See another side of outdoor recreation at Elk River Inn and Restaurant
Gil Willis and his wife, Mary, are visionaries in the local outdoor leisure scene.
"We're kind of recreational pioneers in a lot of ways," said Gil, owner of Elk River Inn and Restaurant at Slatyfork.
The outdoor recreational opportunities at Elk River Inn during the wintertime go beyond just downhill skiing or snowboarding.
"We're the only people that do cross-country skiing," said Willis. "We started cross-country skiing here about 1980. We have a small program, we have about 10 kilometers of trails here. Our trails go up the mountain above us, different levels of ability depending how steep or long they are. We rent equipment, we do lessons, we sell used equipment from time to time, we also do tours for groups."
In addition to cross-country skiing, the Elk River Inn is one of the only outfitters in the area that rents snowshoes.
"We rent snowshoes here, we let people snowshoe on our property. We also maintain and keep clear some trails that are at the base of Sharp's Knob, up on Sharp's Knob and also up off the Scenic Highway," said Willis. "People that have knee or hip or ankle problems, snowshoeing is physically easier for them."
Snowshoeing doesn't just provide a peaceful opportunity for outdoor exercise, but also an insight into nature that many people don't get a chance to experience.
"It's breathtaking, spectacular. It's nice, it's quiet, good exercise. As a skier for years and years and years, I thought it would be too slow for me. It's kind of nice, though. You can go off-trail, get in a good workout. One of things I enjoy the most is that when you're walking away from a packed cross-country ski trail, and you're just in virgin snow, you really get a good idea of the tracks in the snow. Little animal tracks. You get a feel for what's moving around out there in the winter. You know, small things, mice, rabbits, squirrels. It's kind of neat to ID a lot of that stuff," said Willis.
Elk River Inn maintains a friendly, helpful stance towards outdoorsmen not familiar to the area.
"We have maps, we don't mind pointing people with their own equipment in the right direction. We're very open to getting people out in the woods in the winter," said Willis.
Elk River is also a pioneer in the snowboard and ski rental and retail business.
"We opened the very first snowboard shop in the state in 1989 in this building and then we moved it closer to the resort. We started renting cross-country skis in 1981 at this location here and it's always kind of been an amenity. The weather here is consistent enough to ski but you do have thaws in the winter. Anything on a north facing slope for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is better because the snow stays longer and doesn't melt as quick," said Willis.
Willis attributes his success in helping shape the local outdoor culture to hard work and his wife, Mary.
"This whole thing evolved with very little money and a lot of hard work, and a real solid partner in my wife," said Willis.
"I always think of this place as an oasis in this vast forest. There's nothing really quite like this place in the county. We are environmentalists, we're conservationists, we're outdoor people."