This article originally appeared on our website on 2/21/2019. This is the updated version that was published in our Winter 2020 print edition. Enjoy!
West Virginia’s portion of the ancient Appalachian Mountains is home to a thriving ski industry, currently hosting five unique resorts across a variety of locales and terrain. Although countless turns have been carved on slopes across the Mountain State, many others have been lost. Rising temperatures, shrinking bottom lines, and grandiose plans that never materialized closed some runs and prevented others from coming to fruition.
Driftland: Canaan’s Early Days
The cold and snowy plateau of Tucker County was, naturally, one of the first areas in the state to have established ski runs. In the 1940s, the Ski Club of Washington, D.C. developed runs on Cabin Mountain near Weiss Knob. The mountain’s slopes and large meadows were colloquially known as Driftland, owing to a three-acre, 20-foot deep pile of snow. The drift regularly lingered well into May, safely tucked away from the punishing rays of the sun and serving skiers with a gasoline-powered tow rope.
Nearby, Bob and Anita Barton’s Weiss Knob hosted a 1,000-foot T-bar lift and a quarter-mile rope-tow to help skiers access nearly 60 acres of terrain. Cabin Mountain eventually closed in 1962, and Weiss Knob faced stiff competition when Canaan Valley Resort State Park opened in 1971, featuring snowmaking capabilities and newfangled chairlifts. The Bartons shuttered Weiss Knob in 1970.
The legacy of these pioneering West Virginia ski areas lives on through interpretive signage in Canaan Valley. While the T-bar and rope tows are gone, the slopes of Weiss Knob are still part of the White Grass Ski Touring Center, and are open to anyone willing to put in the uphill effort.
Early ski resort development wasn’t confined to Canaan Valley. At one point, Raleigh County hosted the southernmost ski resort on the East Coast. The Bald Knob Ski Slopes area was designed by Colonel Robert Potter, a former commanding officer of an Army Special Forces skiing school. It hosted four rope tows, a 2,100-foot expert run, a restaurant, and an ice-skating rink. But the ski area was short-lived and Bald Knob closed around 1964 due to low interest. The slopes were sold for cattle grazing and many of the buildings were burned shortly after.
However, Bald Knob Ski Slopes was ahead of its time. A little more than 10 years after it closed, a new resort called Winterplace was opened on the north-facing slopes of Huff’s Knob, about 100 feet higher and 1.2 miles southeast of Bald Knob—Winterplace Ski Resort continues to operate as West Virginia’s southernmost ski area.
Once Upon an Urban Access
Charleston and Morgantown residents didn’t always have to drive hours into the Alleghenies to satisfy their skiing itch. From the early 1950s until 1973, Chestnut Ridge Park, just north of Coopers Rock State Forest, offered a 500-foot slope accessible with a rope-tow powered by a Ford Model A. Lift tickets cost $1 for adults and 50 cents for students at West Virginia University. Lift operators would sometimes shift the Model A into high-gear to yank skiers up the hill nearly as fast as they came down. The old slope and warming hut are still a part of Chestnut Ridge Park, used most often by sledders taking advantage of rarer snowfalls.
Until 1981, Charleston’s Coonskin Park hosted a small ski area near the Yeager Airport runway with 175 feet of vertical relief down a 600-foot slope. Featuring lights for night skiing, the area was popular with students from the University of Charleston (then Morris Harvey College). In addition to skiing, the students used cafeteria trays to sled down the hill, prompting the college to send someone to pick them up after a big snow. A season pass at Coonskin cost $30, and the run eventually closed due to a lack of snow.
The Ones That Got Away
Perhaps the most interesting histories of West Virginia’s lost turns are the ski areas that never were. There has been a bit of buzz over the years about developing a resort on Mount Porte Crayon, the fourth-highest peak in West Virginia at 4,770 feet. Appearing as a flat tabletop draped in a thick red spruce forest, Mount Porte Crayon is the highest point on the Eastern Continental Divide and is adjacent to the Roaring Plains Wilderness. The owners of Winterplace had plans to create Almost Heaven Resort atop the rugged mountain, with a potential 2,500 feet of vertical relief. For comparison, West Virginia’s current largest slope is Snowshoe’s famous Cupp Run, featuring a 1,500-foot drop. A critical property acquisition fell through and plans for Almost Heaven Resort stalled. However, much of Mount Porte Crayon’s eastern and western slopes are publicly accessible on U.S. Forest Service land and remain well-regarded among adventurous skiers as one of the east’s greatest backcountry runs.
While the purveyors of Almost Heaven Resort ceased to cut a single tree, other failed resorts went so far as to cut numerous runs into forested slopes, only to fall through and leave their dreams etched onto the landscape. Fifteen miles southwest of Snowshoe in the small town of Woodrow rest the overgrown remains of a resort planned by the Laurel Creek Club. The slopes offered between 800 and 900 feet of vertical terrain starting at 4,100-feet elevation. But west-facing slopes, which receive the most direct sunlight, aren’t ideal for keeping snow around. Many people thought the project was little more than a real estate scam. The main lift line is still visible from the Highland Scenic Highway, but easily mistaken for a pipeline or right-of-way.
Perhaps the most impressive of all lost resorts in West Virginia is Tory Mountain, 12 miles south of Canaan Valley near the town of Harman. On a north-facing slope some 4,400 feet in elevation, steep runs were cut straight down the mountain with easier terrain making a long swoop around a bowl in the ridge. Three lift lines are still visible today. Some of the original developers and slope designers of Snowshoe were involved with the Tory Mountain project.
A 1983 brochure and newspaper articles assured investors and the public of the upcoming opening and grand construction, including boasts of 1,100 feet of vertical relief and a single trail up to 6,600 feet in length. Resort plans called for an 18th century-themed village at the base of the mountain, complete with shopping, pubs, and Tory Manor, an impressive 300-room mountain lodge. But alas, the resort never happened. The exorbitant cost of developing utilities was said to be the death of the resort, and like so many other trails, nature is slowly reclaiming the site.
Although running a ski resort has never been an easy task, today’s resorts are facing some of these same challenges as they adapt to reduced average snowfall in the state. Many resorts are now investing heavily in snow making capabilities to produce more snow on fewer days with sub-freezing temperatures. Some are expanding their off-season activities, like downhill mountain biking, to remain economically viable without relying solely on touch-and-go winter conditions.
But many questions remain. Can West Virginia sustain these resorts today or will they oversaturate an increasingly limited market? Will the current skiing areas and resorts be able to weather the forthcoming changes in climate, or will some future Google Earth sleuth scroll across a curving swath of stunted trees and wonder what once was? Perhaps the best answer is simply to boot up and get your turns in this season. Whether you ride the lift or prefer to climb to the summit, there are still plenty of turns to find across the rugged slopes of the Mountain State.
Matt Kearns is a frequent contributor to Highland Outdoors and avid adventurer who lives with his wife, Michelle, near Charleston.