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.
Sometimes it’s fun to uncover the unexpected. Wisconsin, for example, is known as the Badger State, but not named essentially for that squat looking mammal. It’s named for the early miners – the Ho Chunks and others – who spent their winters in their mining holes. They became known as badgers. Besides those early "Cheeseheads" kept badgers for pets.
Similarly, the Wisconsin ski resorts in the so-called Badger State are full of surprises for skiers and snowboarders. No, it’s not the Rockies with its soaring peaks, wide open snow fields and bowls; it’s still the Midwest. But you’ll find plenty of action anywhere in the state within an hour’s drive of wherever you happen to be. Even if you’re working or visiting in Chicago or Milwaukee, plan an extra day or two to play on snow.
The Badger State stretches from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior, with streams and lakes nestled into rolling, forested hills that make outdoor recreation one of Wisconsin's biggest draws. Northerly climate with cold and snow, combined with natural beauty and some appreciable vertical drops for the Heartland - along with its location in the Lake Superior snow belt - make the state's ski resorts popular across the Midwest states.
Granite Peak rises high above Wassau and many skiers and riders consider it one of the best ski resorts in the Midwest. Rib Mountain is the highest point in the Badger State - hence the highest ski resort, and that’s where you’ll ski and ride the biggest ski resort in Wisconsin. By the way, skiing on this granite outcropping dates back to the 1930s, putting it in rather good company with Stowe, VT and Sun Valley, Idaho. There are 400 acres of the north-facing mountain with a 700-foot vertical drop (best in the state) and 74 trails served by 7 lifts, including 2 high-speed quads. Granite is one of the best venues for night skiing as well. Is it the best? Find out for yourself, but you won’t go wrong here.
Cascade Mountain is set on a long ridge overlooking highways I-90/I-94. It is indeed one of the best day areas in the region. Chicago is three hours away, Milwaukee less than two and Madison just a scant 30 minutes. Eleven lifts, including 2 high-speed, detachable quads, move skiers and riders uphill at a good clip. The compact 450-foot ski mountain offers 44 trails, 4 terrain parks and 2 half pipes. Its bump runs are legendary. Mogul Monster, for example, is open to experts only (those with good knees, for sure). Cascade Mountain has added several new beginner and intermediate runs to help alleviate the “too tough” image it projects.
Devil's Head Resort, in the scenic Baraboo Bluffs region of central Wisconsin between Madison and Wisconsin Dells, has a 500-foot vertical drop, 30 runs across 300 acres, nine lifts, multiple restaurants and lodging options. The Devil's Head Resort is located a little over half an hour from Milwaukee and Madison, and three hours from Chicago. The trails are cut on south-facing ski slopes towards the Lake Wisconsin area of the Wisconsin River and offer a range of ability levels so the whole family will be happy here.
Wilmot is a fairly small and fun ski area with a 190-foot vertical drop with skiing and riding on 120 acres. These days, it's part of the Vail Resorts family and its Epic Pass program. There's a long run of 2,500 feet to make the visit worthwhile and give your legs a workout. No telling how many thousands and thousands of Chicagoland skiers have learned to ski here in the last 80 years. The area is ideal for night skiers. Just follow the stream of taillights heading north out of Chicago or Milwaukee with ski racks on a star-laden winter night and, most likely, they will lead you to Wilmot Mountain.
Alpine Valley is almost a snowball’s throw of 39 minutes from Milwaukee and is just off I-43 near Elkhorn. The ski areas is well-known as a perfect place to learn and get better, moving from beginner to intermediate. The 21 ski trails are short, but that’s mitigated somewhat by three high-speed chairlifts among an assortment of lift configurations. Night skiing is available every evening.
Christie Mountain is small, rather remote and only open from Friday to Sunday in the Blue Hills area of northern Wisconsin near the town of Bruce. Night skiing is available and there are four terrain parks and a separate beginners’ area. There's a snow tubing park, too. Bruce Mound (no relation to the location of Christie which is 90 minutes away) is also only open on weekends. But, there’s snowmaking and a lift.
Christmas Mountain in the Wisconsin Dells is a Christmas present for kids and adults wanting to learn to ski that keeps on giving until spring. It has about 90 percent beginner and intermediate terrain with a smattering of more difficult runs, as well as a park for learning a few tricks. Yes, it’s small with only 16 runs and 1 quad chair, but remains a fun place to ski in a Christmas Village setting.
Grand Geneva at Lake Geneva may have a fancy name, but it is a tiny ski area of 30 acres with just a 211-foot vertical served by 3 chairs and a couple of carpet lifts. A selling point is the 6- acre terrain park with its own dedicated lift. Small but enjoyable is the guideline for this southern Wisconsin ski area.
Hidden Valley is a rather common ski resort name across the country, but Wisconsin’s version is located in the rolling hills 15 minutes south of Green Bay and 10 minutes north of Manitowoc. Hidden Valley offers snowmaking and grooming on 100 percent of the skiable terrain, 5 lifts and about 30 acres on which to play.
Mount La Crosse has been an enjoyable area to ski and ride since 1959. From gentle Mileaway, Wisconsin’s longest run, to Damnation, a very steep trail, you’ll find plenty of variety here. There are 18 slopes and trails with 3 double chairlifts and 1 rope tow. The unique chalet base lodge is a fun place for a break and only 15 minutes from the college town.
