The 2019–2020 winter season marks a landmark year for skiing in the American Southeast. Six decades ago, The Homestead, a small resort in Virginia, became the first ski hill designed to blanket its slopes with machine-made powder, spurring the development of a handful of new resorts across the South. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s popular Sugar Mountain is celebrating its 50th birthday, as is the French Swiss Ski College at Appalachian Ski Mountain, where more than one million people have learned to ski since its founding in 1969. But resort steeps are only part of the winter scene in North Carolina; there’s also snowshoeing and cross-country skiing—even ice climbing, if you time it right.
“The key to enjoying our winters is to keep your eyes peeled on the weather and be ready to go when there’s snow,” says Randy Johnson, the author of Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie, a history of winter sports across North Carolina and the South. A lot of winter’s best action can be found within a short drive of Asheville, North Carolina, where a half-dozen downhill resorts and some of the highest peaks in the Southern Appalachians beckon. Here’s how to take full advantage of North Carolina’s mountainscapes when those big, white flakes finally start flying.
Downhill skiing and snowboarding
North Carolina is home to six downhill resorts ranging from the family-friendly Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley to Sugar Mountain in Banner Elk, the state’s largest ski hill with 125 sprawling acres. Skiing and snowboarding are among the most popular winter pastimes, with lifts spinning from about mid-December to mid-March. Bonus: They all offer night skiing. Here are a few standouts from the state’s lift-served options.
Cataloochee offers an ideal platform for learning with 50 acres of beginner- and intermediate-friendly terrain, interspersed with more challenging gladed runs like Wildcat Glade, where the trees are perfectly spaced. Ready to take things up a level? The Ski and Ride Center offers multi-week instruction geared to help fledgling skiers and snowboarders conquer the mountain in a single season. Lifts run from early November through March (and sometimes April), making Cataloochee’s the longest season in the state. Adult weekday lift tickets start at $44.
Blowing Rock’s Appalachian Ski Mountain—or “App,” as the locals call it—is a modest, family-friendly resort with 12 slopes offering something for everyone. But what sets App apart is its freestyle terrain, which includes three parks and some of the biggest features in North Carolina, including a 32-foot-long S-rail. Newer riders flock to the AppalTop Terrain Park, which has smaller versions of the other parks’ jibs, rails and boxes. On Friday and Saturday nights, riders willing to brave frigid temps can hit the Midnight Blast sessions when the lifts spin until midnight. The season typically stretches from mid-December to late-March, with weekday rates starting at $41 for adults.
Sugar is where expert skiers and snowboarders hone their craft. Head straight for the peak (5,300 feet) to sample the steepest slopes, or test your mettle on the double-black diamond Whoopdeedoo, with its pulse-quickening, 48-degree slope. For an easier ride, load onto the resort’s high-speed quad and sail down cruisers like Little Nell and Easy Street, or link the Northridge trail with Switchback and Upper Flying Mile for a top-to-bottom blue run. If for some reason you find yourself in need of a break from the slopes, head to the base, where you’ll find a 10,000-square-foot skating rink and snow tubing galore. The mountain begins operations right around Thanksgiving and generally stays open through March, with adult weekday lift tickets starting at $46.
The deeper the snow, the better the shoeing, which makes snowshoeing a somewhat unpredictable pursuit in North Carolina. But conditions can be downright dreamy when the snow gods smile upon the Southeast. If you own your own snowshoes, make a beeline for the spots listed in the cross-country skiing section, where high-elevation means more snow. For snowshoe rentals, head to Sugar Mountain Resort, where you can rent gear, then head into the backcountry on a guided tour ($31 per hour, including snowshoes). Or, borrow shoes from the Buckeye Recreation Center in the town of Beech Mountain and take to the 23 miles of nearby marked trails for free. Newer snowshoers love the gentle-graded loop around the recreation center. If you’re playing in Nordic skiing country, practice good winter sports etiquette by avoiding the tracks set by cross-country skiers.
Ski lift? Nordic skiers are their own ski lift. Find flat terrain and a Nordic workout isn’t much harder than walking. But set your sights on skiing up and down the side of a mountain, and you’re in for one of the toughest workouts going. No matter what sort of adventure sparks your fancy, High Country Ski Shop at the Pineola Inn near Linville, North Carolina, is your best bet for rentals, offering packages that start at $25 per day. Plan ahead though: The inn and ski shop are at least 20 miles from the closest cross-country skiing, and the drive can be slow when road conditions are sub-optimal.
In Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, 25 miles of mellow, unpaved carriage trails wind through a forest of hemlock and white pine, and the gentle slopes make it an idyllic destination perfect for newer Nordic enthusiasts. Cruise the trails to Flat Top Lookout Tower for mountain views, or ski through the apple orchard and around Bass Lake for a 1.5-mile kick, gliding past an old barn and around the occasionally frozen lake. On the journey, catch a glimpse of the imposing 20-room, Gilded Age Flat Top Manor.
Bisected by the North Carolina-Tennessee border, 6,285-foot Roan Mountain tends to be one of the snowiest peaks in the South, making it a prime spot for cross-country schussing. Start at Carver’s Gap, an Appalachian Trail (AT) access point off Tennessee-143. You’ll glide south on the gated Forest Service road, then climb Roan Mountain on a mellow grade through a garden of rhododendron. For steeper terrain, take the AT where it branches off from the road, following it to a shelter on the edge of Roan High Knob.
Clingmans Dome Road
For some of the best snow in the Smokies, point your wheels toward Clingmans Dome Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) after the snow flies. The park leaves the road unplowed in winter, turning the stretch of blacktop into a powdery paradise after a storm. Though the National Park Service doesn’t keep snowfall data for the road, nearby Newfound Gap receives an average 69 inches of snow each winter—more than most ski resorts in the region. Ski the entire 14-mile out-and-back to earn panoramic views from the observation tower at the top of Clingmans Dome. Bear in mind that you'll be deep in the park without easy access to services, meaning a Dome Road trek is best left to the over-prepared and ultra-adventurous. Always equip yourself with backcountry safety skills, including avalanche awareness, before heading out, and check for closures at GSMNP.
Yes, there’s ice climbing in North Carolina, though it can be inconsistent. For safe ice, guides generally look for at least two to three consecutive days of sub-freezing temperatures. And some winters do get cold enough to make this a regular occurrence. When conditions are prime, the most popular destination is Highway 215, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, where water trickling over the stone road-cuts freezes, offering park-and-play climbing that’s top-rope friendly. Unless you’re an experienced climber with your own gear, look to Fox Mountain Guides—their pros are all American Mountain Guides Association-certified—to show you the ropes (prices start at $255 for a half-day).
Ready to gear up? Head to the Asheville, North Carolina, REI retail store to prep for your trip, learn about local classes and more.