Cataloochee Ski Area (www.cataloochee.com) opened in 1961 as North Carolina’s first ski resort – and in recent years it’s taken that distinction to a new level. Expanded and aggressive snowmaking routinely ranks Cataloochee among the state’s first ski areas to start the season and the last to call it quits. Last year, the resort was open for a record 149 days. The observation area in the rustic lodge fills with warmth on sunny days and has a great view of the 50-acres of slopes and 740-foot vertical drop. Cataloochee’s strong suits: a top-notch ski school and great views of the Great Smokies. From 5,400 feet high on the ski area’s summit, views reach all across the crest of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Bunk at the ranch
It’s possible to feel like you’re being herded through a cattle chute at a busy ski area – but that’s easily and ironically avoided if you stay five minutes away, at Cataloochee Ranch (www.cataloocheeranch.com). This high-elevation, famously scenic summer horseback-riding resort is hard to beat as a ski lodge if you’re headed to Cataloochee Ski Area. Mid-December through the end of February (including the holidays), large and small cabins (all with fireplaces) and rooms at the ranch house are open for skiers. Dining there combats the cold with fresh, homemade foods.
Ranch guests get special savings on the ski area’s all-day lift tickets (9 a.m.-10 p.m.), rentals and lessons. The ranch also has free shuttles to the slopes: The ski area is just five minutes away and this makes it easy for ski guests to pop back over to the ranch for lunch.
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Down in the valley
Maggie Valley’s motels and restaurants are close to Cataloochee, and the offerings include Tube World snow tubing park (www.cataloochee.com/tubing) – four miles from Cataloochee Ski Area – for when the urge strikes to do more sliding than skiing or snowboarding.
Take a slope tunnel at Wolf Ridge
With long-anticipated new terrain opening last year, Wolf Ridge Resort (www.skiwolfridgenc.com) is more tempting than ever. The resort has 700 feet of vertical drop and about 80+ acres of skiing. The slope system spreads out between the base lodge at the original part of the resort (called Wolf Laurel ski area for years) and the more recent, impressive, rustic log Ridge Lodge on the upper slopes. Skiers scoot through North Carolina’s only ski tunnel to head down a new group of easy slopes to a new quad chairlift for the ride back up. All but five miles of the drive to Wolf Ridge are on I-85 and I-26, two hours and 45 minutes from Charlotte, 30 minutes past Asheville.
Ski Sapphire Valley
North Carolina’s smallest ski area is a gem, if a low-key beginner ski experience is right for you. Ski Sapphire Valley Resort (www.skisapphirevalley.com) has a base lodge and ski shop, a teaching slope, ski and snowboard rentals and lessons. And when you’ve earned your ski legs, there’s a 1,600-foot main run that drops 200 vertical feet. The ski area’s 700-foot Frozen Falls Tubing Park is being rebuilt for this winter and will feature a new, easy-to-use “magic carpet” conveyor lift.