Big Fun at a Little Resort in Western New York
Part destination resort, part local hill: Holiday Valley offers a big mountain experience in the small mountains of the Southern Tier.
If I had been kidnapped and left here, I would have guessed they’d left me in British Columbia.
I stood aside the trail imagining that scenario. I closed my eyes. I breathed in the crisp morning mountain air and the Christmasy fragrance of the evergreens. I listened to the wind; gentle but present. I opened my eyes. Giant spruces towered above me on both sides. Grown together so dense that you could barely see the snow between them, they seemed to climb upwards in a competition to reach the sun.
But I wasn’t in British Columbia. I was an hour south of Buffalo.
I’ve often heard skiers from western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio talk about Holiday Valley. A destination resort to the south of Buffalo and to the east of Lake Erie, located in an area where most of us aren’t even aware that mountains exist, let alone skiing and snowboarding. But it does exist and, and from Toronto to Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Holiday Valley draws in a faithful group of regulars who call this big little resort their home away from home when winter rolls around.
I had questions: In a place where the mountains are shorter and gentler, can the skiing be that good? Is it actually the same sport if the peaks don’t ascend imposingly, piercing the clouds above? Could there actually be a destination ski resort within a three-hour drive from Cleveland? And who skis there? Are they just discouraged by the travel time to other mountains, or is there actually something special waiting to be discovered in the low rolling mountains of New York’s Southern Tier?
I went in search of answers as I traveled westward on I-86, the dawn light struggling to keep up behind me. Three hundred miles west of New York, the sun rises later here, and when I arrived at the base lodge of Holiday Valley just after seven o’clock, the surrounding terrain was just beginning to emerge from the morning gloom. I had scheduled an appointment to hike to the summit with a the diehard core of the mountain’s staff.
I booted up, threw my backpack straps around my skis, and headed to the clock tower to meet up with the Holiday Valley crew for a sunrise hike. Jane Eshbaugh, the resort’s Director of Marketing, greeted me and introduced me to our hiking companions for the morning. There was her husband Dennis, the resort’s General Manager; Bonnie Koschir, the VP of Resort Operations; Steve Crowley, the Director of Mountain Operations; and Steve Zweig, a lawyer for the resort who brought along his teenage son, Patrick. The seven of us headed up along the Mardi Gras Express Chair under the blue-gray dawn light, excited for the day of skiing that awaited us. Our boots punched holes in the soft, granular corduroy that coated the trail like a quilt, and I couldn’t wait to see how it felt underneath my skis.
“It’s my first day on the hill this year,” said Zweig. “I’ve gotta shake the cobwebs off.” Jane pointed to the tails of Zweig’s skis where we noticed that there were actual cobwebs remaining from their long summer’s rest in his garage. Eshbaugh and the gang begin each morning with a trek up to the peak. “It’s a great way to start the day,” she said. “Sometimes we just go up once then go down and start work.”
Just as we reached the summit, the sun poked above the foothills and through the low-lying stratus clouds above, bathing the landscape in a dull yellow light. It was a hint of the bluebird day to come—the first in a while after a long spell of gray, cloudy days and the occasional bout of lake effect snow, I was told. We took a moment to cool down in the warming hut, put our heavier layers back on (despite our hiking-induced sweat it was still only twenty degrees outside, after all), and we headed back outside to start skiing.
We chose to go down the recently opened Independence, a narrow intermediate trail that snakes gently through the trees down towards the Tannenbaum Lodge at the base. The groomed snow, still full of moisture from recent snowmaking, was dense and crunchy, yielding just enough to dig my edges into it. When we reached the bottom, we boarded the Tannenbaum Express Quad which swept us back to the top of the ridge in what felt like thirty seconds.
At the top of the chairlift I saw them: a dense forest of impossibly tall spruce trees everywhere around us, planted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps on what formerly was a hilltop pasture. I had seen photos of the spruce trees ahead of my visit but, as is so often the case, pictures couldn’t really do justice to the trees in person. If you come here with your Nordic skis, there is a cross-country trail on top of the ridgeline that spans the entire resort, meandering through the spruce forest and ending (or beginning) at Spruce Lake, the mountaintop water source for the resort’s snowmaking.
We headed down the aptly-named Tannenbaum trail, a fantastically scenic beginner trail that could compel even the most ardent of winter skeptics to give the season another try. The sun had now fully emerged from its diurnal slumber, and as we turned past the fourth corner we escaped the dark, cool shadows of the evergreens into the warmth of the midwinter sunshine. This time when we reached the base, we kept our speed and traversed a bridge below to reach the Yodeler base area.
When you step onto the Yodeler Quad, you may not realize it but you are taking a ride through winter sports history. Skiing in the region dates back over eighty years, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s, people would travel by rail to the towns of Ellicottville and Salamanca, ten miles south of present-day Holiday Valley, to ski the slopes accessed by rope tows at Fish Hill and Allegany State Park. In 1938 the Ellicottville Ski Club was founded and, in 1958, Holiday Valley opened to the public with four trails accessed by a T-bar lift.
