The Blue Ridge Parkway and the surrounding trails that branch off of the nation’s most visited National Park rank near the top of his list of favorite ski destinations. The Parkway’s close proximity to town, and the multitude of access points in the area, provides Thompson with the opportunity to get out in the afternoons after work to catch the conditions when they are prime for skiing.
“If we get an inch or two in town, then that’s usually enough snow to head up to the Parkway,” Thompson said. “Because of the elevation difference between the Parkway and Asheville, usually a small snow in town translates into a bigger snow event at the higher elevations along the Parkway. It’s definitely the most convenient, it’s a lot of fun and it’s just a great area for those who are first learning the sport.”
For Thompson, skiing is more than just a sport that gives him physical exercise through the cold months of winter. In addition to elevating his heart rate and exhausting his legs, cross country skiing regularly provides him with a renewed appreciation of the beauty of nature.
“Once you get the technique of kicking and gliding down, skiing turns into just a very graceful sport that allows you to experience the beauty of nature in all of its winter perfection,” Thompson said. “The woods and mountains are a quiet, peaceful place in the winter, and being able to get out there and experience that in person is just truly amazing.”
Top Destinations in our Area
SOCO GAP (BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY)
Thompson likes Soco Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway for its close proximity to Asheville and the ability to reach high elevations via state-maintained roads that are usually clear.
“That section of the parkway is some of the highest elevation on the entire roadway,” he said. “It also seems to pick up a lot more snow, and because it’s a couple thousand feet higher than Asheville, the quality of the snow is a lot higher.”
Thompson recommends heading south from Soco Gap where skiers can make their way to a campground located at over 6,000 feet in elevation that consistently has great snow.
“There aren’t a whole lot of trails in that area, but there are a lot of spur trails that make for some great options to explore areas away from the parkway,” he said.
Johnson agrees that Soco Gap is one of the top spots in the Asheville area.
CLINGMAN’S DOME (GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK)
Johnson said skiing along the 7-mile road from Newfound Gap to the summit of 6,643-foot-tall Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, is one of his favorite options for Nordic skiing, but only if the roads leading up to the junction are in decent shape. He recommends calling the National Park ahead of any trip to make sure the area can be accessed.
The 14-mile-long round trip is a big day, Johnson said, but the best part is that after climbing uphill to the summit, the return trip is all downhill.
“It’s a great day trip and the view from the summit is hard to beat,” he said.
Roan Mountain is by far one of the most popular and well-known cross country skiing destinations in the southeast, and after making a trip to the mountain during winter months it is easy to see why. Whether skiers head out through the dense rhododendron-protected trails toward Rhododendron Gap where extensive views await or you opt to explore the open, snow-covered grassy balds along the Appalachian Trail, there are countless opportunities for winter adventure.
Johnson said he has been skiing at Roan Mountain since the 1970’s at a time when few skiers were utilizing the area as a skiing destination.
“For Asheville people, Roan Mountain has got to be the number one destination,” he said. “It’s a total cross country skiing and snowshoeing haven. I think Roan Mountain gets at least as much snow or more than Mount Mitchell. Combine that with the views and you’ve got a really special combination. I don’t think anybody disagrees that Roan Mountain is one of the most special places in America.
“Roan Mountain is one of the top places in the area for scenery,” he said. “With all of the balds, the 360 degrees are everywhere up there. For me, it’s really spectacular because you can see all of the surrounding balds and mountains.”
Thompson agrees with Johnson that Roan Mountain is one of, if not the best, cross country skiing areas in the southeast. He recommends beginners head out the Rhododendron Gap trail because the shelter provided by the dense vegetation along the trail usually makes for excellent skiing conditions, as well as a less-frigid skiing experience on windy days, whereas the exposed balds can often become wind-scoured and icy, making for more challenging conditions for new skiers.
“A lot of times in our area the snow can be fairly wet at the middle elevations around Asheville, but at Roan Mountain the higher elevations usually mean that the snow that falls will be a nice, dry snow, which makes for great skiing conditions,” Thompson said.
“It’s also one of the few places in the area where there are open balds that offer 360 degree views,” Thompson adds.
For experienced skiers looking to winter camp, Thompson recommends skiing out to Yellow Gap where there is an Appalachian Trail shelter. However, the higher elevations and the wide-open terrain can make for some tough conditions.
“The winter conditions up there can get the most brutal of any winter conditions in the entire southeast,” he said. “I’ve been up there before in single digits with the wind howling through the open spaces and it was just brutal, until I was able to get back into the trees, so that is a very important thing to keep in mind when heading up there.”
MT. ROGERS (GRAYSON HIGHLANDS STATE PARK, VIRGINIA)
For experienced skiers looking for a place to explore scenic terrain, Thompson said the Mt. Rogers area of Grayson Highlands State Park is hard to beat.
“It’s obviously more challenging than skiing at places like the Blue Ridge Parkway because of the elevation changes and the nature of skiing on trails with varied terrain,” he said. “But it’s a beautiful area with open balds with a lot of great options for things to do.”
Johnson agrees, saying one of his favorite options is to take winter camping gear with the intentions of setting up a winter basecamp and making ski trips from there.
Johnson said while it is a two-plus hour drive to get to the area, it is well worth it. Once there, he recommends accessing the area from Massey Gap at Wilburn Ridge.
“It’s got great access and is nice and flat,” he said. Johnson recommends skiing or snowshoeing in to setup a basecamp one mile in and then taking day-trips throughout the area.
“It’s just an incredible area with so many great options that it should be on everyone’s list of winter destinations, especially if you’re interested in doing winter camping,” he said.
MOSES CONE MANOR
Randy Johnson considers the miles of carriage roads and gently sloping trails found on the Moses Cone Estate near Blowing Rock one of the best winter cross country skiing destinations there are with one caveat, the snow pack needed for cross country skiing there isn’t as reliable as some of the area’s other destinations. For that reason, Johnson recommends keeping Moses Cone an option when a large snowstorm impacts the area and accessing the higher elevations is more challenging. In addition to over 30 miles of carriage roads, the estate also offers some great grassy meadows that, when snow-covered, provide a great chance to learn how to navigate steeper terrain on Nordic skis.
SKI THE VIADUCT (BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY)
In the winter, when snow blankets the mountains and valleys of the High Country, there are few places more beautiful to take in the view than the Blue Ridge Parkway near Grandfather Mountain. What makes the area even more special is the chance to ski over the Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel heralded for the way it snakes around the steep slopes of Grandfather Mountain. The viaduct, which was completed in 1987 at a cost of $10 million, is a 1,243-foot-long bridge that marked the last section of the parkway to be completed. John Thompson enjoys skiing on the parkway because the flatter gradient offers skiers a chance to get into the kick-and-glide rhythm that embodies what the sport is all about: moving easily through deep terrain in beautiful snow.
Special thanks to Black Dome Mountain Sports & Trent Thomas for being one of the areas only providers of cross-country equipment, as well as providing the gear for this expedition. (140 tunnel road in asheville, 828-251-2001 or 800-678-2367)