We hardy Midwesterners know that all it really takes to have some fun in the winter is a good hill, enough snow and the right equipment. Here are some of the best locations in our region to ski, board and sled.
When the chill of winter settles in, many of us begin to go into hibernation mode.
As the season progresses, we discover just how dull it is to hide away all season. Why waste a few perfectly good months because of some cold air and blowing snow? Why not embrace winter’s wrath?
To avoid going stir-crazy this winter, it’s important to get out there, get moving and take on our landscape head-on. As our ancestors knew well, outdoor fun is what we make of it, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy our rugged terrain this season.
Here are some family-friendly ideas that are sure to get you skiing, sledding and trekking across our region all winter long.
Catch Some Powder at Granite Peak Ski Resort
If powdery, snow-covered hills are what your heart desires this winter season, then plan on checking out Granite Peak Ski Resort in Wausau, Wis. Granite Peak is the tallest and largest ski resort in the state and the second-highest in the Midwest. The property boasts modern facilities with new runs, buildings and ski lifts. The resort offers fun the whole family can enjoy, with beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain available for skiers of all levels.
“We have an awesome ski school program for children starting from the age of 3, and we consider ourselves a family destination,” says Vicki Baumann, Granite Peak operations manager. “We also have classes for adults, moms, grandmas – there are lessons for people of all ages.”
Skiers will find three high-speed ski lifts, which enable more time for skiing and less time for waiting in line. Two cozy ski chalets provide festive atmospheres with music. For people who want to take a break outdoors, there’s also an outdoor fire pit to warm up those frozen fingers and toes.
A big draw to Granite Peak is the resort’s family fests, which take place on select dates in January, February and March. Activities during this time include horse-drawn wagon rides, fireworks displays, and music from regional and international bands.
“These are very popular events,” says Baumann. “People come from all over the place, and it’s a very reasonable price.”
During each family fest weekend, visitors can find deals on lifts and rentals at Granite Peak, as well as lodging at Wausau-area hotels.
Another reason to head to Granite Peak Ski Resort this winter is its prime location.
“Granite Peak is centrally located, and it’s special because it has a ski town at the base of its mountain,” adds Baumann. “Most ski resorts have to create a town on their own, and we have one right here.”
The city of Wausau, located just down-slope from Granite Peak, offers plenty to do when you’re ready to come in from the cold. You can take advantage of plentiful lodging, shopping, dining and entertainment options; catch a theater performance; check out a movie or visit Wausau’s historical shopping district and pick up a souvenir to top off your trip.
Sledding, Skating & Skiing at St. Charles Park District
Nestled on the eastern edge of Kane County, St. Charles is known for its shopping and dining opportunities and the lovely views of the Fox River running through its downtown. Its rugged riverside terrain is ideal for a variety of outdoor adventures.
“St. Charles parks offer plenty of outdoor winter fun, with everything from sledding and snowboarding to cross-country skiing, ice skating and snowshoeing,” says Erika Young, public relations and marketing manager for the St. Charles Park District.
For sledding and snowboarding opportunities, visitors can head over to the sledding hills at Langum and Timber Trails parks. Be sure to bring along your own sleds and boards, as equipment is not provided on-site.
Across the St. Charles area, you’ll find numerous trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Primrose Farm and Hickory Knolls Discovery Center conveniently provide aluminum snowshoes, which can be rented for $2 during the week and $5 on the weekends. Sizes are available for adults and children.
If you’re planning a romantic date, top off the night with a spin on the ice. Grab your significant other and take him or her for a twirl at one of the city’s four ice skating rinks, all maintained by the park district. The rinks are featured at Davis, Lincoln, Timber Trails and Langum parks. All ice skating rinks are open daily and lighted until 9 p.m.
For sports enthusiasts, ice hockey is also offered on the rink at Langum Park.
If you simply fancy a stroll in the crisp winter air, head over to the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, which offers winter hikes in January and February. Have children in tow? The park’s visitors center features activities for little ones, such as the Frozen Fun Camp, where children will learn about animals that actually enjoy the winter season. While you’re there, the kids can enjoy making crafts and performing science experiments.
McHenry County Conservation District
The McHenry County Conservation District manages more than 25,540 acres of open land with woodlands, prairies, wetlands, ponds, creeks and rivers. There are thirty-three sites open to the public year-round. This is good news for people who want to get out and explore the county’s winter wonderlands.
Step out and enjoy the magic of a crisp winter evening while hiking or skiing on one of the district’s solar-lighted trails. From Nov. 5 through March 11, the McHenry County Conservation District offers two sites for this unique winter activity. Pleasant Valley, in Woodstock, features a half-mile looped trail with flat terrain. Hickory Grove Highlands, in Cary, offers a one-mile trail that winds through a newly restored savanna and provides a longer scenic route for intermediate skiers. Sign-ins are available at the start of the trails.
There are nine miles of snowmobile trails through Glacial Park, located at Illinois Route 31 and Harts Road in Ringwood. This is the district’s most popular site. For some old-fashioned fun, grab your tubes or sleds and head over to the park’s sled hill, situated near the Wiedrich Barn amphitheater, in the central part of the park.
Just up the trail, Glacial Park’s Lost Valley Visitors Center offers a variety of winter programming. The center provides winter break day camps for kids, featuring games, hiking, sledding and snowshoeing; a nature in winter outreach program, which teaches children about plants and animals that are adapted to survive the winter; and a variety of drop-in activities.
Cross-country skiing is available at 17 nature preserves throughout the county, so long as there’s at least 4 to 5 inches of snow on the ground. Trails are packed and tracked at preserves in Woodstock, Marengo, Lake in the Hills, Cary, Ringwood, Wonder Lake, Cary, Crystal Lake, Harvard and McHenry. A skate ski trail is featured at Silver Creek preserve, in Cary. Plan ahead and rent equipment at Crystal Lake Ski and Bike, in Crystal Lake, or at Alpine Accessories, in Lake in the Hills. Snowshoes for the whole family can be rented at the Lost Valley Visitors Center for $10 a day.
