Winter is a beautiful season for hardy outdoor enthusiasts. With breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains and the welcomed sight of snow gently falling, Pocahontas County is truly a winter wonderland.
When the first snow-flakes appear, people look forward to winter activities, such as skiing, snowboarding, ice fishing, or maybe just a winter getaway in the mountains to enjoy some peace and quiet by a fire.
No matter what activity you are looking for, more than likely, Gil and Mary Willis will have you covered at one of their Elk River establishments.
Gil Willis, a native of Alexandria, Virginia, first came to Pocahontas County in 1977, and absolutely loved what he saw. The beauty of the natural landscape, the amazing skiing, and the people really played a big part in his decision to stay here and start a business.
When Gil came to Pocahontas County, his plan was to stay for one winter, so that he could ski and spend time on his family’s land, but after seeing what Snowshoe had to offer, he decided to stay.
“I came here with nothing,” Gil said. “I had a hundred bucks in my pocket, and a small bag of clothes, thinking I would stay for the winter, and enjoy my vacation. But I absolutely loved what I saw. I saw the beauty in the region, and I also saw an opportunity. People that were coming to Snowshoe to ski and snowboard needed lodging. So I decided that I would open a nice, higher quality inn and restaurant for tourists to come and stay.”
Soon after opening his business in Slaty Fork, Gil attended a wedding and ran into an old friend, who is now his wife, Mary. She loved all the things that Gil loved about Snowshoe and Pocahontas County. Together they run the Elk River Inn and Restaurant and Elk River Touring and Information Center.
“Mary’s love for the outdoors and natural affinity for healthy minds and bodies has helped her to provide common sense advice and sustenance for the many guests that visit Elk River Touring Center,” Gil said. “She acts as part-time guide, inn-keeper and restaurateur. The Restaurant at Elk River is nationally acclaimed as one of the best food establishments in the state and surrounding region. Mary is a self-taught chef whose entreés are made from the freshest local ingredients when available. Desserts are her personal favorite, which can complement a wonderful meal. She continues to make the Elk River experience one that is warm and inviting.”
Once they got their business up and going for the winter season, they decided to push it to year-round in 1985.
Their main focus was mountain biking, catering to many tourists needs for guides and equipment.
In 1988 they opened the Elk River Inn and Restaurant, and they haven’t looked back.
“Originally called Willis’ Farm, now the Elk River Inn and Restaurant, we offer many services for tourists and locals looking to enjoy the beauty that Snowshoe and Pocahontas County has to offer,” Willis said. “As an inn and restaurant, we offer free breakfast to people that are staying at our lodging, and we also are open in the evening to serve dinner. The restaurant is open in the winter – Thursday through Sunday evenings. We have never sold lunch here. We also offer lodging in a few cabins that we have for rent, and we sell maps at the main building. We provide outfitting for those wanting to go hiking, whether it is from here or on the Greenbrier River Trail. We provide shuttle service for those wanting to hike or bike from our location, or we can deliver them to where they want to start their hike or bike.”
Another service they provide is catering for events and weddings.
“We always have a few weddings here at our venue, as we have some stunning landscapes a-round here,” Gil continued. “We cater food for the Greenbrier River Race every year. We have a full service fly-fishing guide service here. We provide guided fly-fishing trips around the whole region, from south of Canaan Valley all the way to the New River Gorge. We provide trips for both trout and smallmouth bass.”
Gil and Mary have two sons, Thurston and Gus. Thurston is very involved in the family business, as he is the manager of two additional Willis family businesses – the Elk River Ski and Snowboard shops.
These businesses have two locations – one on top of the mountain at the Soaring Eagle, and the other at a new location at the intersection of Rts. 219 and 66, between the Par Mar and the Fiddlehead.
“Growing up I never really understood the importance of the family business,” Thurston said, “but growing up around the ski resort, doing my fair share of snowboarding, it is something that really started to grow on me. I really didn’t start getting big into the family business until I was out of college. Sure, I worked a few shifts here and there growing up, but back then my passion was going to West Virginia University to get my degree in Graphic Design. And that plays a big part in the way that I work nowadays. When my folks opened up the Fiddlehead, I was the one who designed the logo. We don’t own it anymore, but they still use that same logo to this day. And it also helps me when I am buying gear for the shop. I have to travel to trade shows to purchase the gear and equipment that we are going to sell, and having a background in graphic design helps me find things that people are going to enjoy.”
As the business continues to grow, so do the number of services that they provide.
“We look to provide any service you would need at our shops,” Thurston continued. “We rent and sell skis and snowboards. We have helmets and goggles, boots, heavy duty snow socks, jackets. We can repair and install new bindings, we wax boards, fine tunings to equipment, sharpen edges, and many other things. And if we can’t provide you with a specific service, then we have the knowledge to direct you to someone who can. But I would have to say that our business really revolves around our rentals.”
Thurston also oversees the family’s newest business venture – Snowshoe Ski Delivery, which is a fully equipped van used to deliver ski and snowboard equipment to people who are staying on the mountain and request that their equipment be delivered to them.
“It’s all about convenience,” Thurston said. “It’s a new concept for the east coast, but it is a very popular service out west. It did well for us last year, and it is steadily growing. We have the van that is fully wrapped with our logos that I had the pleasure of creating, and we plan to keep it going for the years to come. Once it catches on, it will be a major service that we provide.”
The Elk River Inn and Restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. during the winter. The Elk River Ski and Snowboard shops are open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. They are open seven days a week beginning with Snowshoe’s opening day and continuing until Snowshoe’s closing day.
Contact Elk River Inn and Restaruant at 304-572-3771; Elk River Ski and Snowboard at 304-572-2550 or 304-572-4173.
Brandon Nottingham may be contacted at email@example.com