By Harley Nefe
The winter season across the mountains calls for lots of cool sports like ice skating, snow tubing, skiing and snowboarding. And there’s a popular activity that tends to introduce children to this winter fun: sledding.
One of the well known places children can always be seen sledding is Beech Mountain. The Town of Beech Mountain has offered the only municipal sledding hill in the southeast for many years, and this year, sledding in Beech Mountain just got even better.
The Town of Beech Mountain has been busy building a brand new sledding hill along with establishing a 120-space parking lot, playground and restroom facility by the pre-existing Bark Park.
The original sledding hill was next to the Visitor Center off of Beech Mountain Parkway, and it has since been landscaped and will no longer be available for sledding.
“Although it was very attractive and was tremendously important to visitors of Beech Mountain, it didn’t suit the needs,” said Bob Pudney, Beech Mountain’s Town Manager and Fire Chief.
He further described that the old sledding hill was small, had a power pole in the middle, and the runout was against a fence.
“There were just a lot of safety concerns with that original sledding hill,” Pudney said. “People would have to park across the street and walk across the parkway. During bad weather days, there were hundreds, if not several thousands, of people crossing the road to get to the sledding hill. So, although it was immensely popular, when you looked at it from an operational perspective, there were some safety issues.”
There has been a desire and talk between the residents of Beech Mountain for a number of years to either close or relocate the sledding hill because of safety, insurance and liability issues.
The idea of relocating the sledding hill was able to come to fruition after construction of the new public works facility began. To make way for the public works facility, the Town of Beech Mountain ended up with about 300 loads of topsoil that they would have had to pay in order to haul off the mountain unless they found another use for it, like a sledding hill.
The area where the new sledding hill is located consists of three lots. Sections of it are owned by the Town of Beech Mountain, the Accardi family who owns the Famous Brick Oven Pizzeria and Jim Brooks who serves as the Beech Mountain Volunteer Fire Department Board President and works as a realtor/broker for Beechwood Realty.
“We approached them and said we would like to move the sledding hill and put it on those three pieces of property, build a bathroom and a parking lot, and turn it into a safer bigger environment, be able to make better snow and attract more people,” Pudney said.
Both Brooks and the Accardi family agreed to let the Town of Beech Mountain use their land to make the new sledding hill.
“Without the cooperation of the property owners, Jim Brooks and the Accardis, this couldn’t have happened,” Pudney said. “The town didn’t own the land. We own the piece where the hill is, but the runout and all that belongs to Jim Brooks and the Accardis. Without their support, this couldn’t have happened.”
Brooks described his friendship with Pudney and explained why he agreed to allow the town to landscape his acre of meadow land adjacent to the Bark Park.
“Our incredible Town Manager and Fire Chief Bob Pudney and I go to meetings together, and we talked about the fact that my property wasn’t steep enough,” he explained. “These kids want a real rush when they sled, so we dumped the topsoil there.”
They piled the topsoil on the land, worked it in and landscaped it to make the sledding hill.
Brooks has always been supportive of the sledding opportunities Beech Mountain offers, but also realized there were problems with the original hill.
“Right from the get-go we realized the other hill was a little bit difficult,” he said. “We had to have some slow down mats and lifeguards. It didn’t look like it, but the other hill was really, really steep, and we were getting huge crowds.”
Brooks further described, “You won’t believe it. People would come and sled until the kids were cold, and then they would go home and another group would come in. I bet you there were days where that sledding hill got 1,000 people. I’ve always known that if we can get them here and then they go another mile, they would find the ski village and venture into doing ice skating or snow tubing. Sledding is another reason for people to be here.”
The new hill is completely cushioned and fenced in, and the elevation is 5,110 feet according to the government GIS map.
“It’s wider and longer than the old hill by quite a bit,” Pudney described. “Because we were able to create it from flat land, we were able to build the hill to be safer and accommodate more people. A lot of the problems of the old sledding hill was that it was too crowded in such a small area, and people were running into each other, and we had a number of injuries due to sledders running into other sledders. Not to say that this will make that go away completely, but it’s much wider. We put up a nice fence and covered it in cushions. It’s a much more enjoyable and safer experience.”
Brooks was one of the volunteers who could often be seen making snow for the original sledding hill.
“I took a fire truck up there one day and pumped it so I knew exactly how much water it used,” he said. “It took 1,250 gallons an hour, and then I just got to shooting the snow gun. I kept it going really good for about 13 years. It’s just what we do.”
The Town of Beech Mountain still has the old airless snow gun that Brooks used to operate on the old hill.
“Brooks was the first main one to make snow out there to begin with, and he did for many years,” said Fred Pfohl, owner of Fred’s General Mercantile. “It’s a community effort by a lot of people, and now the recreation department is taking over the whole operation from snowmaking and the upkeep of the area where the sledding hill is. They also have a crew that monitors it certain hours when the sled hill is open. It really worked out good. It’s a combination of everybody wanting to do something for kids, and it just adds more to make Beech Mountain a special place where people want to come and return to. Sledding has always been a big deal since we started it.”
Pfohl remembers when the original sledding hill opened roughly 16 years ago. He was the Mayor of Beech Mountain when the town bought its first airless snow gun from an Areco salesman.
“I can think back to shortly after we became incorporated into a town,” Pfohl described. “We got busy, and I don’t know exactly what year it was that we bought the first snow gun, but I remember that we had to go to the Town Council and ask them, and they were nice and generous to provide us with money to buy the first one.”
