I just experienced an outstanding weekend in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania with great ski friends and good snow. On Friday, February 10, 2017 I skied for the first time ever at the resurrected ski area of Laurel Mountain in cold, powdery ski conditions. After being shuttered for the last 11 years it was totally awesome to see this historic and beautiful ski area returned from the list of the lost. It’s a scenic throwback that feels like your own private ski area because of low crowds, a tastefully updated lodge, and the intimate Wildcat lounge/bar.
Then on Saturday, February 11 I had an unabashedly fun time about 50 minutes south of Laurel Mountain at Seven Springs Resort. It’s the big, bustling resort we’ve all known for decades and has a stupendous variety of ski terrain for a mid-Atlantic ski area. The contrast with Laurel Mountain couldn’t be more stark, yet that is part of what makes the two a really fun combo.
The resurrection of Laurel Mountain in the growth-challenged climate of the modern ski business is an amazing accomplishment and truly a labor of love by all involved. Its origins date back to the late 1930s. If the idea of old school skiing appeals to you, then you MUST check this place out. I arrived at 9:15 a.m. after a three hour drive from Northern Virginia and didn’t just get rock star parking, I got mega star, don’t need a last name, ski-in/ski-out, views-to-die-for parking about 50 feet from the spruced-up lodge and brand new quad chairlift. That parking spot brought a grin to my face that would be the first of many I’d flash during the day.
Within minutes I was on a first name basis with a friendly ski school instructor (Randy) I met while booting-up in the main lodge facility located on the summit. Then I bumped into a gang of DCSki friends, some by total serendipity also visiting Laurel Mountain for the first time. Later I’d get to meet several senior ski patrollers including Butch Bellas, the mayor of nearby Ligonier, PA. Laurel Mountain has the feeling of a private club in the best possible way. Back in the day making tracks here was reserved for the entitled members of the wealthy Mellon family, but now it’s frequented by devoted locals from throughout western Pennsylvania who don’t mind sharing their prized recreational asset with all-comers.
For all its charm and intimacy, the ski terrain at Laurel Mountain is nothing to sneeze at. The vertical drop is 761 feet from a 2,766-foot summit and there are 20 slopes and trails and several nice glades spread across 110 skiable acres of terrain. The crown jewel of Laurel Mountain is Wildcat trail. The bottom portion of Wildcat contains a lengthy, drop-off among the steepest in the mid-Atlantic that will test the best snow riders, especially on the frequent occasions when it is left to sprout bumps. On the day of my visit the snowguns were blasting and much of the mountain was open despite our very fickle winter of 2017.
The ski area features a modern snowmaking system and a new top-to-bottom fixed grip quad chairlift. This was part of a recent $6.5 million revitalization orchestrated by the team of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Bob Nutting, Chairman of Seven Springs Resort. While the efforts to reopen Laurel Mountain took a long and circuitous route, no one can argue with the wonderful results! The Highlands Pass allows three ski areas located within a 30-mile radius (Laurel Mountain, Seven Springs, and Hidden Valley) to be skied in one weekend from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon for a little more than $150.
After a really special day at Laurel Mountain I spent the night in one of the numerous inexpensive motels in centrally located Somerset, PA and skied at Seven Springs on Saturday, February 11. Seven Springs has big weekend crowds, satellite parking lots, a cavernous base lodge teeming with guests, but it is also a very well run operation with 33 slopes and trails, 285 skiable acres, ten chairlifts including two high speed six-packs, the enormous Spot Park and Superpipe, and multiple smaller terrain parks. On the Saturday of my visit for every crowded lift there was one without a lift line if you knew where to look. Seven Springs also has a range of great food service facilities and the Foggy Goggle, one of the biggest and liveliest slopeside bar/restaurants in the Eastern US.
Once you start riding lifts you’ll realize that Seven Springs is BIG especially in a horizontal sense. The vertical drop is actually slightly smaller than Laurel Mountain, but there is a great variety of terrain including super wide slopes like the North Face, fun curvy trails like Yodeler, and dang good bump runs like Goosebumps. Even strong snowriders can spend an entire day of active skiing here and not get bored. Conditions on Saturday were somewhat spring-like, but I had a blast on the soft snow and I didn’t quit until 4:30 p.m. The world-famous Seven Springs snowmaking infrastructure has the resort in very good shape through this annoying winter of warm and cold temperature variations.
At one point we came across a ski instructor clinic taking place on the moguls of Goosebumps trail, where instructors were teaching other instructors how to better teach regular folks how to ski bumps. The clinic was led by Eric Lipton, a PSIA-AASI Alpine Team member and one of the premier ski instructors in the US. My awkward description of the purpose of the clinic totally evaporates when you watch Eric ski bumps like flowing water! His very presence at Seven Springs symbolizes the prestige, drawing power, and vitality of the resort.
This trip to Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands was a real grounding experience for me, reminding me of my skiing roots. I’ve been dazzled by some terrific trips in recent years to western US locations, but there is skiing magic right here in the mid-Atlantic. You can enjoy a heck of a weekend trifecta at Seven Springs, Laurel Mountain, and Hidden Valley. There is the legendary Laurel Mountain, the non-stop action of Seven Springs, and next time maybe I’ll check out the family-friendly slopes of Hidden Valley. The synergy of these ski mountains under the masterful management of Seven Springs Resort is an awesome thing to behold.