Tyrol Basin near Mt. Horeb (the one in Wisconsin, not the Sinai) offers 18 trails served by 5 lifts. It is known for having some of the best terrain parks in the Midwestern United States. The 18 runs are divided about equally by skill levels over 30 acres of terrain. You’ll find it about 30 minutes from Madison.
Sunburst is located about 30 minutes from Milwaukee and you certainly can learn to ski or snowboard here on 11 runs or play in two terrain parks. The biggest draw is the tubing hill with 45 chutes.
Whitecap Mountains Resort is a four-season resort in the Penokee Mountains. It is one of Wisconsin's larger resorts with a vertical drop of 400 feet and skiing and riding available on 400 acres with 36 trails. Choose from among Whitecap's three mountains: Thunderhead, Eagle's Nest and the Whitecap Mountain. There is a good variety of skiing and riding here and, get this: It's one of the few Midwestern ski areas where you actually will need a trail map to navigate.
Good resorts for beginners are Christmas Mountain, Alpine Valley Resort, Granite Peak and Wilmot Mountain. All have designated easy green runs, magic carpet runs or a handle and rope tow lift to test before getting on the lifts, and lesson and equipment rental packages.
Wisconsin actually has some 30 downhill skiing and snowboarding areas, and skiing resorts extend from the Kettle Moraine area to the shores of Lake Superior.
Wisconsin ski areas you will likely want to visit include Alpine Valley, Bruce Mound, Cascade Mountain, Christie Mountain, Devils Head, Grand Geneva, Granite Peak, Little Switzerland, Mount La Crosse, Nordic Mountain, Sunburst, Trollhaugen, Tyrol Basin, Whitecap Mountain, and Wilmot Mountain.
Granite Peak’s 700-foot vertical drop and 400 acres of terrain make it Wisconsin’s biggest and tallest ski resort. The elevation and north-facing slopes generally mean lots of natural snow, plus there’s extensive snowmaking.
Well, the state is filled with "Cheeseheads", i.e., Green Bay Packers football fans, and the Culvers burger chain is giving Americans across the country its fill of cheese curds, but Wisconsin ranks third in the country for the number of ski and snowboard resorts. The ski season starts in the north in November with most resorts open by December running through to March.
Wisconsin is a year-round destination for outdoor activities, and snow sports like skiing and snowboarding add to its popularity when fall turns to winter. The state, due to decent size mountains and a large amount of snow, attracts lots of visitors from neighboring states like Iowa and Illinois as well as being close-by for residents.
Cold. Cold. And colder. Wisconsin has severely cold winters. The harsh winter season is December to February, particularly in the northern regions near Lake Superior. Blizzards can be relatively common during the winter and affect day-to-day life and weather conditions. The sun can disappear for days. February is the coldest month where the average high is 32F but March warms things up a bit to 42F.
Hop in the family car. Simple as that. Driving is the fastest way to get to Wisconsin ski areas. You can make the visit a day trip, a weekend getaway or even a few days more. Most visitors driving from Milwaukee, Madison or Chicago can get to most areas under two hours.
Flying into Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport and regional airports is an option. Airlines servicing Milwaukee Airport are Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and Spirit Airlines.
There sure are. Some are nearby towns for skiing and riding, too. Start with Lake Geneva where the skiing on Grand Geneva "mountain" may be little in scope, but the fun's big year-round. This is a resort destination on Geneva Lake, popular for tourists, especially from the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. It originally had an intriguing, but not as appealing, name, Muck Suck, for a Potawatomi Native American chief. Note that this is a luxury getaway. Add in a spa treatment at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa and be sure to dine at Ristorante Brissago. And, since we talked a bit of history, yes, this is where Hugh Hefner built his first Playboy Resort in the ‘80s. Now it is the Grand Geneva Resort. No more bunnies, since it's no longer appropriate to say "ski bunnies."
No clowning around…but take a side trip to Baraboo if you're skiing in Wisconsin. Baraboo is home to the Circus World Museum, the former headquarters and winter home of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus and now home to a collection of restored antique circus wagons. The Al. Ringling Theatre glistens like it did when it first opened in 1915, thanks to a multi-million-dollar restoration. Baraboo is near Devil's Lake State Park with its quartzize bluffs and panoramic views. Stop for a craft beer at the AL. Brewing Company where the Ringling Family beer recipe was hidden beneath the floorboards of the mansion over 100 years ago! Stay at the Ringling House B&B, original home of one of the brothers.
Stockholm -- no not THAT Stockholm, but the one in Wisconsin -- is about 30 minutes from Badlands Ski Park and has a population of 66 (give or take), largely untouched by urbanization. No chain stores here, but downtown is filled with galleries, boutiques, and a performing arts center. Head to the Stockholm Pie & General where Triple Berry is the best seller. Yes, the roots here are Swedish.
Understand you can't really ski every weekend at Vail or Aspen unless you decide to relocate. But, if you live anywhere in Wisconsin and, for that matter, the neighboring states, you can have a fun few days or weekends on the slopes probably within an hour's drive from most anywhere and not a bad jaunt from Milwaukee or Chicago.