The all-volunteer Laurel Summit Nordic Ski Patrol had the warming hut in the Forbes State Forest open and welcoming when our party of three arrived at 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
We changed into our cross-country footwear in the hut, stepped into our bindings in the nearby snow-covered parking lot and used Laurel Summit Road to reach the Bill Albert Trail.
We side-stepped up and over a knee-high bank of compacted snow deposited by a PennDOT snowplow operator and followed a set of tracks in eight inches of fresh snow through a thick stand of mountain laurel in a winter wonderland setting.
At the top of a short hill, the trail leveled off and wound its way through well-spaced Appalachian hardwood trees.
We had the one-mile trail to ourselves for almost an hour.
We took our time descending a short hill to reach the Locust Camp Trail. The trail, which requires -- and had -- good snow cover, offers two options. A right turn leads to the closed Laurel Mountain Ski Area. A left turn leads back to Laurel Summit Road.
We stopped for a water break halfway up the trail and enjoyed the quiet. It started to snow as we reached the road where two animated huskies dug in their paws to pull their owner down the road on a short sled.
The snow continued as we made our way back to our cars. We pulled off to the side of the road several times to clear the way for snowmobilers and motorists, several of whom drove faster than they should have on the snow-packed road.
The ski patrol is on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most weekends, conditions permitting. They offer hot and cold beverages, light snacks, candy bars, hand-warmers and trail maps for a donation.
There is no trail fee, and rustic restrooms are next to the hut.
More than a dozen miles of trails are available for cross-country skiing. They range in difficulty from easy to advanced.
Avoid the trails that are set aside for snowmobilers and use caution where the ski trails intersect with the snowmobile trails.
The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail also passes through the area but isn't suitable for skiing or snowmobiling.
Veteran ski patroller Fred Fargotstein advises cross-country skiers to carry a fanny pack or backpack with an extra layer of clothing, a fire-building kit in case of an emergency, a flashlight, a fully-charged cell phone, a trail map, hydration and food/energy bars.
He recommends dressing in layers, pacing yourself, having at least one companion and checking equipment before setting out.
After lunch at The Kitchen on Main in Ligonier, we returned to Donegal where my companions got on the turnpike for the trip back to Pittsburgh. I returned my rental equipment to Thrifty Ski Rental on Route 31, a well-staffed business owned by Ellen Slifcak that lives up to its name.
A complete set of cross-country and downhill skis costs $15; snowboards are $22 and snowshoes are $10. Helmets are $8. It's open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
Information: www.war-nordic.org (724-238-6568); www.kitchenonmain.com (724-238-4199); and 724-593-6404 for Thrifty Ski Rental.
Eat, drink and be tubin'.
Seven Springs is hosting Tube-A-Palooza in its snow-tubing area from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every Tuesday, and Hidden Valley is holding Family Tubing Parties from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Thursday.
The $23 cost per person includes a snow-tubing ticket and an all-you-can-eat buffet of pizza, hot dogs, fountain drinks and hot chocolate.
Information: www.7springs.com (1-800-452-2223); www.hiddenvalleyresort.com (1-814-443-8000).
Larry Walsh writes about recreational snow sports for the Post-Gazette.