The other students in my group giggled as I shuffled my skis clumsily onto the Magic Carpet, the conveyer belt that lumbers to the top of the beginner’s hill at Camelback Resort in Tannersville, Pennsylvania. If the snickering was a bit impolite, I didn’t hold it against them; they were only about 8 years old, and I was more than three times their age.
When my now-husband, TJ, and I relocated close to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains in 2015, I suddenly had a when-in-Rome urge to learn how to ski. That first Christmas in our new home, TJ gifted me a package of lessons. I didn’t mind that I was a foot taller and several decades older than my classmates, and by the end of the season, I could handle almost any run down the mountain.
“The Poconos is a perfect place to learn,” says James Hamill of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau. “Our resorts are family-driven, and they focus on helping you get comfortable on the mountain and on your equipment in a way no other destination does.”
With its cozy lodge and gentle learning slopes, Camelback is the ideal resort for a beginner. But its varied intermediate and expert terrain, quick lifts and well-lit slopes for night skiing keep us coming back year after year.
Family fun at Shawnee Mountain Ski Area; Photo courtesy of PoconoMountains.com
Learning to ski has the added benefit of opening a whole world of winter travel, and the Poconos are a prime destination for a snow sports-focused getaway. Just over the New Jersey–Pennsylvania border, hemmed in by the Lehigh Valley to the south and Lake Wallenpaupack to the north, the region became a popular honeymoon destination after World War II. The still-flourishing hospitality industry in the Poconos boasts four repeat AAA Four Diamond Award winners amid one of the densest concentrations of mountain resorts in North America.
There’s Shawnee Mountain Ski Area in East Stroudsburg; Montage Mountain, just a few miles from downtown Scranton; Bear Creek Ski Area, near Allentown; and beginner-focused Ski Big Bear on Masthope Mountain—all just a quick drive from one another. At sister resorts Jack Frost–Big Boulder in nearby Blakeslee, one lift ticket works for both hills. Jack Frost is a popular “upside-down” resort with the lodge at the peak, and Big Boulder is a terrain park-heavy mountain where the first successful commercial snowmaking began in the Pocono Mountains in 1956.
Pennsylvania state parks and Pocono Mountains resorts offer snowmobiling trails; Photo by Wlad Go/Stock.Adobe.com
You don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to have fun on the slopes, of course. Many resorts also offer snow tubing. That includes Blue Mountain in Palmerton, where recent upgrades have created the largest snow-tubing park in the US, knocking Camelback into second place.
Snow tubing is always a festive affair, with all the excitement of your favorite childhood sledding hill, only multiplied. After dark, with music pumping and lights flashing on the tubing lanes, it’s the best party in the Poconos.
The region’s peaks and valleys are crisscrossed by rivers and streams and dotted with lakes—topography that lends itself to other snow-based sports. At Promised Land State Park in Pike County and Tobyhanna State Park in Monroe and Wayne counties, large frozen lakes draw anglers and skaters to the natural ice. For a smoother glide, visit the seasonally open municipal rinks in Pocono Township and Stroudsburg. Rink entry is free, but you’ll need to bring your own skates.
For those with their own ride, Hickory Run and Lehigh Gorge state parks and Delaware State Forest have miles of snowmobile trails. When snow conditions are right, guests at Pocono Palace Resort, Cove Haven Resort and Paradise Stream Resort can rent machines on-site and head out into the woods.
There are plenty of other methods of conveyance through the Poconos’ snowy backcountry, too. On winter weekends at Shawnee Mountain, Arctic Paws Dogsled Tours teaches beginner mushers to lead a team of huskies on groomed trails. (The experience sells out lightning-fast each winter, Hamill notes, so book well in advance.) Stables throughout the region offer guided trail rides through frost-blanketed forests. At Happy Trails Stables in Waymart, you can even take a horse-drawn sleigh ride, complete with jingle bells.
Jim Thorpe; Courtesy of PoconoMountains.com
FROM SMALL TOWNS TO STEAM TRAINS
Every mountain-hopping adventure needs a base camp, and there may be none more picturesque than Jim Thorpe. Once named Mauch Chunk—Lenape for “Bear Mountain”—the town on the Lehigh River renamed itself for the legendary Olympian in 1954 as a publicity stunt, erecting a mausoleum and monument to him. Known as “the gateway to the Poconos,” Jim Thorpe’s winding streets, charming architecture, boutique shops and historic points of interest are well worth a day of exploration.
Like many towns in the region, Jim Thorpe’s roots are in mining. But today, the steam engines that once transported anthracite coal through the mountains power a passenger train. Nestled in cozy train cars, some dating to 1917, riders on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway travel along cliffs, over bridges and around curve after curve between Jim Thorpe and Lehigh Gorge State Park. On certain holiday rides, kids can even meet characters like Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.
Whether you’re looking for adventure in the woods, skiing, skating or sledding, or you just want to luxuriate at a mountain resort, the Poconos will provide. After all, lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith was writing about Honesdale, his hometown in the Poconos, when he penned the 1934 hit holiday song “Winter Wonderland.”