Clearly Superior

Travel Midwest
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Travel Midwest
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Forged in the mountainous iron and copper mining ranges that define the terrain of Michigan's western Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin's northeast corner-and fueled by a Lake Superior snow machine that annually covers the area with nearly 300 inches of snow-four upper Midwest ski resorts have carved out a reputation for Western-style skiing on a surprisingly grand scale. Located within minutes of each other, they constitute the Midwest's version of Colorado's Summit County, with top-flight facilities, expansive skiing spread over more than 100 runs, hefty vertical drops and a tradition of winter fun dating back to the Forties.

Three of the resorts-Big Powderhorn, Blackjack and Whitecap Mountains-are aligned in a cooperative marketing theme called "Big Snow Country." They offer an array of programs, lodging options and events, and also make skiing affordable with different pricing programs. The fourth resort, Indianhead Mountain, has a rich history dating back to 1959 and a promising new ownership team.

What all four resorts share is the unparalleled beauty of the region, encompassing the Gogebic and Penokee mountain ranges and, even more impressive (and visible from many of the ski peaks), Lake Superior, the world's largest fresh-water lake.

The resorts offer many slopeside lodging options so families can have a central base of operations and a quiet place to snuggle up after skiing. Amenities aside, the nicest benefit of this slice of Midwest skiing is that, regardless of where you stay, you can easily ski all four areas.

Big Powderhorn
Big Powderhorn is more than just big, it's downright mammoth by Midwest standards. Twenty-five ski trails spill across 250 acres served by nine chairlifts. The vertical drop is a very respectable 622 feet and the lodging can accommodate 2,000 guests. There's a mix of hotel rooms, condos and chalets-including 43 trailside chalets that sleep up to 18 people, one of the more popular choices for groups and families. The complex feels like a ski community rather than a resort-sprinkled with condominiums rather than overwhelmed by large obtrusive hotels-and offers its own shuttle service for ultimate convenience.

Big Powderhorn's trails are wide and long. The grooming is impeccable; all runs are buffed sideline to sideline just about every day. Skiing all the runs from one end of the resort to the other can easily take a day, and on most runs the base area is not visible, which adds a "big mountain" flair not common in the region. In fact, it's one of the few Midwest resorts where it's necessary to carry a trail map.

The toughest runs are in the center of the mountain, where experts will want to take on black-diamonds Cannonball and Double Barrel. Intermediates can choose a cruise down the beautiful blue Smoke or drift out to the great green Alpen. Beginners will want to stake out the Caribou Country Learning Area, a novice area with its own chairlift. The traditional one-hour group beginner lesson has been replaced by the Learn It & Love It program, which gives novices two private 90-minute lessons on the same day (one in the morning and one after lunch). Jibbers can put their agility to the test in the Oxbow or Powderkeg terrain parks with quarterpipes, table-tops and assorted jumps. And this season the Nastar course between Bovidae and Ricochet will be extended several hundred feet, beckoning skiers to test their speed in the gates.

When lunchtime rolls around, take your family down Flintlock to the slopeside Alpen Inn. Or reserve one of two free on-hill cabins, outfitted with woodstoves and decks, and have a picnic. After you're finished skiing, go ice skating, take a dog-sled ride, wander through gift and specialty shops, or relax in the pool and sauna at the Caribou Lodge. There's also live music and dancing on weekends at the Caribou. Choose from four lounges and three restaurants in Powderhorn Village, and don't miss nightly activities such as popcorn and a movien the Main Lodge, Fondue-Doodling in the Alpen Tavern & Grill, Nibble Night at the Powdermill and Surprise Night at the Pub & Grub.

Blackjack
Blackjack is what skiers call a "find." It's not as large as the other ski areas in this region and has limited lodging, but the terrain is excellent and the resort specializes in making families feel welcome. Six slopeside condo packages are tailored specifically for families; breakfasts are free with Blackjack lodging; a three-day stay gets a family the fourth night free; children under 8 years old ski free; and a whole family can ski on Christmas day for $40 or on a weekend or holiday for $109.

Blackjack has 22 trails, spread out over 100 acres, with 20 percent rated as beginner, 40 percent intermediate and 40 percent advanced. But if one thing characterizes the resort, it's big air. Blackjack may be the most twin-tip friendly area in the Midwest. Both freestylers and riders have access to all slopes, and much of the contouring is done specifically to enhance the big-air experience. Performers love the halfpipe right in front of the parking lot-perfectly positioned for air shows. For more air opportunity, visit Broad Ax Terrain Park, a full-bore black-diamond with a quarterpipe, table-tops and kickers. This winter, several rails will be added to the mountain, along with a new halfpipe for kids with kid-size walls scaled to 5 or 6 feet in height.

