Wednesday, February 21, 2007
D.C. Ski: Wisp Versus Wintergreen
For Washington, D.C. area families that ski, or want to give it a try, we here review two nearby ski resorts that you should consider.
This ski season (and last year, too) we took our family skiing at both Wintergreen and Wisp, two comparable ski resorts both about a three hour drive from the Washington area.
We give the clear edge to Wisp for families interested in beginning/intermediate skiing. Since we're not expert skiers, we can't say which of the two resorts would be better if that's your gig.
Wintergreen is located southwest of Charlottesville. To get there, you drive to Charlottesville on Route 29, which is a four lane divided highway most of the way, but has many traffic lights. You then drive west on I-64 for a few miles, before taking a couple of very scenic two-lane country roads the remaining 20 miles to Wintergreen.
Wintergreen has 25 trails in three distinct ski areas: the Highlands, which is for expert skiers only; Dobie/Diamond hill, which is for beginners; and Eagles' Swoop, which is mostly for intermediates.
Wisp is located adjacent to Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County Maryland, which borders West Virginia and Pennsylvania and is as far west as you can get in Maryland. It is easy to reach. Take I-270 west to Frederick and pick up I-70 west. I-70 turns into I-68 west near Cumberland. Continue on I-68 to Route 219, a well-maintained road that takes you right up to Wisp. The distance from Arlington is 180 miles.
Wisp has 32 trails, roughly evenly divided between expert, intermediate and beginner.
Why We Like Wisp Better
Both resorts are fine for families trying to get away locally for a weekend of skiing. They are much more comprehensive than some closer ski areas, such as Massanutten, Bryce, Liberty and Whitetail. Some resorts in Pennsylvania, such as Seven Springs, are also about the same distance and comparable in quality, but we haven't been there in some time.
One big advantage of Wisp is that it is more reasonably priced than Wintergreen. We were surprised to find that lift tickets and rentals at Wisp were about 20% less than Wintergreen. For a family of four and a weekend of skiing, that's about $100 (or more) difference, so it does matter. (Frankly, we think Wintergreen's rates are out of line.)
We also like the training/teaching facilities at Wisp much better than those at Wintergreen. Wisp has a large section at the base of its mountain set aside for learning to ski. There is an area for little tykes, with its own "magic carpet" lift; there is a larger area for true beginners, which is right next to the ski shop; and then there is an even larger area, just up the hill, for beginning skiers to practice a few runs before they hit the lifts (this area is slso serviced by a magic carpet).
At Wintergreen, there is a virtually flat area, removed from the ski shop, that has a magic carpet lift, for beginners. It is too flat, and it's difficult to get to. For the littlest tykes, there is a separate area on the other side of the ski shop, also hard to get to. And beginners who are just getting started are consigned to the "Potato Patch" lift, which frankly is not very easy and intersects with a large crowd of other skiers. (There is a small tubing hill in the middle of all this--we wonder whether Wintergreen didn't cannibalize it's teaching area a few years ago to create the tubing hill.)
Both Wisp and Wintergreen have tube sliding parks. We've been on "The Plunge" at Wintergreen and it certainly was fun. We haven't tried the "Bear Claw" at Wisp, but looking at it, we'd guess it is comparable to the tube run at Wintergreen. Wintergreen also has a smaller tubing hill, called "The Slide," for little kids. Wisp does not have a comparable smaller tubing run, so Wintergreen wins if you need to take small kids tubing.
We give the nod to Wisp for snow, however. Wisp gets over 100 inches of natural snow each season. On top of that, it has amazing snow-making capability--they can make twelve inches of snow across the entire mountain in one day. When the recent warm spell finally broke a few weeks ago, we noted that Wisp quickly covered its slopes and opened up trails. Wintergreen gets a lot less natural snow than Wisp. It depends heavily on snow-making and while its snow-making system is good, it doesn't compare to the one at Wisp. While Wisp was rapidly opening trails a few weeks ago, Wintergreen was more slowly covering its mountain. The combination of snow-making and natural snowfall at Wisp also means you have a decent chance of skiing in powder, as we did this past weekend.
Wisp also has a better overall layout. The main lodge is at the base of the hill, serviced by three lifts. Large windows give you a nice view of several of the main slopes. The primary food service area and the ski shop/rental area are all conveniently located in the same building. Several lifts converge at the top of the mountain, making it easy to transfer between different areas of the resort, and making most trails accessible from multiple lifts. This helps distribute the crowds across the mountain. Eventually, Wisp plans to build a mountaintop village at the peak, which will make it even nicer.
At Wintergreen, the cramped ski rental area is separate from the food service area and nowhere near any ski shop. One nice feature is that you can practically ski out of the rental area, although you have to go down a narrow, treacherous slope that is usually lined with fallen skiers. (At Wisp, since you're at the base of the hill, you have to schlep to the nearest lift.) Wintergreen's main lodge is pretty divorced from the ski trails, and there's no place to sit and watch skiers as you sip on a hot toddy.
We also give the edge to Wisp on food service. The main dining hall at Wisp has the traditional high ceiling, large windows and blazing fireplace of a lodge. It is about four times the size of the main eating area at Wintergreen, which is dark, low ceiling'ed and practically windowless. Wisp has a slightly greater variety of food, at very reasonable prices, and can handle a large crowd. Wintergreen has limited options with slow service and higher prices. Wisp also has two bars off the main dining floor, whereas you'll have to go to another building for libations at Wintergreen.
For the young and adventurous, Wisp also offers more options for jumps and tricks. Wintergreen has one "terrain park" (the Curmudgeon avoids these, but the kids are pulled in like moths to a light) with a few rails and ramps for jumps; Wintergreen this year also added a separate terrain area on the side of one of the beginner slopes. In contrast, Wisp has two larger terrain parks, two half-pipes, a couple smaller jump areas and a separate intermediate trail with some pretty big ramps for jumps.
If you want a traditional hotel room at Wintergreen, you're out of luck. Wintergreen does offer a variety of condos, ranging from studios to larger units suitable for families. There are also many options at Wintergreen for renting homes. However, Wintergreen is really isolated--no town nearby--so eating options are quite limited and the local "trading post" falls far short of a full scale grocery store. Wintergreen does have a pool/spa/fitness center that is first class. But then, that's not why you're going up there, is it?
Wisp does have a hotel. Not a particularly nice one, but it'll do fine for a ski weekend. Wisp also offers an array of condo and home options, many along Deep Creek Lake. Wisp has a decent pool and an okay fitness center. Unlike Wintergreen, however, Wisp is surrounded by other civilization, including many restaurant options. (Make sure to try an enormous 20 inch pizza at Brenda's, just down the road a bit.)
We found the staff at both resorts competent and friendly.
Bottom line: if you're a skiing family in the Washington area, you'll probably have a better experience, with greater value, at Wisp than at Wintergreen.
(FYI: we still go to Wintergreen, mainly to rendezvous with family members from Raleigh, NC. Wisp is too far from Raleigh for a weekend outing.)