Sitting just over 1,000 feet above sea level, Pittsburgh is not especially well-endowed with altitude; nor is it especially snowy in winter. That’s not to say that snow doesn’t grace the Steel City. It does, but topsy-turvy seasonal temps bring a freeze-thaw cycle that can reduce rock hard, snow-covered trails to impassable, muddy quagmires in the course of an afternoon.
Still, it’s not all bad news for those seeking the thrills (and occasional spills) of cross-country skiing. The Laurel Highlands of the Allegheny Mountains, just over an hour’s drive southeast of Pittsburgh, are a solid bet as the highest mountain region in Pennsylvania, providing a three-fold increase in altitude and a variety of trails for the Nordic pursuit. Because snowfall in southwestern PA can be so unpredictable, however, would-be winter adventurers should refer to the following information repositories before heading out:
- Pennsylvania Cross Country Skiers Association: A state-wide look at known areas of interest for cross-country skiing, complete with pinned maps, brief location synopses, event listings and live snow cams for popular trail systems.
- National Weather Service Weather Predictor: The probabilistic winter precipitation guide from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) can help skiers and snowshoers pinpoint where snowfall is likely to accumulate the most, making for more enjoyable trail conditions.
Possibly the best-known location for cross-country skiing in the region, Laurel Mountain offers nearly 20 miles of trails from beginner to advanced, up to a third of which are groomed and tracked (for skate and classic cross-country skiing, respectively). There is a warming hut opened during the season and staffed by volunteers on the weekend. An active ski patrol is also present on the weekends. Local Tip: Start with Loop Trail to Lippo’s Loop, a nice meandering tour with slight elevation loss/gain, before hitting some of the area’s more challenging terrain. (All the areas listed which are managed by the PA Dept of Conservation and Natural Resources are free to use.)
More Info: dcnr.pa.gov
Getting There: From state Route 30, turn right onto Laurel Summit Road. Park across from the warming hut.
Eats: As you make your way down the mountain, be sure to stop in at The Pie Shoppe in Laughlintown, Pa., for a deli sandwich or pizza, and of course, pie for the road.
Located south of the aforementioned Laurel Mountain, North Woods offers skiers over 8 miles of challenging groomed trails. A warming hut provides welcome respite in the valley between Mountain View and Schaffer Run trails. Local Tip: Warm up on Shaffer Run, going counterclockwise. For more challenging elevation changes, jump on Mountain View Trail.
More Info: dcnr.pa.gov
Getting There: From Donegal, take PA-31 south to Tunnel Road. There is a small gravel parking lot about a quarter-mile down Tunnel Road on the right. Trails run directly from the lot.
Eats: Need a more caffeinated après-ski stop? The Silver Horse Coffee Shop in Donegal has you covered with specialty coffee or tea drinks. It also offers a small, rotating menu of edible goods from local bakers and area restaurants, from typical coffeehouse fare like biscotti and scones, to less predictable offerings from burritos and jerky to homemade potato chips and small-batch protein bars.