snowfall to offer one of the best cross country ski experiences in the entire Eastern USA. The ski area has no snowmaking and relies entirely on Mother Nature. However, a unique set of snowfences allows Whitegrass to build a 5 km “Snow Farm” to catch drifting snow. The Snow Farm can open with just a few inches of snow and gives access to over 400 vertical feet of nordic skiing. When conditions are good, 50 km of terrain is available on-site with the adjacent Dolly Sods Wildness and Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge offering an additional 50 km of nordic trails.
Conditions can be variable, but Whitegrass skiers know that. As the ski area’s resort deadpans – “it can be 50 or 20 below on any day in winter. Sorry, if it was colder none of us could afford to live here…this is not Utah. We get rain.” If only other ski resort conditions reports were so honest!
The skiable terrain varies from gentle upward climbs to steep backcountry descents. Alpine touring gear is quite popular to allow skiers to enjoy alpine turns down the 1,200′ of vertical drop offered on the ski area’s slopes. There is some outstanding downhill tree skiing thanks to some light underbrush trimming. But even if you get your thrills skiing uphill, there’s plenty to explore. Whitegrass’ trail map is dotted with little shacks to break up the day.
The Unique Culture of Whitegrass
A sign in tribute to Weiss Knob still hangs over the rental counter
If the story stopped with the skiing, Whitegrass would be only one of a number of great nordic ski areas in the country. Thankfully, the story hasn’t really even begun until one meets the owners – Chip Chase and his wife Laurie Little. Chip is something of a jack of all trades, a throwback to the days when ski areas were mom and pop operations run by families who did a little bit of everything. Chip runs the rental shop, gives ski lessons and oversees the skiing operation while Laurie handles the cafe.
If nordic skiing had an evangelist, it would be Chip Chase. Many alpine skiers, the author included, have never tried cross country skiing. I can assure you that after 15 minutes with Chase you’ll be dying to click into a set of skinny skis. His enthusiasm for the sport is infectious and it seems hardly a person walks through the door that Chip doesn’t greet by name. You see Whitegrass is still very much the type of place where skiers come back year after year, in large part due to the wonderful personalities who run the ski area.
The tiny red base lodge with its tin roof and cozy ambiance are a welcome refuge from the cold of the day. Many skiers retreat inside to enjoy lunch and find it difficult to leave after a warm soup or a cold beer. The great food and better company make Whitegrass the type of ski area you wish you had next door. But even if you are a first time visitor (or perhaps especially if you are), Chip and Laurie make you feel right at home immediately.
There are very few places left in the world of skiing like Whitegrass. Only Mad River Glen and Hickory spring to mind as being even remotely comparable. Little has changed in decades and it really is better that way. Whitegrass is a wonderful reminder of just how often less really is more.
Chip clears a table during a busy winter lunch
Few ski resorts have an on-mountain dining experience worthy of publishing a cookbook, but Whitegrass’s cookbook is already in its 5th printing. The home-cooked, hearty goodness of the food served here is truly special. A lot of resorts charge big money to serve “farm-to-table” food, as if the concept were something new and hip. At Whitegrass, they’ve been serving honest, quality, tasty cuisine since well before the term even existed.
Music plays a prominent role in the atmosphere on weekend evenings and during apres-ski. Expect anything from local Bluegrass to classical. If you’re lucky, Chip might even get up and join in on the harmonica.
Lunch is served everyday during winter months from 11-4. Dinner served on Friday and Saturday nights in season and only one entree is available at either of the two seatings (approx. 6 and 7:30 pm). The menu is posted in advance and you eat what they’re cooking. If meat is served a vegetarian option is always also provided, but frankly we’d eat anything they put in front of us and beg for seconds. Prices are emminently reasonable with dinner running about $20 per person plus tax and tip. The Cafe also serves beer and wine.
Whitegrass Touring Center Statistics
Top: 4,436 ft
Bottom: 3,236 ft
Vertical: 1,200 ft
Annual Snowfall: 150-200 in.
Lifts: 0 (“Uphill Skiing!”)
Trails: 45 (50 km within the ski area boundary and 100 km locally)
Updated for Winter 2015-2016 – David B. Cronheim