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Weekend at Granite Peak

Travel Midwest

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From the town square, the ski trails are clearly visible, ribbons of stark white that cascade downward to the edge of the city itself. At night, the ski area’s lights shimmer above the town, illuminating the horizon with a sparkling glow. These scenes are common in Rocky Mountain resort towns, but not smack dab in the middle of America. The ski area is Granite Peak, the town is Wausau, Wis., and the combination is unique in the Midwest.

Pumping new life into this symbiotic relationship is the complete transformation now underway at Granite Peak, formerly Rib Mountain. It has evolved from a tired 1950s throwback (and local’s ski area) to an energetic destination resort that draws skiers from Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago and other Midwest locales.

Established in 1937 as one of the first three ski areas in North America, Rib Mountain began with six runs and a ropetow. Located in Rib Mountain State Park, the ski area was at first operated by state and local authorities and then two different private operators. Improvements were slow to come and expansion rare. Rib languished as a small ski area with 15-20 runs and a few old chairs until 1998, when the state began a search for a new ski area operator-someone who could turn the aged property into a modern, viable ski resort.

Enter Charles Skinner Jr., part owner of the successful Lutsen Mountains, Minn. Skinner realized the Rib Mountain transformation would be an enormous undertaking, but he also believed that the area had immense potential. “Our location is close to major Midwest population centers and we didn’t have to invent a real ski town. Wausau is at the ski area’s doorstep.” He adds, “We renamed the area Granite Peak at Rib Mountain State Park to give it a new identity. Then we rolled up our sleeves and went to work building the ski area over from scratch. Most of what was here has been replaced.”

Initial improvements for the 2000-01 ski season were intended to jump-start Granite Peak. And they did just that. The resort added a terrain park and several new runs, installed snowmaking capability, purchased 1,000 new rental skis and snowboards, renovated the old chalet, and built new ticket and ski school buildings. “Just setting consistent hours of operation was a big plus,” Skinner recalls. “Before the transformation, the area would open at 9 a.m. one day and noon the next day. Skiers never knew what to expect.”

Changes were even more significant last year. Thirty new runs were added to the eastern side of the mountain, bringing the total number of trails to 51. Two new chairlifts (a double and a triple) doubled the lift capacity. State-of-the-art snowmaking covered 100 percent of the area, and grooming graduated from a task to a religion. Skiers responded; Granite’s skier days increased by 20 percent, season-pass holders doubled, and destination visits rose by a noteable 70 percent. Skier visits last year totaled some 90,000 (20,000 of those were season-pass holders).

Finally-for this season-21 more runs have been cut on the western side of the mountain, serviced by a new triple chairlift named Dancer. Also, the historic base area chalet has undergone a $1 million expansion and will be joined by a new food service chalet.

In just three years, with 72 runs and 700 feet of vertical, Granite has more than tripled its size. What this means is a selection of terrain for every ability and ski days filled with variety that lasts until the closing bell.

The trails down the front of Granite are mostly black-diamond pitches at the top segueing into relaxing runouts at the bottom. Trails like Exhibition, Elk Run and bumped-out Sundance challenge even experts with the sharpest edges and healthiest knees. Also on the frontside are some blue cruisers to the right of the Dancer chair. Sugar Maple, Birch Run and Miracle sweep along the shoulder of the mountain and back around to Dancer lift, so skiers don’t have to return to tthe base.

The 30 new trails carved out on the eastern side of the mountain last year have a character all their own. They are removed from the base area and feel like a totally separate ski area. Skiers drop into this area from a trio of chutes that are much steeper than anything else at Granite. There are also a number of winders-everything from the green Wedgewood to the slightly terrifying black-diamond Mama Mia (appropriately named) and eight blues in between. All of the routes slither through towering sugar maples, aspens and red oaks down to the section’s own chairlift, named Cupid.

The new trails to be unveiled this winter are primarily long intermediates meant to inspire GS carves, with a half-dozen of the runs stretching one mile in length. Interspersed with these new trails will be acres of glade-skiing-yet another largely unique dimension of the Granite experience.

Granite’s ambitious upgrading of the mountain has somewhat overshadowed base area renovations. Modernization and preservation have joined hands, and the classic chalet (originally built in 1938) has set the tone for the overall ambience. With its stone exterior, knotty pine interior and fieldstone fireplaces, the chalet has remained the core of the base area. Additions to it have kept with the same appearance and design, while the new buildings at the base feature rough-cut lumber on the exterior and rustic décor on the interior. It still feels like an old-time day lodge and ski village, but with expanded dining facilities, a larger ski shop and more room for skier services, the resort is able to meet the demands of today’s skiers. The new 10,000-foot cedar-sided food service chalet, which will double Granite’s dining capacity, continues the tradition with vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces and expansive decks.

Given the resurgence of Granite Peak as a ski resort, the proximity of Wausau is what really makes the resort a “destination.” A great ski town in every sense of the word, Wausau and the surrounding area give visitors boundless lodging, dining and recreation options. In winter, the town square features a small skating rink. Bordering the square is the historic Grand Theater, built in 1929, which hosts diverse offerings such as the National Acrobats of China; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and plays like Ragtime and The Buddy Holly Story. Nearby is the Yawkey Woodson Art Museum and the Washington Square pedestrian mall, which is filled with unique retailers in a space meant to echo the turn-of-the-century.

Even with all that has been accomplished at Granite Peak over the last three seasons, Skinner has plans for more. He’d like to build a high-speed quad up the center of the mountain, add a children’s center to the base area and create ski-in/ski-out lodging at the bottom of the new trails on the west side of the mountain. He’d also like to lengthen the season with more snowmaking.

Judging from what has been accomplished so far, it’s a good bet that Skinner’s vision will become a reality. As it stands, Skinner has already taken the ski area to levels worthy of its Granite name. Indeed, it is rock-solid.