There's plenty at Blackjack for the air-impaired, too. Novices will enjoy meandering down runs such as Narrow Gauge and Horseshoe, trails with lots of elbow room. Blue cruisers like Thornapple and Oxbow are perfect for giant slalom turns. And eye-watering blacks such as Shanty Boy, with several big drops and a tree-lined left side, and Log Jam, with a huge top section that skis like the Midwest's smaller version of Snowmass' Big Burn, bring a touch of trepidation to the mix. Racers should tackle Spillway, site of the Midwest Nastar regionals and other major Midwest ski events.

And kids will love the Enchanted Forest, a twisty path between the trees and through three "mine shafts" (tunnels). Along its route are cutouts depicting the Snow White story; at the end is the Anvil, a tunnel kids love to navigate.

New this year will be the Bear's Den, south from the top of the mountain. This section will feature a modified, groomed glade with an intermediate pitch and also a full-size halfpipe at the top.

Après air, stop in the cozy base lodge, have a libation in the Loggers Saloon or enjoy a family dinner at the Blackjack Restaurant on the second floor.

Whitecap Mountains
Tucked next to Weber Lake in the Ponokee Mountain Range, Whitecap Mountains is Wisconsin's largest ski area. Whitecap's atmosphere is European by design, with most of the runs named to recall images of the Alps. The base area is styled to resemble a Swiss village, complete with clock tower. The day lodge is charming with lots of nooks and crannies, and features a quaint wine shop and an old-fashioned bakery that specializes in delicate pastries and hearty breads. The Davos Swiss Inn is actually built into the side of Whitecap Mountain about a quarter of the way up the hill and can only be accessed via skis or by walking through a tunnel. The new Whitecap Mountain Lodge, located below the Davos, continues the Swiss theme, but adds modern touches such as an indoor swimming pool, hydro spa, multilevel suites and micro-kitchen units.

The resort's 36 ski runs are spread across three peaks, thus the Whitecap Mountains name. Whitecap Mountain itself has a few beginner and intermediate runs off its frontside, and its back slopes serve as an entrance to the rest of the ski area. Thunderhead Mountain to the north has trails that tumble from its summit in three directions. Eagles Nest Mountain, south of the other two peaks, is home to the resort's toughest terrain.

Novices and intermediates should explore the three sides of Thunderhead. The north and east faces have a great collection of tree-lined trails with lots of twists, turns and opportunities to wander from one trail to another. The south face is home to huge expanses of beginner terrain, such as Sud Bowl.

Take note: Eagles Nest Mountain is for experts only. You're required to pass a ski-patrol test before accessing the toughest runs. Four rock-strewn, boulder-laden, double-blacks form the most chilling challenge. See if you can survive The Dragon and Southern Cross, so narrow that jump turns are the only way to negotiate them.

Two other features are distinctly Whitecap, too. The Midwest's longest chairlift (none of the resort's chairs are named), a mile long and more than 200 feet high at its loftiest point, dangles over the valley between the peaks of Thunderhead and Eagles Nest, providing an enjoyable ride for those who like heights. The chair forms a continuous loop running from the base of each mountain and over the summit of the two peaks. You can load at the bottom and unload at the top or continue the ride over the valley to the top of the second peak.

After riding the one-mile chair, something more relaxing is usually in order. Properly sedate is the Wine Hut at the bottom of Garmisch on Thunderhead, an 1880s logger's cabin where you can enjoy spiced wine next to a cozy fireplace.

Indianhead Mountain
New owners took over Indianhead last winter, setting in motion a long-term plan for continued development at the storied resort. Changes included an upgrading of the restaurants and guest services. Change can be good, but you don't mess with 42 years of classic corduroy. So the new owners retained the mountain manager and his team of directors for snowmaking, grooming and lift operation-they have a combined total of 175 years of experience.

Indianhead has always been distinctive in that its "base area" is actually at the top of the mountain; you ski down and take the chairlifts back up to the "base," where you'll find the lodge, Summit Center, condos and amenities.

The skiing is characterized by 22 wide-open runs that seem to ski longer than the 638-foot vertical would suggest. True-blue beginners should shoot over to Voyager's Highway for a straight green to the bottom, but blues such as Chippewa and Sundance cater to all levels.

Indianhead's true gems, however, are the black-diamonds. Intermediates can handle these slowly, and experts will cut GS swaths they usually picture only in their dreams. If you find Leelinaw, FIS or Winnebago groomed (they usually are), it's time to file a flight plan with the FAA. Leelinaw is 50 yards wide with a series of drops and headwalls that are breathtaking. If moguls suit you better, try Geronimo and Tomahawk; when the bumps form, they get pretty gnarly.

