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Downhill Skiing: Go for the Gold
Why even bother with ski destinations that offer anything less than long, thrilling runs? Head straight to the biggest and best mountains in the region, plus one favorite faraway peak.
Perched above the Mississippi in the historic northwestern Illinois town of Galena, scenic Chestnut Mountain offers a 475-foot vertical drop that runs 3,500 feet through 19 trails, ranging from novice to black diamond.
Cost: Lift tickets $20 a day through December 13, then $35.
How far? 160 miles (three-hour drive). 8700 W. Chestnut Mountain Rd., 815-777-1320, chestnutmtn.com
Granite Peak at Rib Mountain State Park
Offers a 700-foot vertical drop—the highest in Wisconsin. You’ll enjoy tackling that drop across 74 runs that traverse 65 acres perfect for Northwoods-style tree skiing.
Cost: Lift tickets from $69 a day.
How far? 274 miles (four-and-a-half-hour drive). 3605 N. Mountain Rd., Wausau, Wis., 715-845-2846, skigranitepeak.com
Head past Traverse City, Michigan, to Boyne Falls, where you’ll find skiable terrain that spans 415 sweeping acres, delivering a kind of wide-openness usually found only at western resorts. Boyne Mountain’s 60 runs, including the one-mile Cold Springs, pose challenges at every level. There’s even a boardercross course—a fast competition run typically catering to snowboarders—that welcomes skiers.
Cost: Lift tickets start at $53 a day.
How far? 346 miles (five-hour drive). 1 Boyne Mountain Rd., Boyne Falls, Mich., 231-549-6000, boyne.com/boynemountain
Jackson Hole Mountain
Big mountains can be found in the Midwest; for example, Mount Bohemia in Lac La Belle, Michigan, has an 900-foot vertical drop. But it’s an eight-hour drive from Chicago, and at that point, why not just fly west? Skiers who want skill-testing terrain with interesting features—rock faces, gorgeous trees, bowls, and curvy European-like runs—flock to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Topping out at an elevation of 10,450 feet, Jackson Hole boasts the longest continuous vertical rise of any resort in the United States (at 4,139 feet) and opens up to 3,000 acres of backcountry skiing for those who want to go off the map.
Cost: Lift tickets from $73 a day.
How far? 1,400 miles (three-hour flight to Jackson Hole). Teton Village, Wyo., 307-733-2292, jacksonhole.com
Skiing: Follow the Pretty Lights
Veteran cross-country skier and ski patroller Jim Lamb adores skiing at night on a lighted trail or by moonlight. “The landscape shines like a sea full of diamonds that move as you progress along the trail,” the Sauganash resident says. Lamb recommends Lincoln Park after a good lake-effect snow for surprisingly dramatic views under city lights. In lower Michigan, he likes Love Creek Nature Center (9292 Huckleberry Rd., Berrien Center, Mich., 269-471-2617, berriencounty.org) for its five miles of open trails and undulating wooded slopes, plus an excellent rental facility for first-timers. In Wisconsin, Lamb goes for the Lapham Peak Unit of the breathtaking Kettle Moraine State Forest (W329 N846 County C, Delafield, Wis., 262-646-3025, dnr.wi.gov), which offers a warming cabin with coffee, hot cocoa, and flush toilets.
Biathlon: Take Aim
Take aim With origins in early European hunting, the biathlon tests both stamina and precision by combining cross-country skiing and target shooting using a small-caliber rifle. But with only a couple dozen biathlon clubs in the United States, the biggest hurdle can be finding a regulation course nearby. A two-hour drive from Chicago, the Wisconsin Biathlon Association runs one of the best at the McMiller Sports Center biathlon range (S103W38754 County Rd. NN, Eagle, Wis.), located in the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s Southern Unit. Held once a month, the introductory clinic covers gun safety and shooting from standing and prone positions, with practice in the form of fun competitions on cross-country skis. The club will provide a biathlon-modified 22-caliber rifle. Bring your skis and layer up. $25; wisconsinbiathlon.com
Haul Ass Two Ways
Is tubing the new sledding? Or is good ol’ sledding still the best way to get to the bottom? Try both these great options and judge for yourself.
The hill: Mount Hoy is one of the tallest and longest hills in the Chicago area where you can rent an inner tube.
Where: Blackwell Forest Preserve (Butterfield Rd., one mile east of Rte. 59, Warrenville, 630-871-6422, dupageforest.org)
Elevation: 150 feet
Length of run: 800 feet
Number of runs: Two
Cost: $5 tube rental
Rules: Only Blackwell’s inner tubes are allowed.
Safety: A gatekeeper stationed at the top sends down one tube at a time, which means no chains of riders. It also means collision-free riding for little kids.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, December through February (closed December 25). Open only when snow depth measures three inches or more.
Perk: From the top of the hill on a clear day, you can see the Chicago skyline.
The hill: The slope at Dan Ryan Woods is bigger and more family-friendly than steep Swallow Cliff in Palos Park (which may close this season due to erosion).
Where: 87th Street and Western Avenue (800-870-3666, fpdcc.com)
Elevation: 45 feet
Length of run: 200 feet
Number of runs: Unlimited—you can sled down any side of the hill. There’s a gentle slope perfect for young children and a steep, fast route for everyone else.
Rules: No tubes or metal-edged sleds
Safety: Unsupervised by the forest preserve, so sled at your own risk.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, December through February (closed December 25). Open only when snow depth measures three inches or more.
Perk: Lighted runs allow for night sledding.
Ski Jumping: Get Mad Air
The Norge Ski Club (100 Ski Hill Rd., Fox River Grove, 847-639-9718, norgeskiclub.com) has long reigned as the regional launching pad for Olympic stars, including Sochi 2014 Games hopeful Mike Glasder and Norge head coach Scott Smith, a former U.S. ski team member. But this year make the six-hour drive to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the aptly named Suicide Hill (Suicide Bowl Rd., Negaunee, Mich., ishskiclub.com) for its trophy jump: a 90-meter monster. The Ishpeming Ski Club will even show first-timers the ropes for free—including coaching and equipment.
Revel in Nature
Sick of fighting for a patch of ice in the city? Time to check out some terrific skate ponds and tree-lined outdoor rinks.
In Wheaton, renovations to 70-acre Northside Park (1300 N. West St., 630-665-4710, wheatonparkdistrict.com) have just finished. Bring your own skates for a twirl or a pickup ice hockey game on the lighted lagoon, which wraps around a small island and tucks under bridges. Rest at the warming shelter or take a few runs down a great sledding hill just steps from the lagoon. Northside opens at dawn and turns off the lights at 10 p.m. Free.
For a deep north woods experience, drive three hours along Michigan’s west coast to the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex (462 Scenic Dr., Muskegon, Mich., 877-879-5843, msports.org). Open daily from 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m., the facility boasts two acres of outdoor skating, including hockey rinks and family-friendly ovals. The highlight: a quarter-mile lighted skating trail that weaves a giant figure eight through the woods. Rentals $4 per person, plus $5 day pass.
Kiss a Pig
Bacon drippings, lard, and beeswax packed into a handy tube: bacon lip balm! Faith’s Farm in Bonfield, Illinois, makes it. Burke’s Bacon Bar (610 N. Rush St., 312-660-7200) sells it. Lip-smacking good. $5 a tube.