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Midwestern getaways offer powder dogs a chance to come out and play

By Mike Michaelson
Published: Jan/Feb 2002

Thrill seekers can get their kicks at Cascade Mountain in Wisconsin. / Cascade Mountain photo
For Midwesterners lacking the time, budget, or inclination to travel to the Rocky Mountains and other winter sports resorts in the West, there are closer-to-home options. While you won’t find the high elevations and giddy vertical drops of those glamorous western ski meccas, you will find good skiing at all levels, as well as a variety of other winter sports ranging from tubing and tobogganing to snowshoeing and dog-sledding–even in prairie-flat Illinois.

Sundown Mountain Resort Dubuque, Iowa

Many skiers say this resort not only is the best-kept skiing secret in the Midwest, but also something of a chameleon. Carved out of a century-old cedar forest, it has trees on its downhill slopes that are reminiscent of Colorado. It is not uncommon to see an eagle soaring over surrounding bluffs.

Offering 23 slopes and a vertical drop of 475 feet, Sundown is equipped with snowmaking equipment and operates at capacity for night skiing. It devotes 35 percent of its terrain to beginners, 45 percent to intermediate skiers, and 20 percent to experts. It has a large staff of teaching pros, rentals of shaped skis, and acclaimed children’s programs. A seven-acre terrain park features a 100-yard-long half pipe. Two lodges overlook the slopes.

Chestnut Mountain Resort, Galena, Ill.

On a wooded palisade overlooking the Mississippi River, this resort has 17 ski runs (the longest more than a half mile), plus two quad and three triple chairlifts. It offers rental equipment, night skiing, ski and snowboard lessons, and children’s programs. A seven-acre terrain park has a half-pipe run as well as quarter pipes, rails, fun boxes, and a triple chair lift. Not least of the attractions are spectacular sunsets over the Mississippi. With 120 guestrooms, two restaurants, and a cocktail lounge, Chestnut Mountain offers all-inclusive packages.

Eagle Ridge Inn & Resort, Galena, Ill.

This 6,800-acre resort has a winter sports area with gentle hills, snowy slopes and a pond big enough to accommodate up to 300 skaters. Alongside the pond are warming benches and skaters sometimes enjoy a blazing log fire.

The resort offers cross-country skiing with approximately 26 miles of marked trails. Guests can rent skis plus all of the equipment needed for winter fun, including colorful plastic sleds and ice skates.

Eagle Ridge offers a flexible lodging choices, including an 80-room inn where guest rooms have walkout patios with lake or woodland views. All rooms at the inn were renovated in 1999 in the classic Arts-and-Crafts style. Some have whirlpool tubs and fireplaces. Another option is to select a villa, condo, or large resort home from a rental pool of 400 one-to-eight-bedroom residences.

Cascade Mountain Ski and Snowboard Area, Portage, Wis.

Cascade offers 27 runs, the longest is one mile, and a vertical drop of 460 feet. Eighteen trails are lighted for night skiing. The Mountain Top Express, a new high-speed lift, reduces the time to reach the top from nine minutes down to two-and-a-half minutes. The resort boasts the state’s largest beginner area and has snowmaking equipment to cover all trails. New this year is the first automated snowmaking system in the Midwest, similar equipment to that being used at the 2002 Olympics downhill venues in Utah. A snow-tubing area has four chutes served by two tows.

For nearby lodging options, head for Wisconsin Dells where many resorts include massive indoor water parks, or nearby Portage. In the Dells, families can enjoy waterslides and splash pools regardless of the temperature outside. Choices include Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort, Great Wolf Lodge, and Kalahari Resort & Convention Center. In Portage, lodging choices include Best Western, Super 8 and Days Inn.

Devil’s Lake State Park, Merrimac, Wis.

