Midwest skiers know a good thing when they see it. The region's resorts have recorded increased skier visits for four years in a row, and last winter saw 16.5 percent more skiers and snowboarders on their slopes (according to the National Ski Areas Association).
The reasons for this upsurge are quite simple. Rather than trying to stuff all of their gear into two 50-pound bags for a trip East or West, it's easier to fill up the family SUV and head for the Midwest hills.Recent resort improvements, like new lifts, lodging facilities and luxury amenities, have also made Midwest skiing better than ever.
Chestnut Mountain, situated on a bluff above the Mississippi River near Galena, Ill., has some of most spectacular vistas in Midwest skiing, 17 trails, a 7-acre terrain park for snowboarders, and one of the few snowdeck parks in the country. After dueling black-diamonds like Warpath, settle in for dinner in the Alpine or Steinhaus dining rooms. More restful is a day in Galena, with its 19th Century charm, antique shops, historic buildings and art galleries.
Miles from Chicago: 130. Contact: 800-397-1320; www.chestnutmtn.com.
Granite Peak (formerly Rib Mountain) in Wausau, Wis., has undergone the biggest expansion in the Midwest over the last three years. From 16 runs, the resort now boasts 72 trails, six tree-skiing glades, a terrain park and a 700-foot vertical drop. This year the new Comet Express high-speed six-place chairlift will zoom skiers to the top. At the base, the new Sundance Chalet joins the restored 10th Mountain Chalet as anchors. All this can be seen from downtown Wausau because the ski area is situated above the town. In Wausau, stroll around Washington Square, take in a performance at the Grand Theater or peruse the Woodson Art Museum.
Miles from Chicago: 280. Contact: 715-845-2846 ; www.skigranitepeak.com.
Nub's Nob in Petoskey, Mich., has been rated the number one ski area in the Midwest for the last three consecutive years by readers of SKI Magazine. Impeccable grooming over two peaks and 43 trails are the draw in the heart of an area of Michigan author Ernest Hemingway called "the last, best place." This winter a new restaurant atop the resort's Pintail Peak will not only offer the Nob's famous homemade fare, but also amazing overlooks of Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay. A saunter into Petoskey is a trip back into Victorian times, as the Gaslight Shopping District reveals several old Hemingway haunts that served as inspirations for some of his short stories.
Miles from Chicago: 350. Contact: 800-SKI-NUBS; www.nubsnob.com.
Ski steep and deep
Cascade Mountain, near Portage, Wis., has cut a reputation as a "skier's mountain" because it has no on-hill lodging and prefers to focus directly on the terrain. Ten lifts, including a high-speed quad, take skiers to the top of 28 trails (13 black diamonds) and three terrain parks. Cascade's famous bump runs, headlined by Mogul Monster, are as testy as any knee-killers anywhere.
Miles from Chicago: 180. Contact: 800-992-2SKI; www.cascademountain.com.
By far the most extreme terrain in the Midwest can be found at Mt. Bohemia in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. There is a 900-foot vertical, and the 41 runs are ungroomed with a 30-degree pitch. The mountain is home to the largest skiable glade between Vermont and the Rockies, and the powder is routinely thigh deep. Although women ski free at Bohemia, beginners are not allowed; this is as heart-pounding as it gets in the Midwest.
Miles from Chicago: 400. Contact: 231-420-5405; www.mtbohemia.com.
Lutsen, Minn., is a long drive, but the skiing at Lutsen Mountains is immense enough to make the trek worthwhile. With 986 feet of groomed vertical, 1,000 acres of skiing, 85 runs, and Mid-America's only gondola, Lutsen is skiing on a grand scale. Overlooking Lake Superior, the resort actually has four distinct peaks, two of which have legitimate double-black-diamond trails. And Grizzly, on Moose Mountain, is a mogul run that stretches for three-quarters of a mile.
Miles from Chicago: 550. Contact: 218-663-7281; www.lutsen.com.
Take a weekend getaway
Devil's Head Resort near Merrimac, Wis., is perfect for a fast weekend ski trip. The terrain on the 500-foot mountain is equally divided for beginners, intermediates, and experts; some of the runs are up to 1 1/2 miles long. Superb slopeside lodging and dining means that once at the resort you can stay put and enjoy the weekend. Dinner at Dante's followed by live music at the Devil's Den sports bar is a great way to top off a ski day.
Miles from Chicago: 190. Contact: 800-472-6670; www.devilsheadresort.com.