Where that T-Bar once lived you can now find the Yodeler Quad, one of eleven quad lifts that move visitors efficiently around the sprawling resort, which now covers five mountain faces, with sixty trails across two valleys. With a quad chairlift for every 26 acres of trails, the mountain skis like a series of separate pods, each with its own unique personality. This layout also allows skiers to dodge the crowds on busy weekends and holidays. “People usually stick to a select four or five slopes,” said Haydn Krane, a bartender at John Harvard’s Brew House, located slopeside in the resort’s Tamarack Lodge. “If you know where to go, the whole backside of the mountain is full of black diamonds that nobody ever touches.”
After a brief coffee break, we headed up the Yodeler Quad and took a few spins down Edelweiss and Yodeler, two of Holiday Valley’s four original trails. Yodeler was sustained and moderately steep, with firm but grippy snow protected by the north-facing slope that keeps it shaded on sunny days. Edelweiss was covered in steep snow whales, crafted by a handful of the resort’s massive automated snowmaking system; the largest such system in the east and, according to Eshbaugh, the most efficient system in the entire country. In fact, over half of the guns are automated, covering all of the resort’s busiest trails. Mother Nature does quite a bit of snowmaking here as well: Holiday Valley averages an impressive 180 inches of annual snowfall, thanks largely to lake effect snow.
We continued eastward across the map, skiing down Mardi Gras, past our morning footprints, to the resort’s main base area. To our right we could see the Eagle Quad, which accesses several of Holiday Valley’s steepest trails like Falcon, Raven, and Eagle. These trails were not yet open, but they are typically available by the Christmas holiday week. The neighboring Morningstar Express Quad, also yet to open, gets you to two of the resort’s five terrain parks, located on the Moonshadow and Fiddler’s Elbow trails.
When we arrived at the main base, we loaded onto Cindy’s Quad, which provides access to Cindy’s Run, Foxfire and, if you’re feeling daring, western New York’s steepest ski trail, The Wall, whose headwall exceeds 27 degrees. That may not sound like much if you live in northern Vermont or somewhere out west, but on highly trafficked east coast ice in the depths of a thaw-freeze cycle, even experts will be challenged to ski The Wall with smooth, confident turns. We chose Cindy’s Run, and I opted for the natural snow that lined the skier’s right portion of the trail. The snow was soft and choppy with the occasional patch of rocks and grass, but it was the best snow I skied all day, and I made sure to lap it a few times later in the afternoon.
Look around Holiday Valley and you’ll see skiers and riders of every ilk imaginable. “We have three main markets,” says Eshbaugh. “On the weekends we get a lot of families, on weekdays we get retirees, and at night we get a lot of high school and college students.”
Eshbaugh also pointed to the mountain’s reputation as a regional hub for racers and freeriders. While the vertical may be short at just 750 feet, the fall-line trails made slick by midday skier traffic are a perfect breeding ground for young racers looking to start their careers before moving to bigger mountains. In fact, two freestyle skiers, Jill Vogtli and Travis Mayer, who started their racing careers at Holiday Valley, skied moguls in the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City. They are justifiably proud of their ski school and, with 160 instructors on staff, there is a devoted effort to teach visitors to enjoy winter.
With roughly 55 percent of patrons staying overnight, Holiday Valley is a destination resort. But unlike many other such businesses, there is a healthy connection here between the ski resort and the neighboring town of Ellicottville, just one mile down the road. The two are inextricably intertwined and, while there is plenty to do on the grounds of the resort, a visit to Holiday Valley is incomplete without spending a night in town. I’d recommend a visit to Ellicottville Brewing Company for a pint of their famous Blueberry Wheat Ale, or a burger and a cocktail at The Gin Mill, a town staple visited by the region’s earliest skiers. The people are remarkably friendly, with the signature accent that leads many to refer to western New York as more Midwestern than it is Northeastern.
“A lot of places you go to a resort and you go to the town and the locals aren’t welcoming to tourists. You won’t find that here,” says Eshbaugh. While you can find restaurants and shops at the resort, the intention is clearly to provide convenience for guests who require it, rather than to compete with the town’s other businesses. “We have plenty of space in which we could build our own village, but we want to support the village of Ellicottville. We know that the village of Ellicottville is important to the success of our resort.”
There is a strong emphasis on fun here. While that may seem hardly unique for a ski resort, Holiday Valley somehow feels a cut above on this front. From the treehouse forts in the woods to the hands-off tree-skiing policy, the resort manages to tout a small-ski-area sense of community and authenticity while offering the amenities and infrastructure of a large, corporate resort.
This is where Holiday Valley has found its niche since 1958. There is a sense of place here. It is distinctly not a big western resort, or even a big eastern resort for that matter. But if you live anywhere between Toronto and Pittsburgh, or between Cleveland and Rochester, it’s a great place to come after work for some night skiing, or to spend a weekend with your family playing in the snow without spending thousands of dollars flying out west or driving six-plus hours in the car to the larger northeastern resorts. And if you hike up in the morning to the dense spruce forest at the top of the Tannenbaum Quad and watch the day break, you’ll find yourself much farther away than you could have possibly expected.