UNION DALE, Pa. — The false winter of November yielded to a difficult weather pattern for Mid-Atlantic snow sports enthusiasts. A major winter storm hitting the northern portion of the country gave hope that an annual ski trip with a Penn State friend, “The Videographer” could happen over MLK weekend. In order to make it happen, we needed to go north.
After spending more of our 2018 Presidents Day Sunday trip to Camelback in liftlines than we’d have liked, The Videographer and I decided that we wanted to try and find somewhere less crowded.
Elk Mountain (official site) in Northeast Pennsylvania has been on my radar for some time now (DC Ski forums). It’s a bit isolated, but not too far from Interstate 81 north of Scranton. Some commentors have likened it to a little Vermont. I cannot speak to whether that’s an accurate assessment since my only trip to the Green Mountain state was over Labor Day weekend long ago, I agree with the Videographer’s assessment of Elk:
“This is a skiers mountain”
Arriving before 10 a.m. after driving up from the Harrisburg area, we promptly got through the lift ticket line. We purchased extended day tickets for $72, just $3 more than the “Day” lift ticket. Why do they bother?
Our first lift ride was up the D chair to the East Slope. Just enough to stretch out a little before getting over to the B & C lifts to the top of the mountain. Specifically, we took C up, but later in the day, B lift would open as well.
Our first ride down from the top was the serpentine Tioga which feeds back to the East Slope and West Slope and right back to the B & C lifts. Next up, in falling snow, we skied the right side of the mountain on Schuylkill, Lower Tunkhannock and Wissahickon.
Eventually, we felt we were stretched out enough to take the more challenging black diamond runs and prepared for ♦Tunkhannock, steep, ungroomed and a bit bumpy. As expected, it proved challenging to us, a pair of Type II skiers who get one or two days on the mountain in a good season. We got through it though, perhaps without elegance or technical excellence.
conquered survived Tunkhannock, we started moving over towards the center of the mountain. Frankly, I cannot recall the order of operations, but I think we hit ♦Susquehanna next. After Tunkhannock, it was not too challenging, but a bit icy in spots, IIRC.
Following a trip to the Winter Garden lounge and cafeteria (more later), we got a tip that the Lenape trail on the right side was recently opened and generally uncrowded. We alternated between Maichan and Schuykill to get to Lenape. “I could stay here the rest of the day” said the Videographer and we nearly did. We took several runs down the long cruisers while the snow intensity varied between heavy and flurries. Nevertheless, as the sky grew darker, we challenged ourselves once more on Tunkhannock. Neither of us got down cleanly, but we were quickly up again and down the hill.
- Satisfied that we had reached our limits, we started moving over to the other side of the mountain. A run down Tioga, one of the few illuminated runs, got us towards the B&C lifts again. I think we took one more run down ♦ Slalom, but as dusk set in, we headed towards the dimly lit Delaware and Lehigh combo. If I were a pedant, I’d suggest the flip the order of the trail names so that observed hydrological reality. That’s if I was a pedant of course.
Several laps on that side of the mountain completed an action packed day of skiing.
Located several miles from I-81 and off of PA 374, Elk Mountain is geographically part of the Glaciated Low Plateau section of the Allegheny Plateau. To learn more, download this Department of Conservation and Natural Resources PDF.
Peakbagger says that is the “Elk Hill-North Nob” is the highest point in Susquehanna County. The “Clean Prominence” is 1280, of which 925 to 1,000 feet is vertical drop at Elk. The latter is claimed by some, but the former is likely accurate.
Elk is neither the Pocono or Endless mountains technically, but is associated culturally with both.
The lodge was indistinct from a typical Pennsylvania ski area from the cafeteria layout, selection and prices. The safest bet was the chicken fingers and fries combo at $8. A tasty, filling lunch after time on the slopes and almost certainly identical to other snow sport cafeterias across the Commonwealth and beyond. Maybe better priced at Elk.
There was also a cocktail lounge with large bar and above-average selection of liquor, wine and beer. We went with the Samuel Adams Cold Snap on draft – $6 for what may have been 8 oz. Service was efficient.
Like most ski areas, Elk believes that rest room visits should require traversing a set of stairs.
Rentals and incidentals
I rented skis locally — the Seven Corners Sun & Ski (what Ski Chalet morphed into). There are a few arguments for renting locally:
- Saves time on ski day
- Your boots are sitting in your warm car, not in a rental area with dubious climate control
The Videographer was not able to rent locally, so stopped at one of two shops on PA 374 between I-81 and Elk Mountain – Idlewild Ski Shop. Service was efficient and about $30 for a skis and boots.
I also picked up a pack of toe warmers and use them for the first time. It was $2.12 well spent – my feet didn’t get cold on a day where the temperature never reached 30°. I will buy them again.
This trip was also the first time I wore a bakalva. My family got me one for Christmas and in that cold, wind and blowing snow, I was so glad to have it.
While the parking lot was fairly full, the slopes were not crowded. Lift lines were short; our longest wait was about 7 minutes. The clientele was overwhelmingly wearing helmets — probably upwards for 80%. The Elk crowd here seemed to know their abilities. Skiers also outnumbered snowboarders by about 2 to 1.
As mentioned previously, at 257 miles from the Captial Beltway, Elk Mountain is probably too far away for a daytrip for most Washingtonians. I broke up the drive heading up with an overnight stay near Harrisburg.
Coming back, with stops for gas, dropping off my friend and a late dinner, it took six hours or so, three of which were the snowy/slushy drive from Elk to Harrisburg. On dry roads, 5 hours with two stops is a reasonable expectation.
PA 374 may not have been treated by the PennDOT snow team. I slid a little bit in my CRV with all-season Michelins, but it was passable. I-81 was treated, but the right lane was conspicuously better than the left lane.
Rating and final thoughts
Elk Mountain operations come off as scaled well to their clientele. I wish more slopes had been open, but I’m not complaining. We had short lift lines and uncrowded slopes. They know what they are doing.
The northern location, while out of range for most Washingtonian commuter skiers, had the cold and snow closer ski areas lacked. Sure, you might have to spend a night in between D.C. and Elk, but lodging along much of I-81 is affordable.
On my standard rating scale of green circle being the lowest and black diamond being the highest, I rate Elk as a strong ■. It was tempting to make it a double — we’ll see how next time goes.
P.S. Check out another winter sport – broomball
I’ve adopted the “don’t hate winter, use it” mindset – skiing is obviously part of that thinking. I don’t limit myself to those one or two trips a season. Here in the D.C. area, we’re fortunate to have an active broomball community.
Broomball is like ice hockey — played on a rink, but in shoes instead of skates and with a ball instead of puck. Special “brooms” are used for the stick.
Public sessions or broomball are available throughout winter — Tuesday nights at District Wharf in January and February and occasionally at the Capitals Iceplex. There is also the Captiol Broomball league which starts up Sunday, January 26 (registration required).
Learn more: Winter 2019-2020 DC area broomball pick-up games and league play