Not far from Cascade Mountain is this pretty state park tucked into the Baraboo Hills, an ancient mountain range. This rugged region contains a 16,000-year-old glacial remnant and a terminal moraine with 500-foot-high quartzite bluffs almost two billion years old that rise above a sparkling glacial lake.

This park hosts the "Ice Age Trail Winter Skills Adventures" program offered by Glacial Valley Wilderness Adventures of Merrimac, Wis. Participants will learn how to drive a dogsled pulled by a team of Siberian huskies and receive instruction on snowshoeing and backcountry Nordic skiing. You’ll also learn a bit about winter ecology and pick up pointers on how generally to keep warm and be safe.

Squeeze through the narrow entranceway of a quinshee, a American Indian-style shelter used by woodland tribes. This literally is a huge mound of snow with the interior scooped out. It is already built at the campsite.

"No matter how cold it gets outside, the inside temperature remains between 20 and 32 degrees," says Ken Peterson, who runs the wilderness adventure company. "In sub-zero weather, this could translate to a differential of 50 degrees between inside and outside. With a candle and a bearskin rug it can be quite comfortable."

As a side excursion, head for the twin communities of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac along the Wisconsin River. Every winter, eagles gather along this stretch of the river because the strong current below the Prairie du Sac dam keeps the river from freezing, allowing access to fish. The area’s bluffs and valleys provide shelter from extreme weather and for roosting at night.

During severe winters, as many as 150 eagles may choose this stretch of the Wisconsin River as their winter habitat. Early- to mid-January is a peak time for eagle watching.

Boyne Highlands, Harbor Springs, Mich.

With a 550-foot vertical drop and 54 groomed slopes, including the mile-plus North Peak Pass, this resort also has on-site lodging, dining, heated pools, and entertainment. Skiers are served by chairlifts that include a high-speed quad and an acclaimed Austrian-American ski school. Cross-country skiers will find more than 38 miles of groomed track meandering past mountain streams through hundreds of acres of hardwoods and snow-covered pines. Snow tubers will need to hang on tight on fast, exhilarating runs. There also is ice skating, snowshoeing, and a 70-person mega hot tub.

Find luxurious lodging alongside Lake Michigan at nearby Inn at Bay Harbor, a turreted inn that is a modern version of a Victorian resort. Opened in December 1999, it has 100 suites with such amenities as down bedding, Egyptian cotton sheets, fireplaces, and Victorian-inspired furniture. A spa offers a wide menu of massage therapies, facials, and body treatments.

Boyne Mountain, Boyne Falls, Mich.

With a 500-foot vertical drop, and 50-plus runs, Boyne Mountain mirrors its sister resort with a wide variety of snow sports. Snowboarders who try out the two resorts will find some of the best halfpipes and terrain parks in the Midwest.

Muskegon Winter Sports Park, Muskegon, Mich.

High-speed luge runs are a true alpine experience that you’ll also find in western Michigan. This winter sports park offers one of only four luge tracks in the country and was originally conceived as an Olympic-training site. A daily pass covers luging, ice skating, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing along three lighted trails.

Paoli Peaks Ski and Snowboard Resort, Paoli, Ind.

Chosen by "USA Today" as one of the nation’s top 10 resorts for learning to ski, this southern Indiana resort takes advantage of its short winter season by offering ski lessons 19 hours a day on weekends from mid-December through mid-March. The resort also offers Kid’s Snow Camp, which includes four hours of instruction plus lunch for children ages three to 12.

Pokagon State Park, Angola, Ind.

Speed is king at one of northern Indiana’s most popular outdoor winter sports venues. Indiana’s only refrigerated toboggan slide offers fast, thrilling rides at speeds up to 40 miles an hour on a 1,700-foot-long dual-lane slide that doesn’t require snow to operate. Also find cross-country skiing and snowshoeing along extensive trails over challenging wooded terrain.

This winter, bundle up and venture outdoors to experience the Midwest’s exhilarating beauty.

Mike Michaelson is a contributor from Chicago, Ill.

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