Wisconsin’s Sand Valley Resort Now a Year-Round destination
By Brian E. Clark
Roughly 16,000 years ago, the ice dam backing up Glacial Lake Wisconsin – then roughly the size of Lake Winnebago – burst, releasing a biblical torrent that carved out the narrow gorges and unusual rock formations of the Wisconsin Dells.
Left behind was a deep, sandy lake bed which over the millennia was whipped by winds into undulating dunes ranging from 40-feet to 80-feet tall, an ideal location to design a golf course or two. Or three.
“It gave us a wonderful medium to shape and work with,” explained Chris Keiser, whose family developed Sand Valley, a golf and tennis resort that debuted in 2017 and opened its doors for cold-weather activities for the first time this winter. The Keisers – father Mike and sons Chris and Michael – have also built golf courses in Michigan, Oregon, British Columbia, and Australia.
When I visited the resort this January, there wasn’t a soul playing golf. But the 20-degree weather was ideal for hiking in the dunes and (no kidding) taking a chilly dip in Lake Leopold as part of a Wim Hoff Method Wellness Retreat.
“Not many people really knew what was here, except the ATVers who enjoyed roaring over those dunes through timber plantations,” said Keiser of Sand Valley, which is near the town of Rome (population 2,700).
The resort is the brainchild of Craig Haltom, who approached the Keisers in 2012 because of their reputation in the golf world. Haltom, who worked for Oliphant Golf Construction, had been scouting the state with his wife since the early 2000s, using topographical maps to hike and seek out an ideal place to build a course. On the land near Rome, Haltom told the Keisers he’d found what he’d been seeking.
“We went up there to survey the site, looking for reasons to say ‘no,’” Chris Keiser said. “We have a long and exhaustive checklist of what would make a viable project. But in this case, we couldn’t say no.
“At the time, it felt like it was the middle of nowhere. But it turned out that we are centrally located in a sweet spot in the Midwest, within five hours of millions of people: 100 miles from Madison; 250 miles from Chicago; 170 miles from Milwaukee; and 355 miles from Des Moines, Iowa,” Keiser said. The sandy soil grew red pine timber well, though there are also potato farms and cranberry bogs further north near Wisconsin Rapids.
“From a high point on our property, the trees go on as far as the eye can see for tens of thousands of acres,” he mused. “There used to be nine paper mills in the region processing those trees, but now that number is down to two.”
In 2013, the Keisers bought 1,700 acres of land, a figure that has since grown to more than 10,000. Construction began in 2014 and the resort’s initial Sand Valley course was honored by Golf Magazine three years later as the “Best New Course You Can Play – 2017.”
Mammoth Dunes, designed by David Kidd, opened in 2018, followed by the Sandbox, a 17-hole par-3 course designed by the team of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw. All totaled, the resort has 53 holes aimed mostly at what Keiser calls the “retail” golfer.
Sand Valley also features more than a dozen grass tennis courts, which Keiser were a natural for the resort.
“Early on, we had a practice range just a stone’s throw from the first tee at the Sand Valley course,” he said. “The ideal grounds for a practice range are large and flat. My dad, who grew up with a court in his backyard and was an avid tennis player, looked at this large expanse of grass and said, “Let’s put up a net, leave some rackets and see what happens? That was the genesis. We now have a tennis pro and 15 courts that are often full in the summer.”
Keiser said it was his family’s aim early on to create a “sense of place at Sand Valley wouldn’t look like Anywhere USA.
“So we pulled ideas from Wisconsin barns and mixed that with vaulted ceilings and wood-clad rooms. We also wanted to make it upscale, but not necessarily luxurious, and offer great views from almost all of the homes, cottages, and rooms of golf courses, forests, ponds, and nature. Our goal was to create a comfortable retreat, which evolved to being able to enjoy year-round now by snowshoeing, skating, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking when it’s cold.”
I arrived at Sand Valley on a recent chilly night after driving 90 minutes from Madison through Wisconsin’s backcountry. At times, I wondered if I’d gotten lost. But when I turned into the resort and saw lights glowing from the main lodge and Aldo’s Restaurant – named after famed naturalist Aldo Leopold – I relaxed. And it only got better when photographer Tish Lafferty checked into our cottage, which featured a fireplace, separate bedroom, and a tub large enough for two.
The highlight of the weekend, though, was communing with the Wim Hoffers, who like nothing more than taking cold showers and hopping in lakes. At first, I thought I’d just observe, participate in the breathing sessions and skip the cold stuff. But on the second day, when the session leaders invited me to join the group and immerse myself through a hole cut in the ice into water barely above freezing, I (sorta kinda) jumped at it. Anything for a story…
Actually, I slowly dipped my swimsuit-only clad body into the drink, focused on my breathing, and endured. At first, I thought I might clamber out because the 33-degree water was, well, painful. But by the time my 90-second session was nearly over, I was getting used to it. And the walk-in 20-degree temperatures back to the cozy cottage where fellow dippers had assembled felt downright balmy. Fortunately, the winds were calm.
Keiser said while this is the first winter the resort has been “officially” open, members have been visiting since the start.
“We’ve allowed Sand Valley’s 176 founders to come up since we opened to rent a cottage or room in the winter, so you could say we informally tested it out with people we knew. So for this winter, we added things like wellness and other programming almost every other weekend and we’ll continue with that until we transition to golf around the start of April.”
For those who like Beer and Brats (this is Wisconsin, after all), the resort will offer a weekend focusing on those culinary delights next month.
Sand Valley is also hosting another Wim Hoff in March. Who knows, I may just go back for a little more suffering. Or perhaps simply some hiking, mountain biking, skiing, skating, sledding, and getting cozy by the fire. If not, then maybe some grass-court tennis this summer or perhaps a few rounds of golf.
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.