The Laurel Highlands is a wonderful, beloved, year-round destination, and that includes winter adventure,” Anna Weltz, director of public relations and community outreach for Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, says.
“Whether it’s the thrill of downhill skiing or snowboarding or the quiet peace and calm of snowshoeing through the deep woods or doing some sled riding or making a snowman, there’s no shortage of fun to be had.
“The Laurel Highlands region generally accumulates the state’s largest natural snowfall and that has a lot to do with our geography and our proximity to Lake Erie. We get a lot of lake-effect snow.”
Visitors to the Laurel Highlands come from Pittsburgh and as far away as Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Cleveland and Columbus.
“The folks who are driving in from the metropolitan areas come here for weekends or weeklong stays, and a lot of them, after they spend some time here, end up buying second homes here,” Weltz says.
“Those who live in the surrounding counties love how easily accessible it is to get to the Laurel Highlands. There are not incredible crowds or lines either.”
As for the winter sports themselves, winter adventurers have a handful of destinations from which to choose.
Seven Springs Mountain Resort, in Somerset County, has more than 285 acres of ski and snowboard terrain, including 33 slopes and trails of varying difficulty served by 10 chair lifts and four surface lifts so visitors can ski, snowboard or snow tube all day long. Extensive lodging options on the mountain allow guests to hit the slopes early, with some overnight rentals even including a private chair lift and ski-in/ski-out amenities.
Seven Springs also provides snowshoe and snowmobile trails and can arrange family tours.
Nemacolin Resort’s ski facilities at Mystic Mountain, in Fayette County, offer both downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing.
Mystic Mountain has 25 acres of downhill skiing and snowboarding on six slopes ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert. The slopes are served by three chair lifts and are 100 percent illuminated, making night skiing a great experience.
For a different winter experience, guests can enjoy snowshoeing or dogsledding on the property’s winter trails.
Hidden Valley Resort, also in Somerset County, offers 26 slopes and trails served by nine lifts, 110 skiable acres, terrain parks of varying difficulty and snow tubing. There are slopes and trails for every ski level, exploring gradual meandering trails. There is a 470-foot vertical drop. Nine chair lifts and two surface lifts move skiers all over the mountain.
Laurel Mountain Ski Resort, in Westmoreland County, is an iconic skier’s mountain with a rich history that boasts incredible features, including the highest vertical drop as well as the steepest slope in the state. The double diamond Lower Wildcat Slope averages at a 60 percent slope. Laurel Mountain has 20 slopes and trails served by a quad chair lift that will get guests back to the summit in no time.
Not to be overlooked, Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, in Bedford County, has the state’s highest skiable mountain and the most challenging slopes.
The resort has 34 trails with a vertical drop of 1,072 feet.
With 100 skiable acres and 42 acres of night skiing, Blue Knob offers five lifts including two doubles, two triples and one surface lift.
Extreme skiers and snowboarders travel to Laurel Highlands ski resorts year after year to get their mountain thrills at the terrain parks. Across three resorts – Seven Springs, Hidden Valley and Nemacolin – there are a variety of terrain parks for all ski levels featuring every size and shape of jumps, rails and pipes.
Beginners can grow their skills on easier courses, advance to the more difficult features and then finally conquer the expert jumps and rails. Seven Springs, home to the only 22-foot Superpipe in the East, features seven terrain parks guaranteed to challenge every skill level. The Streets give off an urban vibe with wallrides and handrails, while The Alley is more than a half-mile stretch full of boxes, rails, jumps and hips. The Artic Blast features a freestyle terrain perfect for learning.
Hidden Valley is home to two terrain parks that are specially-designed for children. The jumps and rails in both parks offer a comfortable learning environment for beginners. The Continental Progressive Terrain Park is great for introducing children to the fun, and the Jaguar Terrain Park houses a small- to medium-sized trick area.
Nemacolin’s terrain park, “The Yeti’s Lair,” is the perfect place for beginners to learn valuable skills they need to conquer more advanced terrain parks. The park includes features such as a 16-foot flat box, a 24-foot flat box, a 14-foot down flat rail, a 16-foot down cannon rail, a 24-foot rainbow box and snow-made jumps.
Winter sports enthusiasts are able to enjoy these activities with spectacular scenery all around them.
“There’s nothing quite like a fresh blanket of snow over our mountain ridges and into the valleys,” Weltz says. “A lot of folks love to take photos of the lookouts at Baughman Rock and Ohiopyle State Park or from the Laurel Highlands hiking trail, the mountain ridge there.”
Seven Springs, Hidden Valley and Nemacolin offer indoor swimming for resort guests.
