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Midwest Ski Resorts: Alternatives to Western Resorts During Pandemic

Cascade Mountain Resort. Courtesy Cascade Mountain Resort.

Story  by Brian E. Clark

For the past decade, Roger Carlson has made at least one winter ski trip to Utah, occasionally two. Some of his favorite resorts include Snowbird, Alta, Park City and Deer Valley. 

But Carlson, who lives in a northern Chicago suburb, says as much as he appreciates the Beehive State’s long and steep slopes – to say nothing of its deep powder – he may be sticking closer to home this season. 

“I’m not sure if I’m comfortable traveling while the pandemic is still going strong,” he said.

Carlson isn’t alone in his decision to put off a Western trip this year.  But that doesn’t mean he can’t ski. 

Carlson said he and his family will be making several ski trips around the Midwest this winter.  And he’s got numerous options, ranging from Chestnut Mountain near Galena, Il., to Cascade Mountain and Devil’s Head in southern Wisconsin’s Baraboo Hills to Indian Head in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, all the way up to Lutsen Mountains on the western edge of Lake Superior.

“They may not have the terrain or challenge of Alta,” he said. “But it’s still fun skiing. And as long as I’m out on the snow, I’m content.”

Here’s a rundown on some of the offerings in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan this winter:

Chestnut Mountain (chestnutmtn.com) :   It may seem like something of a head-scratcher, but one of the better resorts in the Midwest is in the northwest corner of Illinois, perched in the bluffs above the Mississippi River. Not only does Chestnut offering majestic views over the Mighty Mississippi into northeast Iowa, but it has a wide variety of runs, including a few steeps, a 475-foot vertical descent, 10 lifts, a terrain park and a nice hotel that make it a pleasant destination resort.  Distance from downtown Chicago: 180 miles west.

Ski Sundown (sundownmtn.com):  Forty miles to the northwest of Chestnut is Ski Sundown, the best ski resort in Iowa. Like Sundown, it has a vertical of 475 feet, as well as six lifts and two terrain parks. It’s not far from where the movie “Field of Dreams” was filmed. Distance from Chicago:  220 miles. 


Skiing at Wilmot. Courtesy Wilmot Mountain.

Wilmot Mountain (wilmotmountain.com):  Wilmot is the closest ski and snowboard resorts to downtown Chicago at 66 miles north. Generations of skiers have learned here since it opened in 1938. When Vail Resorts bought Wilmot five years ago, the company pumped more than $13 million dollars into the resort, completely upgrading its facilities. Wilmot has 120 skiable acres, 25 trails, seven chair lifts, two surface conveyor lifts, four progression terrain parks with a double high speed rope tow and a vertical of 230 feet. 

Tyrol Basin (tyrolbasin.com):  Located just 20 miles west of Madison and 170 miles from Chicago, Tyrol added tubing runs to its offerings last year. It has five lifts, 18 runs, a bevy of terrain features and a rustic, 100-year-old dairy barn with thick walls that serves as a dining area and bar with an outdoor, elevated deck. 


Tubing at Cascade Mountain. Courtesy Cascade Mountain.

Cascade Mountain (cascademountain.com)  Cascade is 35 miles north of Madison and 180 miles from Chicago. It’s long been popular with parents because kids 12 and under can ski and snowboard for free. It has a 460-foot vertical drop, 45 trails, 15 tubing lanes and 12 lifts, including two, high-speed detachable quads. 

Devil’s Head (devilsheadresort.com)  Located within a few miles of a popular state park and 40 miles from Madison, Devi’s Head is a destination resort that includes a golf course with cross country skiing. But in the winter, it’s the downhill runs that draw thousands of skiers from around the Midwest.  It has a 500-foot vertical drop, 12 lifts, 27 runs, night skiing, lots of long, blue cruisers, great sunsets and views over the Wisconsin River. It is 183 miles from Chicago north. 

Granite Peak (skigranitepeak.com)  This resort sits above the town of Wausau in Rib Mountain State Park and offers a 700-foot vertical drop, the most of any Wisconsin area. It also has 74 trails, seven lifts including a new high-speed quad, night skiing and riding, four terrain parks with more than 35 jibs and 15 jumps. Nearly half of its runs are advanced. It is 280 miles from Chicago.

Boyne Mountain (boynemountain.com)  Located not far from Petoskey – where Earnest Hemingway hunted and fished – is in the northern reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Boyne Mountain is 352 miles from Chicago. It has 12 lifts, a 500-foot vertical drop, 60 runs, night skiing and seven terrain parks.  Its sister resort, Boyne Highlands (boynehighlands.com) has a vertical of 552 feet, four terrain parks, 55 runs, 10 lifts, night skiing, a zip line, cross country skiing, tubing and snowshoeing. 

Indianhead/Blackjack (bigsnow.com)  These side-by-side resorts, now operated as Big Snow, are only about a dozen miles from Lake Superior, which provides abundant “lake-effect” snow.  Combined, they offer 56 trails, 15 lifts, several terrain parks, a vertical descent of 520 feet, lodging and a whopping 17 feet of annual snowfall. Indianhead/Blackjack are 400 miles from Chicago. 


Dining at Lutsen, overlooking Lake Superior. Photo by Brian E. Clark.

Lutsen (lutsen.com)  Perched on the western edge of Lake Superior, Lutsen Mountains has an impressive vertical descent of 825 feet, four peaks in the Sawtooth Range, 1,000 acres, 90 runs, many long, blue runs, slope side lodging and the region’s only gondola and spectacular scenery over Lake Gitchi Gummi, which looks like an ocean. It is 560 miles from Chicago, so any visit to this destination resort should include at least a couple of days of skiing or snowboarding. 



Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.

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