DAVIS — A quarter after 12 on a bitterly cold Friday in Tucker County, only a handful of people milled around the sled run at Blackwater Falls State Park while a Nickelback song blared from the park sound system.
Nobody was on the hill, overlooking the warming hut and ticket window. The parking lot was nearly empty as Amanda Armentrout watched her two kids and the son of a friend play in the snow.
They’d driven over an hour from Mineral County to come sledding and take a break from being stuck inside the house. It was their first time to visit in December.
“My family always comes here in the summer. It’s beautiful,” she said. “We’ve never been here in the winter.”
Between the holidays and the hybrid scheduling at school, Armentrout said they just needed a break from being indoors — and her kids had never been sledding before.
They didn’t have snow where they lived, and the past few winters hadn’t seen a lot of snow. But there was plenty here on the top of the mountains.
State park ranger Cassidy Norman, who manages the sled run at Blackwater Falls, said Tucker County was having a pretty good year for real snow and, so far, the temperatures were cooperating.
“You need the temperature to be at least 27 degrees to make snow,” she explained. “This year, we’ve had snow and good temperatures. Last year, not as much.”
Norman explained that along with the sled run, the park offers trails for cross country skiing. The park can make snow for the sled run, which is confined to one steep hill, but they can’t make snow for cross country skiing.
“This year, people can cross country ski. It’s been great,” she said.
The sled run is open Thursday through Sunday with sledding sessions at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, there’s an extra evening session at 7 p.m.
Each session has a two-hour window, though a portion of the second hour is devoted to grooming the snow surface, which keeps the snow from becoming too packed down and smooth.
The smoother and more like ice the surface, the faster a sled will go.
Norman said the average speed coming down the hill is about 27 miles per hour, but it’s been clocked as high as around 40 miles per hour.
Fun is fun, but too fast is dangerous. She said they’d been lucky and hadn’t had any serious injuries on the sled run since she joined two years ago, but ski patrol is nearby.
Visitors who want the fastest ride down the hill should come at night, when the temperatures drop.
“That one moves pretty fast,” Norman said.
The time inside that two-hour block that guests of the park have to sled was generally ample, she said. People, particularly with small children, get cold and they get tired.
The line at the beginning of the session can go upwards of 50 yards but tends to dwindle over the course of the first hour, as sledders opt to warm up around one of the fire rings or get a cup of hot chocolate.
Blackwater Falls State Park’s sledding run is a modern take on the old sled hill. There’s no dragging a Flexible Flyer up to the top to go back down again.
To get to the top of the hill, sledders ride their park-issued red, plastic sleds on a quarter mile long conveyor belt, referred to as “the magic carpet.”
At the top of the hill, sledders pick up their sleds, walk them over to the hill and ride down. Then they get back in line and go again.
The trip down takes less than a minute. The ride up takes about five.
Before anyone takes that magic carpet ride, the group in the session is assembled and given a quick safety talk.
David Faunce has been giving safety talks at the park for the past six years but has been part of the winter sport scene in Tucker County for over 40 years, mostly as a ski instructor.
“If you live somewhere that has four months of winter every year, you better learn to embrace winter sports or you’re just going to be miserable,” he said.
Instructions are basic — how to turn, how to slow and stop, what will probably happen if you plant your heels hard while coming down the hill in the sled.
The sled run has been in operation since the 1960s, but the park only began taking online reservations for the run last year.
Currently, the park offers 90 slots online for sledders and leaves 10 for walk-in park visitors.
“We were a little anxious about doing that at first,” park superintendent Matthew Baker said. “We didn’t want to discourage anyone, but it turned out to be both a really good thing.”
Baker said many times, there’d been families who’d driven three or four hours to come sledding only to be turned back because the park was already sold out of tickets for the day.
Advance reservations helped keep things running smoothly last season. This season, it’s helped control crowd size during the pandemic.
Any hope that Armentrout and her kids would have the sledding run to themselves vanished 20 minutes before the 1 p.m. session was supposed to begin. The parking lot filled up and a snowsuit-clad crowd appeared almost out of nowhere.
There were plenty of West Virginians at the sled run, including newlyweds Kennie and Tammy Kline from Parkersburg who were out in the snow, part of their whirlwind honeymoon trip around the state. But many others had driven from out of state to enjoy the park.
John and Amy Matthews from Pinehurst, North Carolina, brought their two children, Blakely and Allie, to sled ride — a rarer experience where they live in North Carolina.
“We get snow,” he said. “Just not as much and none right now.”
John Epton and his 8-year-old daughter, Hannah, came from Pittsburgh.
Hannah had never been on a sled and was excited to try it out. Her father was, too.
“Oh, I haven’t been on a sled since I was a kid,” he said.
John and Tania Dubose from Washington, D.C., brought their son, Alex.
Tania, originally from Eastern Europe, said she’d been sledding many times, but her husband, John, was from Texas.
He laughed and said, “No. We don’t get this kind of snow and don’t have any place to do this kind of thing.”
He was looking forward to giving it a try.
Norman said the park was having a good season and that the past year had been busy for parks everywhere.
“It makes good sense,” she said. “It’s very easy to socially distance out here. You can just stick with your little group, your family, and enjoy the day without having to worry.”
The sled run is tied to the ski season, which for Blackwater Falls State Park begins a couple of weeks before Christmas and runs to about the middle of March.
“Until around St. Patrick’s Day, but dependent on weather,” Norman said.