Friday, February 22, 2013

Beech: A unique mountain resort (with photo gallery)

High altitude makes Beech Mountain, N.C., a great little winter destination.

Fred Pfohl, owner of Fred's General Mercantile and Deli, opened his eclectic shop in Beech Mountain in 1979. His store's motto is,

Fred Pfohl, owner of Fred's General Mercantile and Deli, opened his eclectic shop in Beech Mountain in 1979. His store's motto is, "If we don't have it, you don't need it."

Skiers ride the high-speed quad to the peak of the Beech Mountain ski area while an SMI PoleCat Snow Tower blows snow in the background. With a peak altitude of 5,506 feet, Beech Mountain is the highest ski area in the East. The area is a 3 1/2 hour drive from Roanoke.

Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Skiers ride the high-speed quad to the peak of the Beech Mountain ski area while an SMI PoleCat Snow Tower blows snow in the background. With a peak altitude of 5,506 feet, Beech Mountain is the highest ski area in the East. The area is a 3 1/2 hour drive from Roanoke.

A snowboarder makes his way down the Upper Southern Star run, one of the steeper slopes at the Beech Mountain Resort ski area. Snowboards also flock to the slope's terrain park.

A snowboarder makes his way down the Upper Southern Star run, one of the steeper slopes at the Beech Mountain Resort ski area. Snowboards also flock to the slope's terrain park.

The 50-yard-long Play Yard slope, Served by a J-bar lift, is wide with just a gentle drop and is perfect for beginners.

The 50-yard-long Play Yard slope, Served by a J-bar lift, is wide with just a gentle drop and is perfect for beginners.

Mark Taylor Mark Taylor is outdoors editor at The Roanoke Times.

mark.taylor
@roanoke.com

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Mark Taylor

Outdoors coverage

The Wild Life blog

Photo gallery

BEECH MOUNTAIN, N.C. -- In a ubiquitous commercial airing on TV these days, a man asks a group of cute little kids questions such as, "What's better? Bigger or smaller?"

Ask that question atop Beech Mountain and you might get a hybrid answer.

Smaller is great, especially if it's higher.

The peak at Beech Mountain ski area sits at 5,506 feet. It's the highest ski area in the East.

Yet with just 16 trails, the area is definitely on the small side.

Angie and Todd Kistemaker were just fine with that.

"It's our first time here," said Angie Kistemaker, who had just finished a ski lesson with kids Jackson and Addie Hayes.

Her husband piped in.

"We'll be coming back more," he said. "It's beautiful."

In its 45th year, the ski area is the centerpiece of a unique mountain community.

The town of Beech Mountain has more than 2,300 homes and condos.

Nearly all are second homes, as the town has only about 250 permanent residents.

The town bustles in the summer when many of the homeowners who live in the South - Florida in particular - move in to enjoy the relatively cool mountain air.

Many offer their homes and condos for rent during the ski season.

Atlanta is a particularly important feeder for the mountain's ski business.

Because it is within a three-hour drive of many of North Carolina's largest cities, the mountain gets a lot of day-use visitors from places such as Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, from whence the Kistemakers hail.

Ryan Costin, whose grandfather purchased the operation about 25 years ago, is the ski mountain's general manager.

Costin's dad managed the ski area for a few years in the early 1990s. Costin is in his fourth year at the helm.

"A lot of people like the small experience," Costin said of Beech Mountain's skiing product.

The ski area has something for all levels of slope-sliders.

Adjacent to the View Haus cafeteria is the Play Yard slope, which is where the Kistemakers were getting their ski lesson.

Served by a J-bar lift, the 50-yard-long slope is wide with just a gentle drop and is perfect for beginners.

The rest of the mountain features a diverse selection of terrain.

Two runs from the top, White Lightning and Souther Star, carry the black diamond designation as being the mountain's most challenging terrain. The runs are moderately steep.

The rest of the runs, even from the top, are categorized as either easy or intermediate.

The entire mountain is served by a high-tech snowmaking system, and the slopes are lighted for night skiing.

A terrain park offers jumps and obstacles for snowboarders and freestyle skiers.

The combination of the upper and lower Shawneehaw slopes comprises the longest run, coming in at about three-fourths of a mile.

A detachable quad lift is the fastest way to the top of the mountain, taking about five minutes to travel from the bottom to the peak.

A skilled skier who lives in Greensboro, Reto Biaggi is familiar with most of the ski resorts in the Southeast. When he can get away from his job as a chef and caterer for a day he often heads to Beech.

"I like the wide slopes," said Biaggi, one of those skiers who effortlessly carves down the mountain with his skies nearly touching.

Biaggi prefers to ski on weekdays, when lift lines are short to nonexistent.

The ski area's setting contributes to its appeal.

"It's a town," said Fred Pfohl, who was the town's first mayor after it was incorporated in 1981. "You don't just cut off the road and go up a mountain."

The town has plenty of shops and restaurants, including's Pfohl's.

Pfohl started working at the ski area on Jan. 1, 1970, after a stint as a Navy signalman.

In 1979 he opened Fred's Mercantile, an eclectic and jam-packed shop that sells anything from beer to ski mittens to large-scale model train cars.

The shop is just a couple hundred yards from the town's sledding hill.

Free and open to the public, the hill even has its own snowmaking gun to ensure coverage.

"It's a real positive deal," Pfohl said of the sledding hill.

The area's high elevation means Beech Mountain is usually among the first ski areas in the region to open.

This year the resort started offering skiing in November.

Like with all ski areas in the mid-Atlantic, the end of the season is typically dependent on the arrival of warm spring weather in lower elevations.

"It will not be that our product is lacking," Costin said. "It will be that our customer base will be somewhere else."

Before those customers move on to sandy beaches they have about a month left to enjoy a fun, snowy Beech.

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