DAVIS, W.Va. — More than a few magazines in recent years have ranked the Canaan Valley in West Virginia among the top U.S. skiing destinations, but ski-area officials say life in the winter wonderland is about more than skiing.
A three-hour drive from Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., the high-elevation valley and its ski areas have gained increased national attention, partly because of the completion of the US-48 expressway, which has opened a fast route to the D.C. metro.
However, the valley may still feel like an undiscovered country, and that's no bad thing, considering the rebirth of interest in experiencing rural America.
Chip Chase, who opened White Grass Ski Touring Center in the late 1970s, says there are aspects of living in the high-elevation valley that extend far beyond winter tourism.
“I like to think that we’re more of a community than a ski destination,” Chase said.
“Even when there isn’t snow on the ground, we continue to spread the news about caving, apple picking, or whatever is happening in the valley."
Chase's White Grass is known for its cross-country trails and a cult following of backcountry skiers, some of who skied the former Weis Knob Ski Area, which operated between 1959 and 1967.
Much of the allure of the valley is due to its geography, which supports ideal ski conditions and a unique wetland environment, more than 70 percent of which is protected within the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
The valley's microclimate is often referred to as a frost pocket, a depression in which cool air collects. Moisture-laden winds off the Great Lakes contribute to more than 200 inches of annual snowfall. By February, the conditions support a two-foot snowpack sought after by Midwest and East Coast skiers.
In addition to its extraordinary nearly-Canadian winter conditions, the valley is almost entirely surrounded by the vast Monongahela National Forest, which protects nearly a million scenic acres in the mountains of eastern West Virginia.
Paige Perfect, marketing director at Timberline Mountain, says epic the epic beauty first attracted her to the valley. Her family recently purchased the long-standing resort and has invested more than $15 million in capital improvements there.
“I was so taken with the area’s natural beauty on my first visit," Perfect said, "but also with how the valley is so contained and the terrain perfect for winter sports."
She said she thinks the diversity of ski areas in the valley—Whitegrass, Canaan Valley, and Timberline Mountain—is part of what's so attractive to winter vacationers.
“I think all the resorts in the valley offer their own unique experience to skiers,” she said.
Jessica Waldo, director of the Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that her agency markets the valley as a "true winter destination" because there's more to do that ski.
"People have the opportunity to visit our galleries, restaurants, and shops,"
Waldo said. "And that's especially important given their affinity for small rural towns."
There's also ice skating at Canaan Valley resort and sledding at Blackwater Falls State Park, which has grown so popular that reservations to sled must be made in advance, she said, though the experience is ideal for families with young children.
Mark Moody, marketing manager for Canaan Valley Ski Resort, says new visitors to the valley are fascinated by what they find, and he expects word of the valley to increase.
“It’s a whole other world up here, especially when winter hits and all the trees are completely frosted with snow that sticks around for most of the ski season.
"There is a saying around here that the valley, because of its elevation, makes us a bit of Canada gone astray."
This year the ski resort will expand its snow tubing lanes from 10 to 17, continuing to build on the winter recreation industry that exhibits every sign of continued growth for decades to come.
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