Don't overlook Bear Creek-a set of trails that wind through the forest away from the main ski area. Serviced by its own chairlift, Bear Creek is easy to miss but delightful to ski, particularly on a windy day.

After skiing, check out the Vertical Drop Bar with its chairlift booths, or stop in at Dudley's Saloon for live music. The Main Lodge has an indoor pool and a 20-foot-long spa, as well as a fitness club.

The dramatic vistas, rich heritage of skiing and tremendous variety of experiences at Big Powderhorn, Blackjack, Whitecap Mountains and Indianhead make this Midwest playground a premium destination for Midwestern skiers. It's a ski haven that's clearly Superior.

Three Mountain Deal
The three Big Snow Country resorts offer one of the best lift ticket deals in the Midwest. Their Adventure Card, which sells for $85, offers four days of skiing anytime¿one day at Big Powderhorn, Blackjack and Whitecap, plus one day of the skier's choice at any of the three resorts. The Wild Card, which costs $69, buys three consecutive days of skiing, with two of those days midweek (Monday-Friday). With the Wild Card guests can ski as many of the three days as they want at their north and east faces have a great collection of tree-lined trails with lots of twists, turns and opportunities to wander from one trail to another. The south face is home to huge expanses of beginner terrain, such as Sud Bowl.

Take note: Eagles Nest Mountain is for experts only. You're required to pass a ski-patrol test before accessing the toughest runs. Four rock-strewn, boulder-laden, double-blacks form the most chilling challenge. See if you can survive The Dragon and Southern Cross, so narrow that jump turns are the only way to negotiate them.

Two other features are distinctly Whitecap, too. The Midwest's longest chairlift (none of the resort's chairs are named), a mile long and more than 200 feet high at its loftiest point, dangles over the valley between the peaks of Thunderhead and Eagles Nest, providing an enjoyable ride for those who like heights. The chair forms a continuous loop running from the base of each mountain and over the summit of the two peaks. You can load at the bottom and unload at the top or continue the ride over the valley to the top of the second peak.

After riding the one-mile chair, something more relaxing is usually in order. Properly sedate is the Wine Hut at the bottom of Garmisch on Thunderhead, an 1880s logger's cabin where you can enjoy spiced wine next to a cozy fireplace.

Indianhead Mountain
New owners took over Indianhead last winter, setting in motion a long-term plan for continued development at the storied resort. Changes included an upgrading of the restaurants and guest services. Change can be good, but you don't mess with 42 years of classic corduroy. So the new owners retained the mountain manager and his team of directors for snowmaking, grooming and lift operation-they have a combined total of 175 years of experience.

Indianhead has always been distinctive in that its "base area" is actually at the top of the mountain; you ski down and take the chairlifts back up to the "base," where you'll find the lodge, Summit Center, condos and amenities.

The skiing is characterized by 22 wide-open runs that seem to ski longer than the 638-foot vertical would suggest. True-blue beginners should shoot over to Voyager's Highway for a straight green to the bottom, but blues such as Chippewa and Sundance cater to all levels.

Indianhead's true gems, however, are the black-diamonds. Intermediates can handle these slowly, and experts will cut GS swaths they usually picture only in their dreams. If you find Leelinaw, FIS or Winnebago groomed (they usually are), it's time to file a flight plan with the FAA. Leelinaw is 50 yards wide with a series of drops and headwalls that are breathtaking. If moguls suit you better, try Geronimo and Tomahawk; when the bumps form, they get pretty gnarly.

Don't overlook Bear Creek-a set of trails that wind through the forest away from the main ski area. Serviced by its own chairlift, Bear Creek is easy to miss but delightful to ski, particularly on a windy day.

After skiing, check out the Vertical Drop Bar with its chairlift booths, or stop in at Dudley's Saloon for live music. The Main Lodge has an indoor pool and a 20-foot-long spa, as well as a fitness club.

The dramatic vistas, rich heritage of skiing and tremendous variety of experiences at Big Powderhorn, Blackjack, Whitecap Mountains and Indianhead make this Midwest playground a premium destination for Midwestern skiers. It's a ski haven that's clearly Superior.

Three Mountain Deal
The three Big Snow Country resorts offer one of the best lift ticket deals in the Midwest. Their Adventure Card, which sells for $85, offers four days of skiing anytime¿one day at Big Powderhorn, Blackjack and Whitecap, plus one day of the skier's choice at any of the three resorts. The Wild Card, which costs $69, buys three consecutive days of skiing, with two of those days midweek (Monday-Friday). With the Wild Card guests can ski as many of the three days as they want at their resort of choice. The Big Snow Country information line is 800-272-7000.eir resort of choice. The Big Snow Country information line is 800-272-7000.