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.
Snowboarding: Master the Spin
Slopestyle, a snowboarding event making its Olympic debut at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, is well suited to the feature-rich terrain parks common in the Midwest. Breckenridge native Eric Willett (above), 25, a Sochi hopeful and slopestyle competitor, offers tips on mastering a basic move: the spin.
1. Approach a small jump, edging on your toes.
2. Rotate your upper body (preparing to release it into the turn), edge on your heels, and put pressure on your back leg.
3. Pop off the lip of the jump by extending your back leg and releasing the torque in your shoulders.
4. In the air, keep your body facing in the direction of the spin, and glue your eyes to the landing spot.
5. Bend your knees on landing.
Move to watch for at Sochi: “Look for the triple cork,” says Willett. It combines four 360-degree turns—or 1,440 degrees of rotation.
Where to Practice
In Algonquin, Raging Buffalo Snowboard Park (day passes from $32; 847-836-7243, ragingbuffalo.com) offers half-pipes, kickers, and tabletops for experienced snowboarders and a bunny hill with a “magic carpet” lift for beginners. In Galena, Chestnut Mountain Resort (lift tickets from $35; 815-777-1320, chestnutmtn.com) has a dedicated terrain park, where snowboarders rage over 25 rails and enjoy a triple chair lift. In Wausau, Wisconsin, Granite Peak Ski Area (lift tickets from $69; 715-845-2846, skigranitepeak.com) is the destination for serious boarders. They go for the resort’s five well-maintained and frequently changing parks—totaling 15 jumps and 35 jibs (the obstacles from which snowboarders like to take off)—all connected by long, steep runs.
Luging: Race to the Bottom
Aspiring lugers, you need not improvise a track on the local sledding hill. Just a three-hour drive away in Muskegon, Michigan, at the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex (877-879-5843, msports.org), you can learn proper technique on an 850-foot track, one of only four in the United States. In the two-and-a-half-hour beginner’s class ($30 on Wednesdays and Fridays, $45 weekends), you’ll suit up and learn how to handle and steer a luge weighing 25 to 35 pounds. Then you’ll hurtle several times from the Bridge Start down the lower 650 feet of the track—through four hairpin curves, accelerating up to 30 miles per hour—and finish with a medal ceremony.
Speed Skating: Churn and Burn
The Swider-Peltz family of Wheaton is attempting to become a speed-skating dynasty: Nancy Swider-Peltz, a four-time Olympian in the sport, coaches her kids, Jeffrey, 24, and Nancy, 27, who will compete in the Salt Lake City Olympic trials later this month for spots at Sochi. Want to draft behind them? They recommend finding a coach through any of Chicagoland’s four major speed skating clubs in Evanston, Park Ridge (where Swider-Peltz coaches), Northbrook, and Glen Ellyn, which holds races outside when Lake Ellyn freezes over. illinoisspeedskating.org
Jump in the Lake
The idea is simple: The lower the mercury, the bigger the bragging rights. Got it? Now go do it.
January 1: Some 600 brave souls ring in the New Year with the Jacksonport Polar Bear Club’s annual swim at Lakeside Park in Door County, Wisconsin. jacksonportpolarbearclub.com
January 25: The Lakeview Polar Bear Club plunges at Oak Street Beach. lakeviewpolarbearclub.com
February 21: Participants dip hourly for a full day at North Beach on Northwestern’s campus in Evanston. plungeillinois.com
Ice Fishing: Catch Dinner
From Christmas through Saint Patrick’s Day, the season goes into full swing. Ice-fishing champion Tony Boshold recommends setting up camp on the chain of lakes in the Fox River region. Get a fishing license from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources ($15; dnr.illinois.gov) and call a local bait shop to find out if the ice is thick enough; Boshold likes Triangle Sports and
Marine (23480 W. Grass Lake Rd., Antioch, 847-395-0813). You could spend a ton of money outfitting yourself—automatic auger to drill a hole, a portable cabin with a heater, toilet, and satellite TV—but you can also rough it: Dress like you’re going sledding, show up at the lake, look for a clump of guys, lower your line, and wait for a bite from white bass, northern pike, or walleye.
Running: Dashing Through the Snow
Don’t even think about hanging up your running shoes. Gear up for these three races—from mildly painful to why-am-I-out-here?
5K at 32 Degrees
December 7 at 9 a.m.
Don your free race swag (a Santa hat, beard, and Dri-FIT shirt) and run a new course dotted with candy and cookie stations. Race ends at Navy Pier for the after-party. $50; santahustle.com
8K at 29 Degrees
December 15 at 9 a.m.
Bring a toy or donation to this race for the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital. Kids can take part in the half-mile Donner Dash at 10 a.m. $40; fleetfeetchicago.com
13.1 M at 25 Degrees
Fˆ3 Lake Half Marathon
January 25 at 10 a.m.
Run along the windswept lakefront. Your medal doubles as a bottle opener. Message? Post-race hydration highly recommended. $70; f3running.com
Ice Climbing: Visit a Cornfield
Started more than a decade ago by avid ice climber and University of Northern Iowa professor Don Briggs, the sport of silo ice climbing involves spraying water on the exterior walls of grain silos and letting it freeze into an undulating expanse of ice. When temps stay below 26 degrees for a solid week, strap on your crampons and head to a farm just outside Cedar Falls, Iowa, to scale an 80-footer, the only ice-climbing silo in the Midwest as far as the eye can see. $35 day pass; 2524 Jepsen Rd., siloiceclimbing.com