Midwest Ski Resorts We Love
Bundled in sporty parkas and cozy fleece hats, Collette and Rudy Henderson tromp across packed powder on racquet-shape snowshoes. Their steps, a staccato of heavy crunches, resound beneath an inky star-studded sky. "Anybody hear anything?" asks Nicole, their night-hike guide. She scans the forest of white-frosted pines next to the lighted trail. The 50-something couple from East Lansing, Michigan, pause. Silence. "Usually, we hear owls or some kind of animals," Nicole says. But the quiet is welcome on a brisk January night. No traffic. No loud voices. Just the serenity of the wintry woods, with a crescent moon above and the smoky scent of a bonfire in the distance.
That peacefulness keeps drawing the Hendersons to Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa in Thompsonville, Michigan, 28 miles southwest of Traverse City. "We love that it's so isolated," Rudy says. "Yet there's always something to do."
Like a handful of full-service ski resorts in northern Michigan, Wisconsin and northern Minnesota, Crystal Mountain exudes tranquility for travelers needing a little pampering, whether they're interested in the downhill skiing or not. Horse-drawn surrey rides, toasty bonfires and a luxury spa offer calming moments within sight of 45 downhill runs, 30 miles of cross-country trails and snowmobiling trails. "I think our downhill skiing days are behind us," Collette says with a laugh. "But I love the cross-country skiing trails." Families with youngsters take advantage of kid-friendly events: an outdoor obstacle course race, photo scavenger hunts and bedtime story readings from costumed characters.
Even a stroll through the village feels like a treat. Sidewalks wind past Craftsman-style bungalows, clapboard cottages and twinkle-lighted buildings-all against the backdrop of hills covered with ribbons of swishing downhill skiers. Six ski lifts whisk both teetering beginners and advanced skiers to the top of the slopes. First-timers don't worry about clambering onto the wrong lift; each leads to at least one mellow green run. Skiers who last until nightfall witness a bonus: glittering views of the village below.
Cool places to play and chill
Few regional resorts can match the offerings at one-stop play-and-stay Crystal Mountain; nearby Boyne Mountain comes the closest, with a deluxe spa, an indoor water park and tons of lodging options. Others score high for impressive runs, well-tended facilities, and comfortable, satisfying restaurants. New ownership and an extensive renovation transformed Granite Peak Ski Area in Wausau, Wisconsin, from a so-so stop for skiers into a primo destination for winter -travelers who use one of the town's bed-and-breakfasts or hotels as a home base. Nearby Sylvan Tubing Hill offers long runs and powered lifts that make going up and down the hills a cinch. Michael's Supper Club serves twists on steak and seafood dishes, and several microbreweries in Wausau promise flavorful pints and friendly service.
Moody Lake Superior churns near Spirit Mountain Recreation Area in Duluth and Lutsen Mountains (90 miles northeast of Duluth). Lutsen, home to the Midwest's largest downhill ski resort, has more than 90 runs-known as some of the region's highest-and a slew of North Woods lodgings, including classy Caribou Highlands Lodge and restful Lutsen Resort. Just 18 miles north on US-61, tiny Grand Marais has worth-the-trip locally sourced dinner destinations along the lake, including the Gun Flint Tavern, the Pie Place Cafe and the Crooked Spoon.
Dogsleds, an art park and more at Crystal
No matter which destination travelers choose, they'll discover a common delight: The morning after a snowfall, the landscape glistens as if it's been brushed with vanilla frosting. Back at Crystal Mountain, this scene is best viewed from a dogsled. Two guests bundled in blankets nestle in a sled behind a tail-wagging crew of eight. "Haw-haw-haw!" hollers musher John Fink. On command, the dogs veer left along a tree-lined trail. Lead dog Thor, who raced in Alaska's Iditarod, guides the others while kicked-up snow tickles riders' cheeks.
At the opposite end of the resort, more than 40 nature-inspired sculptures dot hilly Michigan Legacy Art Park, where guests enjoy peaceful hiking. Lofty canvas sails attached to tall pine trunks form the captivating Five Needles sculpture, a towering piece of natural art that makes hikers feel tiny. The prickly pines seem far away in the 18,000-square-foot Crystal Spa, where guests wrapped in fleece robes sink into cream, cushioned lounge chairs before their treatments. Facials and massages that combine piping hot towels with heady lavender and mint essential oils await.
At night, bagpipe tunes welcome diners to the Scottish-theme Thistle Pub and Grille. Sweater-clad patrons order crispy potato-crusted Great Lakes walleye, and an acorn squash bowl overflows with risotto and roasted veggies. Tart Michigan cherries swimming in brandy blaze during a tableside cherries jubilee prep. Much like these Midwest resorts, the dessert is a tantalizing combination of excitement and tranquility-the ideal finale to a winter's day on or off the slopes.
For more information: Crystal Mountain Resort crystalmountain.com
More ski areas we love
Boyne Mountain, Boyne Falls, Michigan Zipline over, ski down or catch air at some of the Midwest's best slopes. After a day outside, relax with a massage at the lavish Solace Spa, or channel your inner teen in the Avalanche Bay Indoor Waterpark. Accommodations range from luxurious hotel rooms and suites to mountain cabins and villas. boyne.com
Giants Ridge, Biwabik, Minnesota Black-diamond thrills, family-friendly tubing and cross-country treks through hushed woods await at this resort in Minnesota's Iron Range, 70 miles north of Duluth. You'll find cozy yet spacious places to stay at the Lodge at Giants Ridge and the Villas at Giants Ridge. giantsridge.com
Granite Peak Ski Area at Rib Mountain State Park, Wausau, Wisconsin Six chair lifts, including two high-speed, serve almost 80 percent of the 74 runs at 700-foot-high Granite Peak. Experienced skiers and snowboarders shred black-diamond runs; the same lifts serve acres of beginner slopes and mile-long intermediate runs. End your day at the charming Jefferson Street Inn in downtown Wausau. skigranitepeak.com
Lutsen Mountains, Lutsen, Minnesota With 90-plus runs on four North Shore mountains, a first-time visit can feel a little overwhelming. We suggest Moose Mountain, with its red gondola and views of Lake Superior. Lodging at Eagle Ridge Resort makes exploring the area easy. lutsen.com
Shanty Creek Resorts, Bellaire, Michigan Three ski villages provide a variety of powder play, including ski runs, terrain parks and a tubing hill. Ivan's tavern-style restaurant serves local craft beers and specialty pizzas, and Lakeview Restaurant offers more refined dining, including small plates of tender lamb pops with sweet fig jam. Guests retreat to comfortable modern hotel rooms or condos. shantycreek.com
(Prices and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)