Strolling West Virginia’s Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort’s cobblestone pedestrian mall, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in a European ski village. There’s certainly enough snow to support the illusion, drifted in fluffy scallops in every corner of the plaza and blanketing the woods and slopes just a few steps away. People in bright ski wear linger in front of shop windows or hurry to the warmth of restaurants and bars scattered throughout the village. There are even a few hardy souls sitting on benches, heads thrown back, catching rays. Laughter drifts from the balconies of condos rising above the village center as guests observe the bustle below.

The building facades are a diverse mix of sidings, styles and colors – from rough wood in shades of brown and green to heavy stone and brick. The architectural hodgepodge resembles an Alpine community that has evolved over centuries, or even decades. It happened in seven years.

Thirty years ago, a ski vacation at the brand new ski mountain usually meant a bunk bed, a bag lunch and a bumpy school bus ride to the slopes from modest lodgings in nearby towns. Over the years, motel-style lodges and several condo complexes and restaurants were built on the summit. (Snowshoe is an “upside down” mountain with all the services at the peak rather than the base.) But the ‘Shoe remained rough around the edges compared to other ski resorts in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast – great for skiing but lacking in style or finer amenities.

Then, in 1997, the resort was bought by Intrawest Corp., North America’s largest resort developer and the force behind ski resorts such as Whistler/Blackcomb, Mont Tremblant, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Stratton and Solitude. In the ski industry’s version of “Pretty Woman,” Intrawest invested more than $180 million in the West Virginia property, transforming it from a blue-collar ski area into a year-round Aspen of the East.

“Twenty-five years ago, we drove up the mountain on a dirt road with no guardrails,” says restaurateur Brian Ball, who runs the popular Foxfire Grille. “Today there is concierge service and valet parking on the mountain and we’re hosting more and more upscale guests. The resort has retained its wild flavor, but now there are touches of civility. We all knew it had the potential. Doc Brigham, Snowshoe’s founder, dreamed of a mountaintop village, and now it’s a reality.”

Today the parking lots hold more expensive SUVs than modest sedans, and the casual resort dress seen in the village is quite often on fashion’s cutting edge. It’s not unusual to see high-profile politicians from Washington, and diverse celebrities such as actor Kevin Bacon, evangelist Jerry Falwell and political pundit Eleanor Clift from the “McLaughlin Report” on the slopes. Well-known musicians entertain during major weekends.

Nearly half a million visitors flock to the resort during the winter from as far away as Atlanta or Miami. Ski Magazine recently ranked the ‘Shoe the No. 1 ski resort in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, 22nd among all East Coast resorts, and fourth in the superiority of its accommodations.

I’ve had a front-row seat for Snowshoe’s evolution. For more then 20 years, it was my favorite getaway for snow sports in winter, and golf and biking in summer. Six years ago, I built a home in the Snowshoe community of West Ridge, facing a panorama of mountain ridges as far as the eye can see.

Amenities aside, it is Snowshoe’s unspoiled wilderness setting that draws skiers, boarders, snowshoers, bikers, golfers, vacation home buyers – and a few year round residents like me. Located in the middle of sparsely populated Pocahontas County, the 11,000-acre resort adjoins almost a million wilderness acres in the Monongahale National Forest. A sign at the resort entrance says it all: Forever Wild.

Because of the resort’s improved amenities and changing image, the price of building lots and resale homes on the mountain has soared, quadrupling in some cases. Luxury condos in the village center – ranging in price from about $200,000 to nearly $1 million – usually sell out before they are built. Ninety percent of the privately owned homes and condos are in the rental pool; therefore, Snowshoe can accommodate more than 7,000 guests in lodgings that range from motel-style rooms to multiple-bedroom homes. The newest and most upscale residential property in the village, The Seneca, is visible on the skyline from miles away. Its apartments are larger than any others in the village, with high ceilings and spectacular views of the slopes.

On the mountain At 4,848 feet above sea level, the resort’s Cheat Mountain stands taller than other peaks in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions. Temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in the lowlands. Unlike other regional resorts, Snowshoe is never at a loss for snow, simply because its topography attracts precipitation. Averaging 180 inches (15feet) of natural snowfall annually, Snowshoe Mountain is the first peak to catch snowstorms converging from the South and West. When moisture-laden Canadian air streams swoop down into the states, Snowshoe can be inundated with powder – feather-light snow more common to Western ski areas and a coveted phenomenon in the East. Snow begins falling in November and there are still scraps of white on the slopes in May, a month after ski season ends. When it’s necessary to supplement nature’s largess, the mountain’s snowmaking system can generate 2,750 tons of snow in one hour, enough to cover four football fields with a foot of the white stuff.