“I encourage residents and visitors alike to get out and try something new every winter,” Weltz says. “Humans tend to hibernate. We need to get out and exercise and get fresh air. Sunshine is so good for us. You don’t have to be an adrenaline junky to have fun in the winter. You can do something as easy and low impact as snowshoeing or just a winter hike in the woods.”
When it comes to winter sports in Cambria County, one of the most popular is cross-country skiing. The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site offers nearly four miles of trail described as “relatively easy terrain.” Weather permitting, park grounds and trails are open daily sunrise to sunset.
Located in Lorain Borough, the Lorain/Stonycreek Hiking Trails are well-kept trails that have lots of opportunities for winter recreation.
There are several trailhead markers and lots of paths to explore.
The Ghost Town Trail offers 46 miles for cross-country skiers. The trail also is groomed between Ebensburg, Nanty Glo and the spur.
Prince Gallitzin State Park offers seven miles of groomed trails.
Prince Gallitzin also offers a 20-mile trail network for snowmobiling. Snowmobiles may be operated on designated trails and roads from the day following the last day of deer season in December until April 1, weather permitting.
The Glendale Lake Snowmobile Club Trail has a 33-mile snowmobile trail connecting Prince Gallitzin and Black Moshannon State Park.
Laurel Ridge State Park stretches along Laurel Mountain from the picturesque Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown.
Snowmobiles are restricted to designated trails.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission Southwest Region Game Lands offer several miles for snowmobiling, too.
“The trails here have become a focal point when it comes to recreation,” Nicki Waligora, sports travel program coordinator for Visit Johnstown, says. “People are enjoying the trails during the winter months now. In the past, where people might’ve steered away from some of the outdoor recreation in the trails and things like that in the winter months, they’re now taking advantage of them.
The trails are very well maintained. You have the opportunity to experience these amazing trails in the winter months and to really see the beauty of them. I recommend that you get to enjoy them in the winter as well as in the spring, summer and fall.”
Glendale Lake is popular for ice fishing. Common species caught through the ice are perch, walleye, pike and crappies.
Lake Rowena in Ebensburg is stocked with adult trout.
While Duman Lake also offers ice fishing opportunities, Lake Rowena traditionally is one of the first in the area to develop safe ice each winter. To obtain a report on the lake’s condition, phone the Ebensburg Borough office.
For sled riders, there are lots of great hills in Cambria County, including those at Prince Gallitzin, Stackhouse Park, The Ridge Recreation Area and Berkley Hills Golf Course. Snowshoeing enthusiasts can do their thing at many of the previously mentioned trails.
“There are a lot of really neat, cool outdoor places that can be taken advantage of during the winter months,” Waligora says.
“It’s exciting to see people get outside and kind of explore the different things. People of all ages from children to seniors are enjoying the outdoor recreation in the winter in Cambria County.”
As for indoor sports, Johnstown is a big hockey town also and attending a Tomahawks game is a fun way to spend a few hours.
There are a lot of ice skating opportunities at places like First Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.
The Johnstown YMCA offers swimming and basketball and there are other recreation centers in the area that have indoor gymnasiums. The Johnstown YWCA also has an indoor swimming pool.
There are several bowling alleys – including 814 and Lanes and Games, which features bowling, laser tag, arcade games and virtual reality options.
IN NEARBY INDIANA COUNTY
Winter fun can be had throughout Indiana County as well.
“We have 64 miles of Rails to Trails, so during the winter, if there is snow, they’re perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing,” Laura Herrington, interim executive director for the Indiana County Tourist Bureau, says.
“You can snowshoe and cross-country ski also at Yellow Creek State Park and Blue Spruce Park.
“Blue Spruce Park is really a nice opportunity for cross-country skiing. We have several golf courses that would be a great fit for cross-country skiers. Beyond that, we have Yellow Creek State Park where, in the winter, you could enjoy ice fishing, sledding and tobogganing. They allow snowmobiling and ice skating, too, when appropriate.”
College Lodge Park offers snow tubing, but it is not an official ski mountain.
“If you’re a beginner and you want to just try it out, that might be a good place to start,” Herrington says.
“You can go ice boating on the Yellow Creek State Park lake.”
There is indoor ice skating and hockey at the S&T Bank Arena. The YMCA offers many opportunities for indoor sports such as basketball and swimming. There is a large hockey association that hosts tournaments at the S&T Bank Arena.
“Indiana County is simply beautiful in the winter,” Herrington says. “We have a lot of hills and valleys and trees and, especially at Blue Spruce Park, there’s a unique opportunity where you can hand feed black capped chickadees. If you learn where that location is and you take some seed with you and hold out your hand and stand quietly, they’ll actually come down and take seeds from your hand.
“We have small-town, unique opportunities. We’re rural, but there are a lot of opportunities to explore the outdoors in the winter because we have such a nice, expansive park system and Rails to Trails.”