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.
Cataloochee Ski Area, Maggie Valley, NC (cataloochee.com) 181 miles away; 25 acres; 16 trails
Wolf Laurel Ski Area, Mars Hill, NC (skiwolfridgenc.com) 237 miles away; 54 acres; 22 trails
Sugar Mountain, Banner Elk, NC (skisugar.com) 273 miles away; 115 acres; 20 trails
Beech Mountain Resort, Beech Mountain, NC (beechmountainresort.com) 279 miles away; 95 acres; 16 trails
Appalachian Ski Mountain, Blowing Rock, NC (appskimtn.com) 296 miles away; 22 acres; 12 trails
Snow Mountain (snowmountainpark.com)
Stone Mountain Park; U.S. Hwy. 78 East, Stone Mountain; 770-498-5690; 21 miles away; through Feb. 20, 2012
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.
Hawksnest Tubing (hawksnesttubing.com)
2058 Skyland Dr., Seven Devils, NC; 828-963-6561; 276 miles away