Escape the Urban: Ellicottville in White

30 Jan

The man behind the counter at the equipment rental shop looked at me like I was crazy. Bald and craggy, long grizzled walrus whiskers of blond and grey, he peered at me with squinting eyes beneath a bushy brow. I asked again.

“Is there a way to snowshoe from here up to the top, to the ridgeline trail over to Spruce Lake,” I said.

“Well, I suppose you could walk from here to the top. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it. You can always snowshoe around the golf course . . .”

He stops short. My face obviously reveals that I didn’t drive to the hills of the Southern Tier to go snowshoe on the back nine.

“If you want to walk the ridgeline, most people just take the ski lift up.” At this my wife perks up immediately. I look at the stretched, surprisingly steep hill and wooded bowl just outside the door of the shop and imagine trudging each inch of elevation, snowshoes sinking into soft powder, manually conquering the 600 feet and earning the peak view and rumbling appetite for lunch that would follow. My wife, on the other hand, was hoping to take the three minute lift up, so she could actually enjoy the outing, and not curse my name, whilst out of breath, every step for the next three hours. As most married men can predict, I was doomed to lose again.

“I guess we’ll do that,” I relent, my wife grinning from ear to ear as she tugs on my arm. “How much is a lift ticket?”

Only $12 for cross-country skiers and snowshoers it turns out, and worth every penny.

Despite the number of times I have been to Ellicottville, passing through on my way to hiking in Allegheny or biking a rail trail, somehow I have always missed it at the height of its mid-winter white mantled glory. My grave mistake has finally been corrected, as my wife and I spent a couple days taking in a gem of Western New York. Ellicottville and the surrounding slopes are not just “nice for Buffalo.” They are nationally known as a top destination, the most skied resort in New York state, and the reputation is only growing. The NY Times calls E-ville the Aspen of the East. . . in a good way, how Aspen used to be. National Geographic Adventurer lists it as one of the top 100 adventure towns in the country, for its mountain biking and summer activities, not to mention the winter sports. The village of 600 welcomes 500,000 visitors a year – the vast majority of licence plates I spotted were Ohio and Ontario, not New York.

My wife and I took advantage of cheaper mid-week rates at the Tamarack Club to ditch the kids with the grandparents (thanks Mom and Dad!) and explore this winter wonderland. And while the elevation is objectively a bit lacking, and so it may not technically qualify, Ellicottville certainly does have that Mountain Town vibe going for it.  If your quads are burning from too much skiing, you can easily bum around the village for an afternoon – multiple ski and bike shops along the dense historic main drag, a local winery tasting room, and top notch restaurants (steaks and HOT Thai scallops at The Silver Fox, African peanut soup and Belgium mussels at the Ellicottville Brewing Company).  

The Tamarack Club itself is less than two years old, and while the basic room is nothing to write home about, the resort overall has plenty to offer besides its location at the base of two ski lifts. An indoor/outdoor pool and two outdoor whirlpools were too tempting to ignore – is there a more refreshing experience than running through the falling snow in your swimsuit to hop in a streaming, frothing tub? No complaints either about Falling Waters Spa, where my wife and I both got some therapeutic work done. The beer and food selection at John Harvard’s Brew House was eclectic and surprisingly local (3 taps for Ellicotville Brewing Company, two for Southern Tier, two for their own concoctions), especially for a micro-chain. But the creme de la creme was, of course, getting out in the white.

It never stopped snowing, two days straight – sometimes a regular fall of steady tiny flakes, sometimes giant fluffy cottonballs that float around like Forrest Gumps’ feather and seem to never quite land – a pleasant, gentle snow that refreshes streetscapes and slopes. Our first task, before the spa and the hot tub and the beer at John Harvard’s, was to tackle the mountain, counter-culturally, by snowshoe.

From the back door at the Tamarack Club it’s a quick walk to the Holiday Valley equipment rental office, home of of my bearded, dubious trail guide. From there, its a quick jaunt to Cindy’s, the ski lift we would ride up to the snowshoe and Nordic ski trail along the ridge. The loop from Cindy’s, to Spruce Lake, and back to the 4400′ (linear) Mardi Gras for a ride down was less than four miles. But snowshoeing burns calories faster than just hiking, and most planners use a 3:1 (soft powder) or 2:1 (packed) guide for planning an outing. We started in virgin powder, five and six feet deep, on the back side of the hill, until we found and broke out into the correct, well marked path. Its a steady climb from there to Mardi Gras, and then on to Spruce Lake.

The snow was thick in the trees, and hung in clumps that would break free and scatter as the wind blew. Occasionally the whole of the valley would break into view, a silent snowglobe, far edge shrouded and faded in a flurried curtain. Despite the hundreds of downhill skiers below us, the ridgeline was silent except for the ice-induced creaking of the trees, the chirp of chickadees, and the soft pant of my breath. Serene.

Map courtesy

Eventually the dense, young stands of maple gave way to older pine, forming huge dark Moria-like halls, shading us from the falling snow and tamping the grey omni-directional light of an overcast winter day. Onward the upward we tramped, and a multitude of smaller backcountry trails crisscrossed our comparative superhighway, on the way to Spruce Lake. The WNY Mountain Bicycling Association (WNYMBA) has laid, marked, charted, and maintained dozens of miles of singletrack in the surrounding state forest, and it doubles as waist deep snowshoeing opportunities in the winter. Next time, perhaps, when I am alone or with one of my bro’s. Paired with my wife, though, the hot tub and a bottle of wine were more tempting than getting lost in rugged glacier formations. A quick stop at the alpine lake’s frozen shore, and the Mardi Gras chairlift called my name.

E-ville is only an hour a way, and I bet I can drop the kids off of school and get four or five hours of cross-country in before I need to pick them up again. I’m thinking the trails at HoliMont next – my skis are waiting for me, propped up by the door.

4 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Ellicottville in White”

  1. Brian January 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    Wanna lose weight?  Snowshoe.  Wanna really see winter? Snowshoe.  It’s low, it’s slow, it’s wonderful.

  2. BobbyCat January 31, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    It might be good to warn novices about falling into a spruce hole, especially on steep slopes.

  3. Pamela Fruechting February 1, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    What a great review….makes me want to book airline tickets from my home, Wichita, KS, and check it out. Gorgeous scenery!


  1. Escape the Urban: The Rimed Mere « - February 6, 2011

    […] week I wrote about a glorious trip to Ellicottville, king of WNY winter sport. In a perfect world, I go every week and enjoy top tier facilities and […]

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