Skiing The Big Muddy

Travel Midwest
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The Mississippi is America's largest and longest river, and the world's third longest river system. It's been immortalized by the prose of Mark Twain and in songs like Old Man River. But most Americans would be hard-pressed to name even a few of the 10 states through which this 2,300-mile waterway runs. And even the savviest skiers probably have no idea that its shores are home to five ski areas. Heartland ski enthusiasts know better.

Those five areas, perched along craggy bluffs overlooking the wide Mississippi River Valley¿are located from Illinois to Minnesota. Chestnut Mountain in northern Illinois and Sundown Mountain, found across the river in Iowa, are the southernmost. Mt. La Crosse is situated in southwestern Wisconsin, and Coffee Mill and Mt. Frontenac are both on the Minnesota side of the river.

The river bluffs provide legitimate vertical drops ranging from 400 to more than 500 feet. Because they are irregular in shape¿bent and folded¿these ski areas provide some of the most interesting ski terrain in the region, from long blue cruisers to surprising steeps. The eye-catching scenery along the rugged, rock-bound bluffs is remarkably alpine in nature. Here is a ski tour of the Mississippi.

CHESTNUT MOUNTAIN, ILL.
One of the Midwest's oldest ski resorts, Chestnut Mountain is the only full-service ski resort¿complete with lodge, restaurants and lounges¿located along the Mississippi. Just south of the historic river port of Galena, Ill., Chestnut has been catering to skiers since the Fifties. With all of its facilities located atop the bluff, the upside-down resort offers outstanding views of the wide Mississippi, which is reminiscent of the view from the top of Quebec's Mont Sainte Anne with the St. Lawrence Seaway stretched out far below.

Within the past few years, Chestnut has updated its 120-room lodge-and-restaurant complex and most of its ridge-top facilities. The addition of a new 20,000-square-foot Village Ski Center, which houses all the guest services and children's programs, has given the complex a village feel.

The beginner area is uniquely situated on top of the ski hill. It offers skiers gorgeous drop-dead views of the Mississippi River spread out below and a choice of a ropetow, T-bar or chairlift. (It's nice to see novice skiers placed center-stage for a change.)

Warpath, a black-diamond, fall-line run on the face of the rocky bluff, provides ample challenge for those who like it steep. Crazy Horse and Apache are two intermediate cruisers you won't want to miss. The seven-acre Far Side Terrain Park, with its own 900-foot triple chair, attracts both riders and skiers with a full array of pipes, tabletops and jumps.

On weekends, Chestnut draws hordes of skiers from Chicago, which is less than a three-hour drive away. They come to enjoy some of the region's best skiing, as well as the nearby town of Galena, Ill., which is a treasure trove of beautifully restored 19th-century homes, shops and storefronts. There are 63 historic buildings, including the home of president and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant. Filled with tourists during the summer, winter is a much more relaxed time to visit...and everything remains open year-round.
VITAL STATS Vertical drop: 475 feet; 17 runs and terrain park; lifts: two quads, three triples, three surface lifts.
TICKET PRICES Adult: $34 weekend/$27 midweek; children (under 12): $27; seniors (over 55): $22.
A GOOD DEAL The midweek Ski 'n' Z package, good Sunday through Thursday, includes a night's lodging and lift ticket for $60 (per person/double occupancy). Lift tickets are just $5 opening day through Dec. 15.
INFORMATION 800-397-1320; www.chestnutmtn.com.

SUNDOWN MOUNTAIN, IOWA
Located on the Iowa side of the Mississippi, Sundown Mountain is perched atop an escarpment from which you can see three states¿Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. A short drive from Dubuqu the ski area was a "Field of Dreams" for 10 men who wanted to build a ski resort close to home. The movie of the same name was filmed just down the road, and a cornfield sits across the road from the resort's parking lot.

