Totally Tubular Trek

Where: Western North Carolina, U.S.A.

It started off as a fun, safe way to hit the slopes -- even the kiddies could get into the fun by swooshing down a snowy hillside on an inner tube. Then some adrenaline junkies got into the act, built up a couple of steep moguls, and pretty soon people were catching air for 30 feet (9m) or more. Snowtubing has gone from backyard fun to big business as more and more ski resorts are getting into the act by constructing specially-groomed courses just for snowtubers.

Western North Carolina has emerged as a hotspot (cold spot?) for this wintertime thrill, and a number of resorts on the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains offer snowtubing lessons and runs. Even when conditions for skiing and snowboarding aren't ideal, snowtubing offers resort visitors a good wintertime rush. There isn't much skill involved, so folks can tube the slopes without much in the way of training.

While any fully inflated inner tube will suffice, actual snowtubes are a much better ride -- instead of a "donut hole" in the center, the snowtube is more of a disk that's dimpled in the middle, providing a seat for the rider that reduces drag and increases speed. Speaking of speed, riders can hit some surprising velocities on their downhill run because the snowtube has so little resistance on snow or ice. That fact, plus the near-total lack of steering control, have led to some fairly impressive accidents and injuries. Newcomers -- and people who value their teeth and bones -- might want to obey the signs that instruct them to snowtube only on slopes that are specifically groomed for the tubes.

Safety precautions aside, this is great family fun that can be enjoyed by young kids as well as old-timers -- especially when the snowtubes are lashed together and everyone goes down together. And if that's not enough of a thrill for you, some folks have even taken to towing snowtubes behind snowmobiles -- much to the delight of cosmetic dentists everywhere.

Information: Hawksnest Resort, 2058 Skyline Drive, Seven Devils, NC (tel. 800/822-4295 or 828/963-6561; Moonshine Mountain, 5865 Willow Mtn. Rd., Hendersonville, NC (tel. 828/696-0333;

When to Go: Jan-Mar.

Getting There: Asheville Regional Airport (75 miles/121km).

Where to Stay: Hidden Valley Motel, 8725 NC Hwy 105 South, Boone, NC (tel. 828/963-4372; High Country Inn, 1785 Hwy 105, Boone, NC (tel. 800/334-5605 or 828/264-1000;