Snowshoe’s ski-able terrain includes 57 ski runs, the longest being 1.5 mile trails in the Western Territory. The mountain has a vertical drop of 1,500 feet, more than any other ski area in the Southeast, and 14 lifts, many of them high speed.

Though I used to enjoy the moguls and steep drops in the black diamond Western Territory, I’ve since mellowed, and now enjoy the wooded, narrower runs off the Powderidge lift, and the long Hootenanny trail from the top of the Ballhooter lift to the base of Widowmaker. On busy weekends or when powder falls overnight, I always head for the Silver creek area, where I know I can find untracked powder or freshly groomed snowpack. Some visitor’s think it’s just a beginners’ area because the Kid’s World, Ruckus Ridge Adventure Park and Adaptive Ski Center for Challenged Athletes are there, but once they ski those scenic, wide-open runs, they’re hooked.

Silver Creek is popular with families because of the tubing, night skiing and other activities for children and teens. It’s also snowboarder’s heaven. The ‘Shoe expanded its two terrain parks again this year, building new features and an area dedicated to beginning riders. The Mountaineer Terrain Park in Silver Creek has a 300-foot-long all-snow halfpipe, the largest in the region.

Off the slopes, the Outdoor Adventure Center offers a variety of ways to explore the surrounding wilderness, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snow-mobiling and horse-drawn sleigh riding. Instructional overnight camping and mountain orienteering are also available. My three dogs give high marks to the wooded snowshoe/cross-country trails at Silver Creek. Wearing snowshoes, I break a trail through deep snow and they gambol in my tracks, occasionally plunging into snow-drifts in an attempt to follow deer. They love the deep woods, and so do I.

Dining and shopping For more than 20 years the privately owned Red Fox Restaurant has been the premier dining establishment on the mountain. A host of magazines including Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Southern Living have sung their praises. Chef Margaret Ann Ball continues to surprise diners with inventive dishes utilizing local game, fish and produce, as well as imported ingredients such as buffalo or Dublin Bay prawns. My favorite meal is the appetizer of escargot in fluffy pastry, followed by one of the fresh fish specials, ending with pumpkin crème brulee for dessert. The wine list – more then 300 labels – rivals the Greenbrier’s cellar.

An offshoot of the Red Fox is Foxfire grille, located in the village. “When we created both restaurants we wanted them to be far apart in philosophy but with the best quality ingredients,” says Foxfire manager Ball. “The Red Fox has maintained its level of fine dining with wild game and international offerings. We call Foxfire’s cuisine ‘Nouveau Redneck.’ We take classic Southern comfort foods and give them a twist. The meatloaf at Foxfire has a smoked heirloom tomato gravy rather than your mother’s ketchup.”

One of the most unusual dining experiences is lunch or dinner at the remote Sunrise Backcountry Hut. It’s even more fun if you stay overnight. The rustic cabin can accommodate 10 overnight guests in three private rooms. An overnight stay includes a four-course gourmet dinner and breakfast. The “Sunrise Hut” is by no means a misnomer; the alpenglow on the south-eastern skyline is spectacular, not unlike what I witnessed recently from a mountaintop lodge in Switzerland. The 205-mile journey to the cabin via guided snowmobiles or aboard the snowcat is a wilderness experience in itself. Of course, you can also snowshoe or ski to the cabin. A similar experience, but tamer, is the surf and turf diner at the Boathouse on Shaver’s Lake, reached by a snowcat ride.

Snowshoe’s transformation has considerably improved its shopping areas as well. You can find everything in the village from homemade chocolate and Starbucks coffee to carabiners for your next mountain climbing trip. Calhoun & Kipp is the place for whimsical gifts such as sculptures made from metal scraps welded together – like the comical cat guarding our hearth. You can pick up a book, CD or board game at Pulp & Paper. Pocahontas Supply Co. is a treasure trove of outdoor gear, clothing and shoes, with labels such as Patagonia, North Face and Birkenstock in abundance. If your plans include rock-climbing, fly fishing or camping, this store is a must. The most unique shop is the new Eager Beaver, which specializes in furniture crafted from Appalachian hardwoods (downed trees, not fresh cut). You can also pick up pottery, blown glass or carvings here. Experienced skiers and boarders should check out the “MAC,” Mountain Adventure Center, to rent the latest equipment, and then go buy your own at the 4848 or Full Tilt stores.

Of course, the “new and improved” Snowshoe has had a major impact on the local economy – the resort accounts for more than 40 percent of the local property taxes. Residents of Pocahontas County, the poorest in the state, are generally wary of big business or outsiders, but they welcome the increased revenues brought by visitors and homeowners. For me, living on the mountain is the best of two worlds. After a day enjoying the chic and civilized “Aspen of the East” I can settle into the hot tub on my deck and watch the sun set over mountains so rugged they’ll always remain forever wild.

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