A ski resort with terrain for all levels and closeby lodging, lots of apres ski activities and a good ski school make for great vacations on snow.
If you live in the midst of the majestic Rocky Mountains, you just might be asking, “What’s so special about Midwest ski resorts?” But the answer is all around them. Good skiers and snowboarders who learned our sports on the hills and, yes, mountains that sit in the middle of the country.
That’s why Vail Resorts, for example, has acquired nine Midwest ski resorts in recent years in all of the central states. Families learn to ski well at home and, as soon as they’re comfortable, they’ll take their first big ski trip together to the Rockies – presumably to a Vail Resort property. By the way, American downhill star Cindy Nelson hailed from Lutsen, while Lindsey Vonn (then Lindsey Kildow) honed her skills on the racing trails at little Buck Hill in the Minneapolis suburbs.
The 76 Midwest ski areas vary in size and scope, just as they do in all regions. Some are mere hills to play on. Villa Olivia in Elgin is one of those. But, Chicagoland skiers enjoy plying their pizza turns on Villa’s 180-foot vertical before moving on up to bigger challenges.
Is there big time Western-style skiing here? For sure. Just head to Lutsen Mountains in the Sawtooth Mountains, way, way, way north of most anything (250 miles north of Minneapolis if you’re counting). This is the biggest ski resort in the Midwest, hands down. Here, four inter-connected peaks tower over Lake Superior and you can ski or ride on more than 1,000 skiable acres. Choose from close to 100 trails.
And in between? Count ‘em: Michigan hosts 49 ski areas, while Wisconsin is home to 34, second and third to only New York State. Let’s take a tour.
Frankly, most will do the trick. But, one of the best places to keep the family entertained for a long weekend or more is Crystal Mountain Ski Resort, a true four-seasons family-owned resort 28 miles southwest of Traverse City. We’re talking 58 trails, cross country, too, 250-plus guest rooms and, best of all, an award-winning Crystal Spa. No one in the family will be bored here.
Another super family-friendly hill is Chestnut Mt. In historic Galena, Ill., close to Chicago overlooking the Mighty Mississippi. There’s plenty of skiing and riding on 48 trails and the vertical is a non-daunting 475 feet, but still plenty for this part of the world. Interested in the terrain parks?The huge terrain park is a real attraction for learning to become a trickster. Things get a bit upside down here with the hotel and village atop the mountain, instead of the base.
Close to Central Ohio? The family-owned, ultra-family-friendly Snow Trails Resort in Mansfield is a great option. The lodging is close by, but not right at the resort. The terrain is 60 percent beginner and intermediate, but the intermediate and limited advanced will keep all members of the family engaged. No one will lose their way on 300-foot vertical and it’s a perfect place to learn to ski or ride.
But, what about adults and couples?
It depends what you’re looking for, of course. If it’s hard-core skiing, then head to Mt. Bohemia in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Did we say beginners and maybe intermediates? No, we didn’t. Mount Bohemia is extreme and intense where you can test your skills against this ungroomed mountain. There’s generous lake-effect snow falling on the longest vertical in the region. There’s even a “backcountry” here where you’ll say “oh, chute” and more.
Is mild and classy your cup of snow? Boyne Mountain Resort, in Boyne Falls (closest airport is Traverse City) has it all. It’s had it all for more since Everett Kirchner opened up the 500-foot vertical in 1948. It’s mostly beginner and intermediate terrain. It’s great for families, of course, but adults will take in apres-ski fun right there at the Trophy Room Pub, Forty Acres Tavern and cozy up to fire with drinks at the Back Forty Biergarten.
We’ll cop out and give three “bests” for different reasons. You can’t beat Lutsen Mountains for that Western-like Rockies feel, but it is a bit of a trek.
A relatively close cluster of ski areas make our “best list” surrounding the afore-mentioned Boyne Mountain. Its sister at Boyne Highlands is in Harbor Springs. Nubs Nob, also in Harbor Springs. Schuss Mountain at Shanty Creek in Bellaire and Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville.
Lots of fun and lots of choices complete our best list in Wisconsin Dells. Play on the slopes of Cascade Mountain, Christmas Mountain Village, Devil’s Head and Tyrol Basin.
The season gets going relatively early here, with Wild Mountain in Taylor Falls on the St. Croix River generally leading the way in November. Don’t wait too late in the season as it can peter out in later March in most years. February, even though the Presidents Holidays up the crowd count, will likely bring the best skiing. Brave the colder January for less crowded slopes.
Of course, you can head to Chicago’s Midway and O'Hare and Detroit airport and drive anywhere in the region to ski. Chestnut Mt. In Galena is a good choice close to Chicago and Mt. Brighton is a winner near Detroit. But, a fun choice is to head to Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City and slide the slopes at the two Boynes, Caberfae, Crystal and even Mystic Ridge/Mount Norquay in Canada. Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport is within a long snowball’s throw of a bunch of choices, with Boston Mills/Brandywine a very good choice.
A tip for first-timers.
Look for the closest ski area to where you live in the Midwest. You’ll find one with so many choices. Sign up for a series of weekly lessons as the season gets underway. Voila. You’ll be skiing or riding entire hills and mountains before you know it. A Rocky Mountain trip just might be on your horizon.