But don't let its location fool you. It's big-time skiing for the Midwest. Only a handful of Heartland ski areas have greater vertical drops, and, carved through a century-old cedar forest, the runs deliver a scenic, Western-like experience. Its Iowa address doesn't tout skiing, so liftlines are often short and the slopes uncrowded. It's one of the best-kept secrets in the hinterland.

Sundown features a variety of slopes, trails and a terrain park. The majority of runs are rambling cruisers. A few short, steep shots, like Gunbarrel and Head Wall, provide some challenge, but advanced skiers won't find a lot to test themselves here. The ski area is an intermediate's delight¿its strength is definitely in its long blue runs. The beginner area, with its own triple chair, is situated along with the day lodge and skier services on top of the ski hill.
VITAL STATS Vertical drop: 475 feet; 23 runs and a terrain park; lifts: one quad, two triples, two doubles, one surface tow.
TICKET PRICES Adult: $34 weekend/$26 midweek; children (11 and under): $27; and seniors (55 and over): $22; under 6 and over 70: free.
A GOOD DEAL From opening through Dec. 15 all lift tickets are $7, and every Tuesday throughout the season, two can ski for the price of one.
INFORMATION 888-786-3696; www.sundownmtn.com.

MT. LA CROSSE, WIS.
Mt. La Crosse is a delightful sprawl of runs, knolls, chutes and headwalls. Located just outside La Crosse, Wis., its 512-foot-vertical drop is the biggest among the river ski areas, and offers some of the toughest skiing. Damnation has deservedly been touted as the "steepest slope between Stowe and Jackson Hole." Long, steep and usually rock-hard, the run is nestled in a natural bowl, and the sun doesn't hit it until sometime in June. Other runs spread out around the bowl, offering trails up to a mile in length. If you could add another 1,000 feet of vertical, you'd swear you were in New England. It has the feel of a mini-Stowe. Beginner terrain, however, is limited.

The quaint day lodge, reminiscent of a Sixties chalet, houses one of the best ski bars in the Midwest. The award-winning St. Bernard room, with rich, warm wood tones, has Old World charm. After all, this is beer country, and it's home to the Heileman Brewing Company.
VITAL STATS Vertical Drop: 512 feet; 18 trails and terrain park; lifts: three doubles, one surface tow.
TICKET PRICES are the same midweek or weekends. Adults: $32; Juniors (ages 11-17): $28; and children (ages 6-10): $26; seniors (over 60): $16; 6 and under: free when accompanied by an adult.
A GOOD DEAL Lift tickets are just $11 on Thursday from 4 until 9 p.m.
INFORMATION 608-788-0044; www.mtlacrosse.com.

COFFEE MILL, MINN.
Located a half-hour south of Red Wing, Minn., tiny Coffee Mill sits back in a horseshoe-shaped canyon. The ski area closed a few years ago until local citizens formed a group to buy the hill. They now operate it daily during the ski season. Midweek it doesn't open until 3 p.m. The day lodge has a Seventies feel, and the area isn't very big¿10 runs and three lifts. Strong on intermediate cruisers, it does offer a couple of long, easy green runs and one of the best advanced runs mid-continent. O'Chute, a Western-like run with a constant steep pitch, starts out narrow at the top and slowly widens as it drops down the bluff, requiring constant, precise turns. Coffee Mill is simple and cheap; a real bargain in today's high-speed, high-priced market. It's a delight to ski.
VITAL STATS Vertical Drop 425 feet; 10 trails and a halfpipe; lifts: two doubles, one surface tow.
TICKET PRICES On weekends, adults: $23; children (ages 7-14): $19. Midweek (one price for all) from 3 to 9:30 p.m. is $14. Children 6 and under: free when accompanied by a paying adult.
A GOOD DEAL On Sunday, all children's tickets are $10.
INFORMATION 651-565-2777; www.coffeemill.com.

