The plentiful and unexpected winter charms of Western Maryland.
Can’t get enough snow? You could hop a plane to Fairbanks, Alaska. Or, if you want even more of the white stuff, you could pack up your skis, snowshoes and sleds in the car and drive about four-and-a-half hours to Garrett County in the western mountain country of Maryland.
With an average annual snowfall of around 120 inches (about double the amount received in Fairbanks), it’s no surprise that skis and, increasingly, snowshoes are winter wardrobe essentials for Garrett County residents—and that a freshly fallen foot of snow only means an extra hour of sleep-in time for the local school kids while road crews quickly and efficiently clear the roads.
Visitors are luckier, because all that snow means they have “Maryland’s Mountaintop Playground” to themselves. It’s a
really big playground, too, with more than 90,000 acres of public land, including seven state forests and parks. Garrett County is also home to Wisp (296 Marsh Hill Road, McHenry; 301-387-4911, wispresort.com), Maryland’s only alpine ski resort.
Even on the odd winter days when the surrounding area is flake-free, Wisp’s state-of-the-art snowmaking capabilities keep 90 percent of the 32 slopes and well-groomed trails (a total of more than 10 miles) on its 132 acres open for everyone from beginning snow bunnies (try the easy-does-it, 1.5-mile “Possum”) to black-diamond daredevils (the multiple moguls on “The Face” should get your blood pumping). If a full day on the snow leaves you wanting more, more than 90 percent of Wisp’s skiable terrain remains open at night.
Founded in 1955, Wisp has invested upwards of $45 million over the past six years to expand its alpine trail system for skiers and snowboarders. Its terrain parks, super-pipe and rails are designed to provide exhilarating experiences for skiers and boarders of all ages and skill levels.
Full-day lift tickets range from $28/midweek to $39/weekends for adults, $34-$39 for juniors; half-day from $28/midweek to $35/weekends for adults, $23-$34 for juniors. Group and private ski and snowboarding lessons are available for all ages and levels, including half- or full-day Willy Wisp (for 3- to 7-year-olds) and Club Wisp (for 8- to 14-year-olds) programs. Adaptive education programs are available for individuals with special needs. Wisp also offers a wide variety of sport- and performance-level equipment rentals for skiing and boarding.
If you want to get off your feet but don’t want to slow down the pace, you can keep the thrills coming at Wisp’s Bear Claw Snow Tubing Park, with its nine 750-foot-long lanes and two chair lifts for minimum wait time ($15/weekdays, $20/weekends; includes tube rental). This year, there’s a tubing area just for kids under 42 inches tall.
Ever wanted to get the feel of driving a snowmobile? Wisp offers 30-minute guided tours daily ($45/adults, $10/additional child rider). For a completely different kind of ride, there’s the brand new Mountain Coaster ($9.50/single rider, $5.50/each additional passenger; discounted three- and 10-ride packages available), the fourth of its kind and only the second on the East Coast. Just opened this past summer, this swooping and careening thrill ride lulls you into a sense of serenity on the 1,300-foot uphill climb, then leaves your stomach behind as it drops 350 feet down.(Each of the cars has brakes, so you can control it according to your own thrill threshold.)
Cross-country skiers and snowshoers have numerous options in Garrett County. You can go the resort route—Wisp has a 50-kilometer, multi-terrain trail network ($10/midweek, $15/weekends) and offers equipment rentals, lessons and guided tours, including a full-moon tour with a hot cider nightcap ($30/person).
Or you can follow the 15 kilometers of Nordic ski trails (including eight groomed) or make your own snowshoe tracks at Backbone Mountain Cross Country Ski Farm (530 Lynndale Road, Oakland; 301-334-5633, backbonefarm) for $6/person. Rentals (cross-country skis, poles and boots $14/day for adults, $8 for children; snowshoes $12/day), lessons ($30 package includes trail fee, equipment rental and lesson) and guided tours ($10/person per hour) are available. During Friday “Happy Hour” (actually three hours, 3-6 p.m.), the trail fee is discounted to $1 and rentals to $5. Plus, there’s a bonfire around which you can sip your coffee or hot chocolate (available at the farm).
Experienced cross-country skiers and snowshoers of all levels can join Elk Ridge Natureworks (283 Elk Ridge Lane, Grantsville; 301-895-3686, elkridgenatureworks.com) for a daytime backcountry eco-tour ($25/person) or moonlight ski ($20/person). Bring your own equipment, or you can rent at High Mountain Sports (21327 Garrett Highway, 301-387-4199, highmountainsports.com).
