Written by George Hendrix
Skiers and snowboarders may find little in common out on the slopes, but both camps agree the Midwest has a strong lineup of resorts catering to each of their sports.
THE MOMENT MY SON Zach carves his snowboard into a glade of trees between two expert runs at Granite Peak Ski Area in Wausau, Wisconsin, I know there’s no use shouting to watch out for rocks. He’s aiming for them.
He’s “jibbing,” which, in snowboarder parlance, means goofing around on whatever obstacle happens to be available. In these glades, granite boulders partially covered in snow are the obstacles of choice for my almost-15-year-old son, the product of expert snowboarding instruction, organized competition and too many hours of Winter X Games broadcasts. If he happens to bound off a boulder out of control and at the wrong angle in this forest of maples and oaks, well – Zach never complains about wearing a helmet.
I wear a helmet, too. It’s a precaution in case some slight imperfection in Granite Peak’s groomed runs causes me to tumble off these rental skis. I’m an experienced skier, but with my aging knees and advanced view of mortality, there’s no chance I’ll follow Zach into the trees, here or anywhere else.
Fortunately, this 700-foot peak – which offers concentration-breaking views of Wisconsin’s north country – provides plenty of smooth snow for me and just enough terrain park and incidental challenges for Zach. And in that, Granite Peak represents what Midwest ski resorts have worked hard to become: welcoming destinations for snow riders of all skill levels.
Midwest downhill resorts often suffer unfair comparisons to their larger cousins in the Rockies, Sierras and New England. Yes, ski runs here are generally shorter. Perhaps because of that, Heartland slopes try harder. At most Midwest resorts, you’ll find friendly and attentive instructors and other staff, and abundance of fast lifts, extensive snowmaking, night skiing, state-of-the-art terrain parks (many featuring half-pipes), affordable food and lift tickets that typically cost less than half of those in other regions.
Granite Peak was on the cutting edge of the original ski boom, it is again as Midwest slopes reinvent themselves. That’s why Zach, the snowboarder dude, and I, the more traditional skier, are here – to check out what now ranks as the Heartland’s most thoroughly reinvigorated downhill resort.
In 1937, the citizens of Wausau cut six ski trails into the forested north slope of the peak that formed the backbone of the newly minted Rib Mountain State Park. They jury-rigged a lift powered by a V-8 engine connected to a truck transmission, then they waited for winter snows to dip south off Lake Superior and make their efforts worthwhile.
Rib Mountain became one of America’s first down-hill resorts, founded just a year after Stowe in Vermont. But by 2000, Rib Mountain had become a tired, outdated ski mountain – with some of the best vertical and steepest terrain in the Midwest.
Then the owner of Minnesota’s renowned Lutsen Mountains ski resort took control and transformed Granite Peak at Rib Mountain, as the resort is now known. He added trails and lifts, a terrain park and extensive snowmaking, and he also poured millions into base facilities, including two North Woods-style restaurants, a tavern with live music, a snow sports shop, a ski school and new ticket facilities.
It’s a springlike, late-February morning when Zach and I settle onto the resort’s high-speed, six-pack Comet Express lift. (Granite Peak, like most Heartland downhill resorts, compensates for short runs with ample lifts – seven total here, including two high-speed options.) Despite the warmth, the resort’s battery of snow guns has maintained a soft, deep base (groomed to perfect corduroy) on the 74 trails.
The ride up the hill represents one of the few times we actually see each other on a trip to a mountain. When I hit the slopes with my boys (Ben, 18, also is a snowboarder), we usually take one courtesy run together down the mountain, then happily part ways. For them, a downhill resort is mostly a big patch of slanting snow that you have to scream through to get to the rails, boxes, jumps and half-pipes of a terrain park. For me, though, it’s still about skiing.
Granite Peak satisfies downhillers with wildly divergent notions of the ideal mountain. It has a broad bunny slope for newbies. Clusters of green (easy) and blue (intermediate) runs are arrayed sensibly so that beginners and advanced downhillers largely are segregated. The terrain park rises above the lodge complex, so you can relax in a comfortable seat while watching your kids’ heart-stopping antics.
I skied the new black runs at Granite’s west boundary. They’re short and not as extreme as Rocky Mountain expert runs, or those at Mount Bohemia in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for that matter. But they’re narrow enough that if you’re not a master of your skis, you may end up with Zach in the trees. The ample lifts ensure you get in enough runs to make your legs ache by day’s end. But if you have legs of steel, the resort offers night skiing.
Food represents another place boarders and cruisers have different notions of what best keeps the motor running. Zach and I lunched in the cavernous, cafeteria-style Sundance Chalet and Grill, dominated by two large fireplaces. Zach went for – what else – the burger. I had a bowl of thick, spicy clam chowder. We shared chocolate-chip cookies. Even cruisers and boarders agree about some things.