The cool, crisp days of fall are almost here -- and you know what that means. In the next few weeks, Mother Nature will blanket the mountains of of Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia in a crazy-quilt of spectacular colors as the leaves begin to change.
This autumn, try a mountain destination that's a little different -- Whitetail, a ski resort in nearby Pennsylvania that operates a ski lift on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays that whisks visitors to the top of a mountain.
Whitetail, a $25 million downhill ski emporium located west of Hagerstown, began operations two years ago. In June, it opened its doors to mountain bikers . . . and anyone else who enjoys an effortless trip to the top of a mountain to enjoy great views and to explore 20-plus miles of trails and dirt roads that honeycomb the mountain.
It all makes economic sense: Mountain bikes -- knobby-tired bicycles with motorcycle-style handlebars, ultra-low gears and beefy brakes -- are the hottest things on two wheels. Opening trails and ski lifts to mountain bikers is part of an industry-wide trend by ski resorts to stay open nearly year round.
"It's a great place to ride a mountain bike, especially if you like long downhills," says Maryanne Carlson of Baltimore, a regular off-road bicyclist who made the 90-minute trek to Whitetail twice last summer.
She adds: "A lot of the trails are rough -- which is good, because experienced riders can really be challenged. But there's riding for all levels of riders at Whitetail."
Those who aren't cyclists are also invited to the resort to ride the ski lift for vistas of the autumn splendor. The cost? Hikers and walkers pay $3 for the scenic ride, whose vertical gain is nearly 1,000 feet. A one-time lift ticket for a bike and rider is $12; an all-day pass is $20.
"One of the great attractions of Whitetail is that the mountain biking trails are also great hiking trails," says Chuck Nagle, who runs Whitetail's Mountain Biking Center.
"The whole resort is located on Two Top Mountain, which is part of a small range called the Bear Ponds Mountains," he says. "Once you take the ski lift to the top, there are many valleys to look down on, plus views of more mountains to the south."
And, Mr. Nagle adds, Mother Nature puts on quite a show in the fall on Two Top Mountain: "The mix of deciduous and pine trees on the mountain means there's a lot of contrast between the golds, yellows and greens of the leafy trees and the dark green of the pines."
Whether you're riding the trails on a mountain bike or exploring the ridge on foot, keep an eye peeled for animals.
"There's a tremendous amount of wildlife on the mountain -- a lot of deer, flocks of wild turkeys, and hawks soaring at eye level as they catch updrafts," Mr. Nagle says. "In the woods you'll hear grouse, which make a sound like someone beating a drum faster and faster."
A trip to Whitetail also gives mountain bikers an opportunity to ride their bikes where they were designed to be ridden: in the mountains.
"Riding a mountain bike in a wilderness setting is different from riding in a park at home," Mr. Nagle notes. "We can introduce new riders to the sport in a tougher environment than most folks are use to."
In other words, riding a bike on the trails and roads at Whitetail can be, well, strenuous.
"Regarding difficulty, we try to be sensitive to everybody. But riding here isn't like riding the C&O; Canal," says Dave DePeters, the Whitetail employee who designed the trail system last spring. "We worked hard to find the flattest terrain for novice riders."
Those who don't own a mountain bike can rent one at Whitetail's Mountain Biking Center. They can even experience the latest in mountain bike gadgetry: a front fork equipped with a shock absorber. The suspension smoothes out the bumps on rocky trails.
"Visitors can rent either a front-suspension bike or a regular mountain bike," Mr. Nagle says"But first-timers find that once they ride a suspension-fork bike, they like them."
Daily rental rates for high-quality bikes range from $30 (for a non-suspension mountain bike) to $40 (suspended), which includes lift access, helmet rental and a water bottle (yours to keep). Two-hour rentals range from $24 to $29.
There's another advantage to riding a mountain bike at Whitetail: a well-designed trail system and knowledgeable employees.
"When people ask us, 'What's the best trail to ride?' I respond, pTC 'What kind of riding do you like to do?' Then I'll find it for them," says Mr. DePeters, who, when not guiding visitors on bikes in the summer or giving ski lessons in the winter, is a percussionist with the Baltimore and Philadelphia symphony orchestras.
Baltimore's Roger Bird, a pro-class mountain bike racer, visited Whitetail in August to sample the trails.
"The trail system lets you zone in on what you can ride," Mr. Bird reports. "My biggest fear when exploring a new area is wasting my time. At Whitetail you can get a map and ride with someone who can tell you where the fun stuff is."
IF YOU GO . . .
Getting there: From Baltimore, take I-70 west past Hagerstown to Exit 18 (Clear Spring), go north through the traffic light and follow the snowflake signs 11 miles; the drive to Whitetail is about 90 minutes, one-way.
Note: While the Mountain Biking Center is open seven days a week through October 31, the ski lift operates only Friday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Getting a trail pass: From the parking lot, walk (or ride your bike) up the hill to the Mountain Biking Center, where you purchase a pass and pick up a trail map.
A lift pass for hikers is $3. A one-time ticket for mountain bikers and their bikes is $12; an all-day pass is $20. When the lift isn't operating, it's $5 to ride the trails and $1 to hike them.
Need advice on where to ride or hike? Ask at the center. Mountain bikers can sign up for a two-hour, guided trail tour offered on weekends at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. ($10 per person).
Call: Whitetail at (717) 328-9400