When Jim Wiseman bought Swiss Valley in 1968 for $7,000, the entire operation consisted of a farmhouse and seven ropetows. The previous owner felt so sorry for Wiseman that he gave him back $2,000 to stock the cafeteria. Then the day before the opening of ski season, five of the seven ropes were condemned. Humble beginnings.
But Wiseman persevered. Today, Swiss Valley-located in Jones, Mich., just across the Indiana border from South Bend and Elkhart-is within an hour's drive of 1 million people. Swiss Valley entices those folks to come ski with 11 (unnamed) runs (the longest is 1,800 feet), a 225-foot vertical (off the highest peak in southwestern Michigan) and seven lifts, including two quads and a triple. While there are no true black-diamond trails, the area does feature wide blue-cruisers and expansive beginner runs. It's a great place to cut monster GS swaths with a smile so wide your molars get sunburned.
The "base area," located on a ridge above the ski runs, is a collection of quaint Swiss chalets: ski shop, cafeteria, ski rentals and a lounge with giant picture windows overlooking the slopes. This miniature Swiss village gives the resort an old-world ambience not found at most Midwestern ski areas.
As the ski area has grown in size, so has its reputation as a learning center. On one hand, it's the place to come if you're a novice skier. A staff of 70 instructors handles north of 10,000 lessons per year. The resort specializes in school groups and has a field-trip program second to none in the country. "We love to get school kids started in skiing because unlike other sports there is no sitting on the bench, everyone plays," Wiseman observes.
Swiss Valley is also home to the "extreme" side of skiing. As one of the first ski areas in the country to embrace freestyle skiing, the resort has sponsored the Swiss Valley Extreme Team since 1975. Coach Mark Osborne even hand-fashions Swiss Valley's terrain park. "Our best team members move up to bigger programs; we tell them we're the starting line, not the finish line," Osborne says. Some Swiss Valley alumni are legendary. NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana learned to ski here while attending Notre Dame. Ski editor-in-chief Andy Bigford was Swiss Valley's director of racing during his teen years. And this past winter, John Riopel became the first Swiss Valley graduate to become a member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, finishing the season as the No. 1-ranked male aerialist under the age of 18.
Although its trails remain unnamed, Swiss Valley has clearly emerged from its humble beginnings.
Swiss Valley, Jones, Mich.
CONTACT 616-244-5635 or snow phone 616-244-8016.; www.skiswissvalley.comVertical 225 feet
RUNS 11 runs, 100 percent snowmaking, all runs lighted for night skiing
LIFTS 2 quads, 1 triple, 4 ropetows
GOOD DEALS Thursdays "Take A Friend Skiing" Day, 2-for-1 lift tickets and rentals; Tuesday Ladies' Day and Wednesday Men's Day, $15 lift tickets.