“Residents are fortunate to have so many low- to no-cost activities available close to home at their local conservation areas,” says Wendy Kummerer, communications and marketing manager for the conservation district. “So, in the coming months, avoid the winter blahs, enjoy some fresh air, get moving and get outdoors.”
City of Elgin’s Parks Department
The city of Elgin offers a wide array of activities to keep you busy during the winter months.
“Elgin provides some very unique winter facilities and program opportunities,” says Randy Reopelle, parks director. “The diversity of the opportunities available and the low cost make Elgin a good choice for winter fun.”
For a real treat, check out the hardy bison, elk and deer at Lords Park Zoo, located on the city’s east side. These native Illinoisans are around all season.
Continue the adventure with classic winter activities such as skiing, sledding, ice skating and hiking at different locations around the city.
For cross-country skiing options, head over to the trails at Bowes Creek Country Club. The trails around this public golf course are groomed and open daily, so long as there’s adequate snowfall. Skiers should bring their own equipment, as it’s not provided on-site.
Sledding is available at Rolling Knolls Forest Preserve from 10 a.m. to sunset, depending on the weather. Visitors should also bring their own equipment to the sled hill.
People who want to take a brisk stroll in the snow can enjoy a winter walk at Burnidge Woods Park, where 22 wooded acres and a looped half-mile nature trail await exploration on the city’s far west side.
If you want to ice skate, grab a friend or two and head over to the City Skate outdoor rink at the Civic Center Plaza, located downtown between the Hemmens Cultural Center and City Hall. A warming shelter is available from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to help keep your feet toasty when you need a break. City Skate offers preschool, youth and private skating lessons.
For additional winter fun, Hawthorne Hill Nature Center offers winter programming for people of all ages – beginning with preschool. Visitors to the center can learn about animal tracking, participate in guided hikes and bird walks, get creative with nature crafts, and learn about wildlife photography. Select programming is offered for families to enjoy guided nature hikes, animal tracking, a cozy fire with s’mores and more.
Chestnut Mountain in Galena
Located near Galena, Ill., and tucked into the hills overlooking the Mississippi River, Chestnut Mountain Ski Resort features a wide array of amenities, accommodations and activities for the whole family to enjoy. The property sits on more than 220 acres and features a 475-foot vertical drop that runs 3,500 feet through scenic bluffs that house 19 total runs.
The property has much to experience. Chestnut Mountain offers a 7-acre terrain park, which is the largest of its kind in the Midwest. The Farside terrain park provides more than 25 rails and structures for snowboarders and skiers alike.
The property boasts two quad lifts, four triple chair lifts, two conveyor lifts and one surface lift, so there’s never much of a wait.
The resort also offers lessons and programming for people of all ages.
Chestnut Mountain’s Powder Pups program serves kids with ski games and small-group activities. The Burton Learn To Ride program is designed especially for new snowboarders who are still getting acquainted with the sport.
Adults can also sign up for private lessons with one of the resort’s experienced staff members – there are more than 50 professional instructors on-site.
After a day playing outdoors, guests can relax in the resort’s indoor pool, sauna or Jacuzzi, and enjoy a bite to eat at one of three on-site eateries. Each has something unique to offer.
Perched on a buff that overlooks the Upper Mississippi River Valley, Sunset Grille features steaks, seafood and signature sandwiches. It also boasts a 1,400-square-foot outdoor dining deck, perfect for taking in the sweeping snowy views. The resort’s sports bar, The Summit, features contemporary cuisine and an extensive list of craft beers and wines. Mountain Top Cafe, located just off the bunny slope, provides visitors with ample seating and a variety of menu options.
Stewart Soffregen, marketing director for Chestnut Mountain, says the resort is “The perfect place to escape the everyday.”
Revel in Winter Sports at Wilmot Mountain
Wilmot Mountain, located in Wilmot, Wis., has been known as one of the Midwest’s premier winter destinations since 1938. A short drive away from Chicago, Rockford and Milwaukee, these slopes provide affordable skiing, snowboarding and tubing access.
Play at Wilmot and you can experience some 23 trails, seven lifts, two surface conveyor lifts and a progression terrain park with a double high-speed rope tow. The entire resort recently received a multimillion-dollar facelift from its new owners – a group that also owns ski resorts in Colorado.
Wilmot’s unique terrain park for skiers and snowboarders is a favorite among the daring. For those who want to brush up on their skills, Wilmot Mountain offers group and private skiing/snowboarding lessons for people of all ages. There are also progressive learning programs for children.
This season, Wilmot offers a Learn to Ski/Learn to Ride program that’s open to first-time skiers age seven or older. Participants leave with their very own set of skis or a snowboard upon graduation.
Take a break from playing outdoors and stop at the on-site restaurant, Walt’s Tavern, which offers “elevated tavern cuisine” in a laid-back setting complete with lovely views of the slopes. Concession stands serve snacks and drinks in the resort’s main lodge area and the tubing hill lodge.
This year marks the resort’s 80th season, and you can celebrate the milestone with an all-day party on Saturday, Feb. 10. The event features fireworks, music, commemorative pins, a presentation, a cake cutting, ice sculpting, giveaways and more.
“Wilmot Mountain has great access from Chicagoland and Milwaukee, and it offers a really fun atmosphere,” says Rachael Muhlenbeck, marketing and public relations manager. “From skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing to enjoying a great meal at Walt’s Tavern or live and local music in the lodge every Friday night, there’s always something to do.”