Not only can you cross-country ski on 10-miles of groomed beginner to intermediate trails at Herrington Manor State Park (222 Herrington Lane, Oakland; 301-334-9180), but you can break out the Flexible Flyer and take to its hills. Or take the 5.5-mile trail that runs between Herrington Manor and Swallow Falls State Park, where you’ll find Muddy Creek Falls, the highest free-falling waterfall in Maryland. Ski, snowshoe (both $15/day) and sled ($6/day) rentals are available, and there’s an indoor fire pit with concessions selling hot chocolate, coffee and snacks.
Even if you’ve never had an inkling of driving a team in the Iditarod, you can mush through the mountains on a half-hour to two-hour ride ($95-$195) with Husky Power Dogsledding (2008 Bumblebee Road, Accident; huskypowerdogsledding.com, 301-746-7200). Mike and Linda Herdering don’t need snow to take to the trails; they have a sled on wheels called a touri. And, yes, you get to pet the dogs.
Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh (with or without wheels) is a perfect way to spend a brisk winter afternoon—or even better, snuggled up in a warm, velvety blanket on a chilly winter night. For $10/person (children under 3 free), Ray Miller of Pleasant Valley Dream Rides (16889 Pleasant Valley Road, Oakland; 301-334-1688, pleasantvalleydreamrides.com) will show you the sights or the stars as you’ve never seen them before.
If you’d rather take in the view from the saddle, Western Trails Riding Stables (4009 Mayhew Inn Road, Oakland; 301-387-6155, westerntrails.net) offers guided hour-long trail rides for $25/person; $30 with child and adult riding double.
For an everything-in-one-place vacation, Wisp has a wide range of ski-in, ski-out accommodations starting as low as $79/night midweek; some rooms are slope-side and most are pet-friendly. Also on the property: an indoor pool, hot tub, fitness center, the full-service Sewickley Spa, a casual food court and DC’s family fine-dining restaurant.
Tucked away in Savage River State Forest, a prime spot for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, is the upscale Savage River Lodge (1600 Mt. Aetna Road, Frostburg; savageriverlodge.com, 301-689-3200) with its 18 two-story log cabins ($220/night, double occupancy) and (despite its name) a number of oh-so-civilized amenities such as soaking tubs, down comforters, refrigerators, gas log fireplaces, and a freshly baked muffin and juice breakfast along with the day’s Washington Post delivered to your door. With 45 miles of groomed and ungroomed trails and 800 acres of forest surrounding the property, this spot is popular with cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Savage River Lodge owners Jan
Russell and Mike Dreisbach offer equipment rentals, lessons and guided tours.
You definitely want to visit Savage River Lodge, if just for a meal in its much-acclaimed open-to-the-public restaurant, where lunch and dinner are served every day and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Dinner specialties range from a signature meatloaf (made with seasonal game, veal, pork and beef and a touch of Mike’s homemade maple syrup; $23) to grilled bison filet ($34).
Four Seasons Restaurant at Will O the Wisp (20160 Garrett Highway, Oakland; 301-387-5503, willothewisp.com) offers a view of the lake along with your breakfast (a favorite is the Four Seasons Fortifier—two pancakes, a slice of banana nut French toast, two eggs, home fries and a choice of ham, bacon or sausage for $8.95), lunch (build-your-own burger starts at $6.95, with additional meats and cheeses for 75 cents each and veggies for 50 cents) and dinner (from apple cider tenderloin for $16.95 to twin lobster tails for $34.95). Specialties at Pine Lodge Steakhouse & Saloon (1520 Deep Creek Drive, McHenry; pinelodgesteakhouse.com, 301-387-6500) include blackened prime rib, steaks any way you like them and mountain elk tenderloin with peppercorn ($19-$34).
Start with the Painted Desert Soup (a one-bowl wonder of peppery red, corn and bean soups) and a super-sized specialty margarita at Santa Fe Grille (75 Visitors Center Drive, McHenry; 301-387-2182, dclsantafe.com). Then move on to the wings, with barbecue sauces that run the gamut from mild to habanero heat; crab enchiladas; slow-roasted St. Louis ribs; or mesquite-grilled meats (sandwiches start at $5.50, dinner $12.75-$24).
Victorian elegance without the stuffiness best describes Cornish Manor (830 Memorial Drive, Oakland; 301-334-6499, cornishmanor.com), cozily situated in a lovingly renovated 1868 Victorian home. Dinner entrées range from under $17 to just under $30, featuring items such as orange roughy imperial, half rack of lamb Dijonnaise and Long Island-style duck breast with wild cherry marmalade.
Cornish Manor is open for lunch, too. The warm chicken salad in a bread bowl is a hands-down favorite of the locals. Lunch prices range from $6.50 to $12.95.
