A Journey West...to Northeastern Pennsylvania
Elk puts the Endless Mountains on the map.
Sitting by my window over the recent Christmas holiday weekend, I stared wistfully at the melting snow outside my house in the lower Hudson Valley. Like the dying embers of a fire, the once robust piles slowly receded, soaking the sad brown grass underneath. The “Grinch Storm” had just torched the entire Northeast with warm, snow-devouring rain; almost completely erasing the recent bounty of December snow and causing widespread flooding and even an avalanche which heavily damaged the mid-station Overlook lodge at Belleayre. All I wanted to do was ski, but crowded white ribbons of death are a tough sell in October, let alone in late December.
The only answer was to head west. And so I did...to Pennsylvania.
We’ve all met people who ski in the Keystone State. They live in Philly or New Jersey or Maryland, and we meet them on the chair on their trips to the Catskills, Mount Snow, or Killington. It can be icy and scraped off on a busy Saturday, or damp and gray with a bone-chilling drizzle, but they’re living it up and raving about the soft snow. Their stoke for even the most marginal conditions is admirable. They’re the opposite of powder snobs. It must be how western skiers see us when we head their way and gush over what, to them, is subpar snow. With the most swings between cold and warm conditions in the region, Pennsylvania is the ice coast of the ice coast.
I had never skied in Pennsylvania before, because with the taller, snowier Catskills closer to my home, there was never anything drawing me there. But when a surprise storm dropped eight inches of snow in the mountains surrounding Scranton and just a dusting to the north and east, the choice was obvious. Elk Mountain was calling my name, and who was I to ignore it?
I packed up my car and headed out before dawn, driving west up route 17 through the Delaware River Valley towards Scranton. Narrow roads weaved and dipped through the tiny hamlets and various state game lands of northeastern Pennsylvania, barely plowed and still icy from the recent storm. It probably wasn’t the safest route (I-84 cuts west also, though with much less charm), but with the picturesque vistas of farms and the rolling snow-covered hills like waves on a vast sea, it was a fitting prelude to a great day of skiing ahead; a snowy embrace from mountains that seemed to know I was visiting for my first time and wanted it to be special.
When I arrived at Elk, I booted up and hit the slopes with Kenny, a young patroller with a fast snowboard and contagious stoke who would be my guide for the day. Having earned his cred at Sugarbush before returning to his childhood mountain to work patrol and start a family, Kenny knew every inch of the mountain and every skier and snowboarder on it.
“You pass a lot of other resorts in the Poconos on the way up here from Philly, so we get a dedicated bunch of skiers and riders who are willing to drive a bit extra to get here,” Kenny told me as we rode the C-lift to the summit. Looking beneath our feet I could understand why: mountain ops had elected to open the diamond-rated Seneca trail with just eight inches of snow on top of a crusty layer of grass, rocks and ice. It’s the sort of “ski it at your own risk” attitude that you won’t find at mega resorts and that serves as a siren song to diehard skiers and riders. This and Chippewa, another moderately-pitched black diamond trail on the right side of the map, were left natural and were a playground of powdery bumps and technical lines for those of us who live by the motto “tools, not jewels.” As Elk Mountains Director of Marketing, Bob DeLuca, says, “We have a higher-than-average number of serious skiers because of the terrain that we offer.”
The first thing you notice when you arrive at Elk is the countless soaring Norway and White spruce trees that flank every trail on the mountain, many of which are now over forty years old. Since the late 1970s Elk has planted up to 1,000 of these Spruces per year, serving not only to give the resort an alpine aesthetic, but also to prevent the winter winds from disrupting the chairlifts and eroding the snowpack. Add in north-facing trails and abundant snowmaking, and Elk is well-equipped to handle the recently unreliable mid-Atlantic winters (in fact, Pennsylvania resorts had much more terrain open than any other state in the Northeast following the Christmas storm—a testament to the region’s well-equipped, dedicated and resilient snowmakers).
Thanks to the snowmaking, the spruces, the northerly aspect, and the recent snowfall, the entire mountain was fully blanketed in a dense layer of soft, packed powder. From relaxed, swooping carves on the meandering curves of blue-rated Delaware to hard charges down the speed-hungry fall-line steeps of black-rated Susquehanna and Tunkhannock, every turn was met with soft, edgeable snow with not a spot of ice to be found. Most of the mountain’s 27 trails descend the full 1,000 feet of vertical, so each lap is respectably long, and the slope is sustained with very little runout at the bottom.
Throughout the day we encountered dozens of regulars who Kenny greeted with a friendly “whoop” or “hey-oh” as they skied under our chair (or vice versa). It was like I’d walked into the mid-Atlantic winter version of Cheers (although that honor may be reserved for Chet’s Place, a nearby watering hole that every single person we encountered mentioned as the must-visit spot for après beers). A couple of local rippers, Jeff and Lant, joined us for a lap and showed me around their favorite spots on the western half of the mountain to find great views and leftover powder.
While Elk Mountain may be in Northeastern Pennsylvania, it is decidedly different from the bustling resorts of the neighboring Poconos (Elk is situated on the highest peak of the Endless Mountains - part of the Allegheny Plateau, whose northernmost end is the Catskills). There’s no hotel, water park, fancy restaurants or any of the usual accoutrements of a mega resort. For what it’s worth, that also means there’s smaller crowds even on the busiest of days. 180 acres of trails serviced by a network of six fixed-grip lifts (and one rope tow) strikes the right balance of moving enough people uphill to limit wait times without crowding the slopes. In the spirit of the Plattekills, Mad River Glens, and Wildcats of the winter sports world, Elk offers an experience largely unchanged since its inception in 1959. No matter your age or your level of ability, this is a place specifically for skiing and snowboarding. It’s simplicity and laid-back vibe is pure, refreshing, and relaxing.
By the end of the day, the thick mountain fog had started to lift from the summit, revealing a patchwork quilt of farms and lakes separated by clusters of knobby, rounded peaks. Like the skiing itself, the view was distinctly northeastern Pennsylvania in nature. It may not have been as awe-inspiring or dramatic as the Rockies, or even the Adirondacks, but it was beautiful, unique and, perhaps most importantly, just a short day trip from anywhere between Philadelphia, Binghamton, and New York City.
“The Pennsylvania Ski Areas Association uses the slogan ‘start here,’ which encourages visitors to learn here and theoretically then skiers and snowboarders are ready to move on to larger ski resorts,” said DeLuca. Sure, there are bigger mountains to the north or (much) further out west, but for the locals in this region, these are the mountains right in their backyard. It’s a place where, in the midst of a routinely fickle mid-Atlantic winter, just eight inches of fresh snow and a tenacious team of snowmakers and groomers completely transformed hundreds of soggy, snowless acres into a powdery winter wonderland. It’s a great place for anyone to begin a lifetime of winter adventures and, as Kenny the patroller would attest, it’s also a place worth returning to.