He continued, “We bought the first one when they were just beginning new technology on the portable type of snow guns where all you had to do was plug into electricity and hook water up to it and they could make snow. Of course now they have all these other fancy snow machines that all the slopes have, but we got it on the first generation. We actually still have that very first snow making machine, and it still works. The way we got that first machine was that the salesman for the company was on his way down to Beech Mountain Ski Resort to talk them into buying these new guns he was selling. One Friday afternoon he rode by the store, and I saw that thing going down the road, and I knew exactly what it was. I got in my car and followed him all the way down to the ski slope, and he was showing it to whoever down there, and so I went up talked to him and said, ‘The Town of Beech Mountain has a sledding hill, and we’re interested in trying to make snow on it. Come back tomorrow morning and talk to us about your snow gun.’ And so he did, and that’s when we got the Town Council to put aside some money to buy the very first one, and we’ve been making snow on the hill ever since.”
Now the Town of Beech Mountain has two new airless snow guns in addition to the older one.
“Thanks to the good year with occupancy tax and so forth, the TDA has been generous with us and allowed us to buy another new snow gun, so we actually have two state of the art big snow guns that we use, and we just got one in about the week before Christmas and so we can really, really, really turn out the snow there,” Pfohl said. “The town has done a great job. It’s really an amazing deal having it all worked out after all these years. We started with the area right beside the Town Hall and the Visitor Center, and that’s been used up until last year, so it was a confined area that never was big enough, but we did what we needed to do to have electric hookup for the snowmaking gun and everything, and Brooks really was the one who pushed the idea to moving it across the street up on the hill.”
Pfohl further said, “I’d venture to say that we’re the only town in the country that has a sledding hill with their own snow guns that they make snow on, and now believe it or not, the town has figured out a new way to provide water.”
One of the problems with the old sledding hill was that it was using town drinking water to make snow. However, now the water comes from an old town well that had its use in the early days of Beech Mountain, and the water from that well fills an unused 60,000 gallon tank to provide the snowmaking water.
Jim Brooks said this solution came about largely from help by Bob Pudney.
“He figured out the things only a fireman would figure out,” Brooks said. “There’s a well from back in the 60s up there across the street from the sledding hill, and he’s pumping the water from that well. They brought it back into an empty 60,000 gallon tank and then he put a pump on that tank to give the proper pressure. I used to come off a fire hydrant when I made snow, and whatever pressure we got is what we got. It wasn’t quite perfect, but he can do that now.”
Pudney further explained, “When we moved the hill, we had an original well. It was low in capacity, so it really didn’t have the capacity to do anything, and it’s been sitting there for decades, so we repurposed a water tank that had been taken out of service, and we piped the well to that tank and took the tank out of the municipal water supply system.”
Fred Pfohl added, “Our present town manager Bob Pudney has helped us, and he’s worked with everything so much, and he has a passion for wanting to make Beech Mountain the best possible place in the world for those of us who live here and those that visit here. As the inspiration came along for different things, he was always on board and helped us be able to get these things working.”
In addition to the sledding hill, snow guns and water system, there’s a new town parking lot that has been built adjacent to the area that allows people to park not only for the sledding hill but the Bark Park too. The parking lot provides 120 paved parking spaces whereas before the Bark Park only had about five parking spots.
“Last year, we were inundated like everyone was with visitors during the COVID issue, and it brought to light something we knew, which was that there was not enough available parking in the town,” Pudney said. “There was no municipal parking in the town, and we had a tremendous issue when the resort was full, and all the restaurants were full, and the ski shops were full that people didn’t have a place to park, and they were parking on the sides of the roads, and they were parking in fields and then with poor weather were getting stuck, so we approached the TDA to fund 100% building a 120-space paved parking lot. It’s pay for park, and we use an innovative, state of the art system where there’s no meters, there’s no up front hardware to either purchase and put in place or maintain. It uses an app on your phone, and it’s been very successful. We got it up just before Thanksgiving, and it’s been running continuously. That’s a good revenue stream, and the council has directed me to use that to improve that recreational area.”
Through TDA funding, the Town of Beech Mountain also put in a playground at the dog park and is building a bathroom to act as a warming area and support building.
“Our taxpayers didn’t pay anything for the entire complex: the sledding hill, the snow guns, the pump, the tank, the parking lot. It was all funded through TDA money,” Pudney said. “We’re turning it into a winter recreational center, but we’ll use it year-round.”
The best part about the sledding hill is that it’s free for residents and visitors to use. However, there are a few rules that must be followed. People have to use plastic sleds. They can’t have anything with steel runners for recognizable safety reasons. Also, similar to how the old sledding hill operated, there is an age limit of 12 years old.
“That makes it safer for all the little ones,” Fred Pfohl explained. “It’s really for small kids to be able to go out and enjoy sledding. Perhaps it’s their first exposure to snow if they’re from way down south.”
The new sledding hill is carrying on a tradition that’s been going on over 15 years. It’s a place where families can bring their young children to get some sledding in and introduce them to the wonders of Beech Mountain.
“The free sledding hill is a tremendous attraction to the town,” Bob Pudney said. “It has been in the past, and it is now. If I put the least little bit of snow on that hill, it’s packed. The success of Beech Mountain is because the community, the businesses, and the taxpayers all come together, and we make things happen.”
This is just another example of the community coming together within the town’s 40 years and making it a magical place as Pfohl describes it.
“The Town of Beech Mountain has gone all out in the past 12 months to make things that much more user friendly there at the top of the hill where the sledding hill is,” he said. “It’s kind of an ingenious system. The town has really worked hard to get everything set up and running, and it is nice that we can do all that we do, and it’s great. We have the past town councils, the town’s forefathers and the bank for letting us get into it, and with a few volunteers like Jim Brooks and other folks that have helped through the years, we’ve been able to. Just like everything else in the world, especially on Beech Mountain, it doesn’t come by easily, and it’s not just one day you decide to do it. There’s always a lot of talk about it and lots of ups and downs and a lot of headaches trying to get everything perfect, but I do think we do have it down about as good as you can get now.”