Definitely the ultimate in luxury is a multi-course dinner for two—or for 20—prepared in your rental chalet kitchen by Rent-A-Chef’s Larry Roby (301-387-4379, rentachef.net). After chatting with you, Chef Roby will design a customized menu, shop, prepare the food on-site, do the dishes and package (with labels for easy re-heating) any leftovers. Many clients request his surf and turf, topped off by a flambéed dessert ($175/person for a four-course meal for two).
In the evening, you can catch community theater at its best and brightest with the January production of The Diary of Anne Frank or the thriller Night Watch in February at Our Town Theatre (121 E. Center St., Oakland; ourtowntheatre.org, 301-334-5640). Tickets are $5/weeknights,
$8/Friday and Saturday.
During your Garrett County getaway, you can get your holiday shopping done, too. Maryland’s mountains are filled with talented artists and creative crafters who work in a range of media, from stained and fused glass to alpaca wool to wood. At the Garrett County Arts Council Gallery (206 E. Alder St., garrettarts.com, 301-334-6580), you’ll find everything from paintings to pottery by more than 100 regional artists and artisans. Located in a restored 1884 B&O Railroad station, the Shoppe at Heritage Square (117 E. Liberty St., Oakland, 301-334-1243) has all kinds of handcrafted items, including apparel, food products, soy candles and toys.
In Swanton, Julie Turpentine works fused glass and pate de verge (a paste of finely ground glass) into one-of-a-kind bowls,
folded vases, three-dimensional masks, tableware and jewelry at her Snowbird Creations Glass Studio (398 Snowbird Lane, 301-387-4624, snowbirdcreations.com). The home of stained-glass artist Louis Diablo (214 I St., Mountain Lake Park, stainedglassgallery.net, 301-334-8222) features more than 2,000 of his windows, hanging and table lamps, jewelry boxes, figurines, and suncatchers. Or watch the glassblowers at work at Simon Pearce in Mountain Lake Park (265 Glass Drive, 800-774-5277, simonpearce.com).
At Blue Bell Farm Alpacas (1285 Hare Hollow Road, Grantsville; 301-895-3476, bluebellfarmalpacas.com), Bob and Jo Gilman sell soft-as-a-dream sweaters, scarves, hats, shawls and yarn made from the fur of their resident herd. Paul Roberts makes unfiltered, European country-style wines such as his signature Cabernet Franc Watershed Red Reserve ($13.95) the low-tech way at his Deep Creek Cellars (177 Frazee Ridge Road, Friendsville; 301-746-4349, deepcreekcellars.com).
Spruce Forest Artisan Village (177 Casselman Road, Grantsville; 301-895-3332, spruceforest.com) was founded more than 50 years ago to support local history preservation efforts and provide log cabin studios where mountain traditional and contemporary crafters could create and sell their specialties, which range from bird sculptures and pottery to slate painting and weaving. While the studios are typically open by appointment only in winter, on the first weekend in December, Christmas in the Village offers visitors the chance to see them work. Visit the one-room school for some hands-on cookie art and storytelling, enjoy musical programs in the church, and view the live nativity.
In the center of Garrett County is Deep Creek Lake, one of seven in the county and the largest freshwater lake in Maryland. It’s a boating and water-sports hub in the summer, but in winter its serene beauty makes it the perfect backdrop for a glass of wine on the deck of one of the hundreds of chalets, condos, cottages and townhomes for rent along its edge.
Railey Mountain Lake Vacations (5 Vacation Way, McHenry; 301-387-2124, 800-846-7368, deepcreek.com) offers more than 200 two- to nine-bedroom lakefront and lake-access accommodations (some starting at around $400 for a weekend; winter ski-and-stay packages are available) with amenities that include ski-in, ski-out convenience, gourmet kitchens, wet bars, indoor pools, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, fully equipped game rooms, and flat-screen televisions. Many also are pet-friendly.
Good Timber Bed & Breakfast (2159 Mayhew Inn Road, Deep Creek Lake; 301-387-0097, goodtimber.net) on the lake has only three rooms, so you’ll want to plan ahead if you want to stay there. Vianne and Michael Bell’s lovely cedar log home, with its soaring ceilings and rooms filled with handcrafted furniture and art from the Maryland mountains and around the world, is worth the forethought. The Buffalo Run room ($220) on the main floor has a private deck, whirlpool for two, dual-headed shower and wrought iron bed. (Per-night rate for each of the other two rooms is $165.)
Late-winter through early spring is maple-sugaring time in Garrett County. So if you’re there anytime from February through early April, you can get a free firsthand view of tree-tapping and syrup making at Steyer Brothers Maple Syrup Farm (2735 Gorman Road, Oakland, 301-334-2900) if the weather conditions are right. On March 8 and 9, there will also be a sap-to-syrup demonstration at Herrington Manor State Park, along with an all-you-can-eat breakfast of pancakes, buckwheat cakes and sausage ($6/adults, $3/children).