Go to the Snow!

by Alexi Wilbourn

Whether you are an expert, a novice or have never strapped on a pair of skis, hitting the slopes is a great winter activity for the entire family. Even young kids can learn the basics in just a couple hours and quickly discover the thrill of gliding downhill on snow. Best of all, there are many decent, affordable slopes within easy driving distance of Atlanta.
Parents who ski are more inclined to share their passion with the kids, but when is a good age to learn? Most ski experts say youngsters can be introduced to the sport as young as 4 or 5. That’s generally the lowest age for which beginner lessons are offered at ski areas.
“I’ve seen kids as early as 4 start, but it really depends on their maturity level,” says Elizabeth Coyne, a mom who lives in Johns Creek. “The earlier they learn, it becomes habit.”
Skiing with the whole family may sound like a huge endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. If you’ve got a few ounces of adventure in your soul, go for it. With a little bit of advance planning, you can create a happy, memorable experience for the whole gang. 
The biggest bonus of skiing in the Southeast is the cost. A family of four can expect to dish out up to $6,000 (including airfare) for a four-day ski trip to resorts in Utah and Colorado. Staying closer to home will save you thousands of dollars and avoid many other stresses. When looking into specific areas for your family trip, be sure to ask about any ski package discounts that may be in the offing.
From the Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley (about three hours’ drive) to Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock (five-six hours), metro Atlanta is just a car ride away from several ski areas in North Carolina. You can stay at ski resorts and rustic lodges for upwards of $200 and $300 a night, or you can find motel rooms a few miles away from your slopes for $50-$100 per night.
Another great way to save money: Don’t outfit the entire family in new ski suits if you’re just starting out. For one thing, kids outgrow them all too soon. Consignment shops often carry items such as kids’ parkas and waterproof overalls in like-new condition. Or check in advance with the ski area you’ve chosen; some ski areas rent apparel for about $10 a day per person. You can also “wing it” by dressing your kids in layers: tights, long underwear and jeans are usually sufficient here in the Southeast. And if they fall down and get a little cold or a little wet – or a lot wet – well, that’s one of the stories you’ll all be laughing about on the car ride home.
One thing you shouldn’t skimp on is ski lessons for your kids, which are available as full- or half-day programs. Cost of lessons for kids: $50-$100, depending on the length. “Put the kids in a day or two of the school and then you can ski as a family,” advises Sandy Springs mom Anne Whitaker-Butz, who goes on a ski trip with her husband and son Steven, 12, about once a year. She enrolled Steven in lessons on his first ski trip about five years ago. After Steven experienced frustration when trying to negotiate one trail during last year’s trip, his mother bought him a private half-day lesson so he could polish his skills. “I have no regrets,” Whitaker-Butz says of the private lesson, adding she was proud of her son’s diligence. “He came out of that experience flying higher than a kite.” Getting past the challenge gave him an incredible amount of confidence, she adds.
Elizabeth Coyne knows a thing or two about family skiing – she has been taking her husband and three kids to Cataloochee Ski Area for almost eight years. Their love affair with skiing in North Carolina started when her kids were 6 or 7. Before she knew it, the family started getting season passes. Coyne now works in the lodge and her husband is a senior ski patroller. The kids, now in high school and college, both became ski instructors at Cataloochee, teaching youngsters how to turn their skis into positions called “pizza slices” and “french fries.”
“The relationships that you build with the kids you teach is the best part,” says P.J. Coyne, 16. “It’s watching them learn something new and seeing them later, showing what they can do and waving at you.”
“Little kids draw them pictures,” Elizabeth Coyne says of the beginners that her kids now teach. “They come back and request the instructor again because they had so much fun. And that’s what it’s all about.”
What’s it “all about” for the Coyne family?
“Oh, there are so many memories,” Elizabeth recalls. “Waving at each other across the mountain, throwing snowballs, my son doing a 360 off a jump, spraying us all with snow.” She laughs as she remembers how her husband chased him down after that prank. The family rents a cabin for the season: “They love it and can’t wait to go. We’ve connected with people up there we never would’ve met elsewhere.”
Ski trips “are a wonderful stress reliever and great for family bonding,” Whitaker-Butz agrees. There’s nothing quite like having to work together to get unstuck on a slope to bring the family together, she says. The many snow-sprayed adventures become favorite memories.
As for the snow itself, ski fans are the first to tell you that the manmade snow of the Southeast is nothing like the real powdery stuff that’s packed deep on the mountains out West and farther north, such as in Vermont.
“It compares like a ’72 VW bus compares to a Mercedes GL,” Roswell dad Dan Ward says of the contrast. His two kids, now 12 and 14, did much of their learning when they were 5 on the slopes in Beech Mountain in North Carolina.
Because the South’s warm weather can affect snow conditions, Ward suggests staying flexible and researching alternative activities in the area. Ski areas frequently update their websites to indicate current snow and weather conditions, so your family can plan accordingly.
Just because the slopes might be a little slushy during the day doesn’t mean that they won’t be much better after sundown. Take advantage of a twilight ski session, when trails are lit up. Twilight sessions generally have lower rates and are apt to be less crowded.
Even with perfect weather, youngsters can get worn out after a day or two of skiing. You may also decide to complement your ski adventure with other activities in the area, from sleigh rides and ice skating to snow tubing.
If it all sounds a bit chilly, don’t forget that there can be steaming mugs of hot cocoa for everyone soon enough. Picture you and the kids sitting around a blazing fire, sipping and smiling, rosy cheeks shining and toes warm again, as you recall the highlights of the day’s best runs.

