Think again If, when you think Mississippi River, you envision Mark Twain, riverboats and gambling, There's skiing and riding along those shores.
The Mississippi is America's largest and longest river, and the world's third longest river system. It's been immortalized by the prose of Mark Twain and in songs like Old Man River. Many Americans would be hard pressed to name all 10 states through which this 2,300-mile waterway flows, and even the savviest snowsports enthusiasts probably have no idea its shores are home to four ski areas. Heartland skiers and riders know better.
Those four areas, perched along craggy bluffs and ridges overlooking the wide Mississippi River Valley, are scattered from Illinois to Minnesota. Chestnut Mountain in northern Illinois and Sundown Mountain found across the river above Dubuque, Iowa, are the southernmost. Mt. LaCrosse is the lone Wisconsin ski area, and Coffee Mill the lone Minnesota area.
The river bluffs provide legitimate vertical drops ranging from 400 to more than 500 feet. Because they are irregular in shape - bent and folded - these ski areas provide some of the most interesting terrain in the region, from long blue cruisers to surprising steeps. The eye-catching scenery along the rugged, rock-bound bluffs is remarkably alpine in nature.
Here's a quick ski tour of the Mississippi.
Chestnut Mountain, one of the Heartland's oldest ski resorts is the only full service resort among the four. The resort, complete with a hotel, restaurants and lounges, is located above historic Galena, Ill. It's situated on a bluff overlooking the wide river and offers jaw-dropping views. It offers a 475-foot vertical drop, 19 trails, the seven-acre Far Side Terrain Park, halfpipe, a rail garden, six chair lifts, and three surface tows. Chestnut has been named among the top 10 Midwest ski resorts on more than one occasion.
Sundown Mountain is perched on an escarpment above Dubuque from which you see three states; Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Two day lodges sit atop the 475-foot escarpment. The ski area features a variety of slopes and trails, and one of the best terrain parks and halfpipes in the region featuring a monster wall and numerous rails. The majority of the slopes and trails are rambling cruisers. A few short, steep shots like Gun Barrel and Head Wall provide quick adrenaline rushes. It also has one of the best teaching programs in the Heartland.
Mt. LaCrosse is a delightful sprawl of runs, knolls, chutes and headwalls, and its 512-foot vertical drop is biggest among the river ski areas. It's also home to some of the toughest and steepest runs. Damnation, a headwall nestled in a natural bowl with little sunshine, is rock-hard, long and steep. It deserves its double black-diamond rating. Some runs are a mile in length. It feels like a New England mini-Stowe. The quaint day lodge has one of the best ski bars - the St. Bernard Room - in the Midwest.
Coffee Mill is also a delight to ski. This small, community-run area located about a half-hour south of Red Wing, Minn., sits back in a horseshoe-shaped canyon. It operates on a limited schedule Wednesday through Sunday opening late afternoon midweek and mornings on weekends. Coffee has a 425-foot drop, 10 runs, and three lifts. Strong on blue cruisers, the area does offer a couple of long easy runs and one of the best advanced runs in the Heartland. O'Chute, a Western-like run with a constant steep pitch, starts out narrow at the top and slowly widens as it drops sharply down the bluff. The views of the river valley are splendid, and it's very reasonably priced. You won't spend more than $30 on weekends and less midweek.
Some of these river ski areas have been catering to Heartland skiers for nearly 50 years. Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota skiers and riders have long known that these deep river valleys, gouged out by retreating glacial waters centuries ago, provide some of the best slopes in the hinterland.
Now you also know.