MT. FRONTENAC, MINN.
Nestled in a notch of towering bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Mt. Frontenac is also located just south of Red Wing. The Prairie Island Indian Tribe, which operates nearby Treasure Island Resort and Casino, recently purchased the ski area, and you can look for improvements in upcoming years. It may not have as many runs as its neighbors to the north, Afton Alps and Welch Village, but with its bigger vertical drop and longer runs, you'll be happy here. Baldy, a precipitous, bump-filled trail overlooking the lodge and parking lot, has long been the standard bearer for Minnesota steep. The long, wide, fall-line run, much like its Western counterparts, is full of moguls in the middle and has a narrow, groomed strip down the side for those who like it steep without bumps. Racer's Edge is a narrow, twisting advanced run cut through the woods, and Sundance, a long blue "ballroom," and Easy Mile are perfect for beginners and low-intermediates. A new terrain park with a surface tow was added last season. The main chalet, recently doubled in size, offers a nice spacious setting with plenty of elbow room¿even on crowded weekends. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, the area is open weekends and Wednesday through Friday from 4:30 to 10 p.m.
VITAL STATS Vertical Drop: 420 feet; 14 slopes and trails and a terrain park; lifts: three doubles, three surface tows.
TICKET PRICES Adults: $23 weekends and $15 midweek; juniors (ages 13-17): $20, $15 midweek; and children (ages 6-12): $17, $12 midweek.
A GOOD DEAL Children's lift tickets are $8 on Sunday when accompanied by a paying adult.
INFORMATION 651-388-5826; www.ski-frontenac.com.

Like that "Old Man River" that "just keeps rolling along," in Hoagy Carmichael's immortal song, some of these river ski areas have been servicing downhill enthusiasts for nearly 50 years. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa skiers have long known that these deep river valleys, gouged out by retreating glacial waters centuries ago, provide some of the best skiing in the hinterland. Now you know, too. (ages 7-14): $19. Midweek (one price for all) from 3 to 9:30 p.m. is $14. Children 6 and under: free when accompanied by a paying adult.
A GOOD DEAL On Sunday, all children's tickets are $10.
INFORMATION 651-565-2777; www.coffeemill.com.

MT. FRONTENAC, MINN.
Nestled in a notch of towering bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Mt. Frontenac is also located just south of Red Wing. The Prairie Island Indian Tribe, which operates nearby Treasure Island Resort and Casino, recently purchased the ski area, and you can look for improvements in upcoming years. It may not have as many runs as its neighbors to the north, Afton Alps and Welch Village, but with its bigger vertical drop and longer runs, you'll be happy here. Baldy, a precipitous, bump-filled trail overlooking the lodge and parking lot, has long been the standard bearer for Minnesota steep. The long, wide, fall-line run, much like its Western counterparts, is full of moguls in the middle and has a narrow, groomed strip down the side for those who like it steep without bumps. Racer's Edge is a narrow, twisting advanced run cut through the woods, and Sundance, a long blue "ballroom," and Easy Mile are perfect for beginners and low-intermediates. A new terrain park with a surface tow was added last season. The main chalet, recently doubled in size, offers a nice spacious setting with plenty of elbow room¿even on crowded weekends. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, the area is open weekends and Wednesday through Friday from 4:30 to 10 p.m.
VITAL STATS Vertical Drop: 420 feet; 14 slopes and trails and a terrain park; lifts: three doubles, three surface tows.
TICKET PRICES Adults: $23 weekends and $15 midweek; juniors (ages 13-17): $20, $15 midweek; and children (ages 6-12): $17, $12 midweek.
A GOOD DEAL Children's lift tickets are $8 on Sunday when accompanied by a paying adult.
INFORMATION 651-388-5826; www.ski-frontenac.com.

Like that "Old Man River" that "just keeps rolling along," in Hoagy Carmichael's immortal song, some of these river ski areas have been servicing downhill enthusiasts for nearly 50 years. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa skiers have long known that these deep river valleys, gouged out by retreating glacial waters centuries ago, provide some of the best skiing in the hinterland. Now you know, too.