Listen here:    Laurel In Winter

There was nothing unusual about this Saturday morning in February; it was hospitable in a dull-gray way. Temperatures were in the upper 20s, and there was little wind to stir the few inches of fresh snow that had fallen over the previous day or so.

Less than a half-dozen cars were parked in the long lot that parallels Laurel Summit Road. Inside the Warming Hut across the road, though, there was plenty of activity.


Members of the Laurel Summit Nordic Ski Patrol were checking over their gear, which ranges from a snowmobile and rescue sled to emergency medical supplies. Volunteers were getting the Warming Hut ready for the day: stoking the fire in the barrel-style wood stove, hanging out signs, preparing coffee, heating water, putting out packaged snacks and loading a slow-cooker with hot dogs and sauerkraut.


Before long, more vehicles were parking. This initial wave of people predominantly were older (as are most of the volunteers and ski patrollers) – later middle-aged and retired folks who enjoy being active and outdoors.


Because of the relatively thin snow-pack atop Laurel Ridge at that time, just about all of these people were cross-country skiing. Had the bed of snow been deeper, there would have been many more snowshoers.


By mid-morning, enough people were out on Laurel Summit’s trails that there were occasional traffic jams at trail junctions. Rather than road rage, however, these contented souls simply exchanged light-hearted comments about trail conditions and the weather.


Dozens of vehicles nearly filled the long parking lot by noon. And by this point, the winter gathering was gaining different demographics with younger couples, including those with small children, now part of the mix.


As usual, the Warming Hut was the social center, alive with conversation and activity. People were peeling outerwear, getting or eating food, relaxing at picnic tables, looking over a trail map with a ski patroller or comparing experiences.


On this particular day, the crowd was overwhelmingly comprised of cross-country skiers because of the snow conditions. But on other days, when there’s a fresh blanket of deeper powder, skiers will be joined by snowshoers, snowmobilers and even mushers (dogsled enthusiasts).


We are used to thinking of our region’s ski resorts as the places where winter enthusiasts gather, and, of course, that’s quite true. Such sites offer joyful mob scenes of downhill skiers, snowboarders, tubers and their associates, enjoying our Allegheny highlands.


But there’s something about the spontaneous and eclectic character of Laurel Summit (just off US Route 30 west of Jennerstown) that offers a distinctive charm all its own.


Here, there are no lift tickets or hours of operation. People come and go as they want, governed only by the conditions.


While the ski patrollers, food and other amenities are available only on the weekends, the main room of the Warming Hut is open around the clock with firewood, kindling, newspaper and matches always available to fire up the wood burner.


The forest and dozens of miles of separate snowmobile and cross-country trails enable you to be as isolated as you want, yet readily available maps keep you from getting lost. (These same cross-country ski trails are used by hikers and mountain bikers during the warmer seasons.)


Laurel Summit is most alive on spotless blue-sky Saturdays, when there’s a thick blanket of fresh snow on the ground. Then, snowshoers, skiers, snowmobilers, mushers and photographers converge; parking areas spill over; and the atmosphere is as celebratory as at any ski resort.


But even on a typical dull-gray day when a thin snow-pack barely covers the trail, Laurel Summit still has a lot to offer: winter beauty, outdoor exercise, the warmth of shelter and the companionship of kindred souls.


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Laurel Summit: Another Place to Celebrate Winter


By Dave Hurst


© 2013 Hurst Media Works