 

Ski Spots Closest to Home

The Southeast is home to many quality ski areas, most of which can be found on resource websites such as skisoutheast.com and southeastski.com. Here’s a glimpse at five ski areas, all three-six hours by car from Atlanta.

 

Cataloochee Ski Area, Maggie Valley, NC (cataloochee.com) 181 miles away; 25 acres; 16 trails

  • Kids’ Lessons: Cat Trackers program, ages 4-12; $75 for a half day and $95 for full day; includes lift ticket, equipment and lunch.
  • Rental Prices: Skis, $19-$23; Snowboards, $30. Lift tickets, $18-$71; ages 4 and younger with ticketed adult, free.
  • Lodging: $35-$225 per night.

 

Wolf Laurel Ski Area, Mars Hill, NC (skiwolfridgenc.com) 237 miles away; 54 acres; 22 trails

  • Kids’ Lessons: Age 5 and older; hour, $50, or two hours, $85; lesson only.
  • Rental Prices: Skis, $17; snowboard, $34. Lift ticket, $19-$69.
  • Lodging: $45-$440 per night, depending on hotel or cabin.

 

Sugar Mountain, Banner Elk, NC (skisugar.com) 273 miles away; 115 acres; 20 trails

  • Kids’ Lessons: Sugar Bear (ski) and Polar Bear (snowboard), ages 5-14; full- and half-day programs, from $60-$130; includes lift tickets, equipment rental and lunch.
  • Rental Prices: Skis, $9-$27; snowboards, $24-$35. Lift tickets, $19 to $66.
  • Lodging: Starts at $99 per night.

Beech Mountain Resort, Beech Mountain, NC (beechmountainresort.com) 279 miles away; 95 acres; 16 trails

  • Kids’ Lessons: Ages 4-12; includes lift pass, equipment rental and a hot lunch; full day, $80.
  • Rental Prices: Skis, $9-$26; snowboards, $22-$35. Lift tickets, $20-$60; ages 4 and younger with ticketed adult, free.
  • Lodging: $99-$144 per night. 

 

Appalachian Ski Mountain, Blowing Rock, NC (appskimtn.com) 296 miles away; 22 acres; 12 trails

  • Kids’ Lessons: SKIwee, ages 4-10, and Cruiser camp (snowboarding), ages 7-12; half- and full-day, from $50 to $82; includes lift ticket, ski and helmet rental and instruction.
  • Rental Prices: Skis, $8-$27; snowboards, $20-$36. Lift tickets, $17-$64; ages 5 and younger, free with ticketed adult.
  • Lodging: $66-$230 per night.

 

 

Just Tubing
Some families simply don’t want to deal with ski lessons and equipment rentals. A perfectly fun and acceptable alternative is snow tubing. Here are three spots where you’ll find tubing action.

Snow Mountain (snowmountainpark.com)
Stone Mountain Park; U.S. Hwy. 78 East, Stone Mountain; 770-498-5690; 21 miles away; through Feb. 20, 2012

  • Prices: $27 per person includes one two-hour session on the tubing hill plus unlimited access to the snow play areas, beginning with your timed entrance. Parking, $10.
  • Know Before You Go: Walk-up tickets may not be available, so reserve your time slot using the above website.

 

Scaly Mountain (scalymountain.com)
7420 Dillard Rd., Scaly Mountain, NC; 828-526-3737; 122 miles away
Snow tubing is the main attraction, but ice skating is also popular. A convenient lift runs to the top of the trails, so you don’t need to lug inner tubes back up the mountain.

  • Prices: $24 for two-hour snow tubing session; kiddie slope, $12 for two-hour session
  • Know Before You Go: Tubers must be 42 inches or taller and at least 4 years old.

 

Hawksnest Tubing (hawksnesttubing.com)
2058 Skyland Dr., Seven Devils, NC; 828-963-6561; 276 miles away

  • Prices: Mon.-Fri., $25 for an hour-and-45-minute session; Sat.-Sun., $30.
  • Know Before You Go: Kids must be 3 to snow tube. Ages 18 and younger who are there without parents should bring a waiver signed by parents (available to print out from website).

 

Ski Safety Tips for All
There’s no such thing as training wheels on a set of skis, so be aware of a few safety tips to keep the trip free of unwanted bumps and bruises.

  • Know the Code: Be sure everyone skiing (or snowboarding) in your family learns the “Your Responsibility Code,” which lists the seven rules of the slopes. Find the code on the website of the National Ski Areas Association; go to nsaa.org, then click on “Safety Programs.” Another recommended site: southeastski.com/about/safety. (Ski areas post the code, and it’s often printed on your lift pass.)
  • Wear the Right Gear: Make sure boots and bindings are properly fitted, and always have the kids wear a helmet. The sun’s rays are even harsher when reflecting off bright snow, so goggles or sunglasses are important.
  • Dress in Layers: Even if the day starts off cold, but the kids could be sweating by noon. Thermal underwear and synthetic fleeces work well under water-resistant ski pants and jackets.
  • Sunscreen and Lip Balm: Protect exposed skin from sunburns and keep lips from getting chapped in the dry air.
  • Stay Hydrated: Keep a water bottle attached to your belt and a granola bar or small snack in a zippered pocket. Skiing is strenuous exercise and it’s important to give small bodies the fuel they need.
  • Use the Buddy System: Establish a place to meet in case the family gets separated on the slopes, and always ski with a partner. Cell or walkie-talkie reception can be unpredictable.
  • Take a Ski Lesson: Trained instructors know the best way to teach kids the skills. It will save both kids and parents the frustrations of learning from a family member.
  • Take Extra Precautions: Youngsters should have parents’ cell phone numbers and the name and phone number of your lodging/hotel written down. Be sure this information is placed in each child’s secure, waterproof pocket.