CHICAGO — For the expanse of flat prairie land that makes up the Midwest, skiing options are decent — respectable even — with a handful offering terrain and runs that rival more celebrated resorts out east or west.
And as the winter months emerge, conversations surrounding masks and social distancing are also tagging along for yet another round of ski season. For some, COVID-19 has meant a permanent change in operations.
At Cascade Mountain near the Wisconsin Dells, last season’s pandemic protocols highlighted the benefits of limiting daily ticket sales, leading them to continue to limit capacity regardless of COVID-19 moving forward, said marketing director Evan Walz.
“It makes for a better riding experience for our guests and a better operational experience for us,” he said. “It is significantly, significantly under what a typical Saturday would be in previous seasons. So the days of massive lift lines with nowhere to move — that’s over.”
Last year, the resort had a strict masking policy requiring guests to wear one at all times, even outdoors on the slopes. This season, with promising vaccination rates, they’re offering guests a choice.
“We are highly recommending them to wear masks for obvious reasons; there’s the chance to get exposed pretty much anywhere there’s people. But we’ll do our part, and just hope that guests are taking measures to be safe based on their comfort level,” Walz said. Employees will continue to wear masks.
Several ski resorts, including Cascade Mountain, have renovated their online shopping cart transaction systems for online sales, something Walz added was another product of COVID-19.
Even without the added stressors of COVID-19, picking the right ski resort takes some thinking and clicking around to find the best slopes, the most scenic glades and for newbies, the easiest terrain.
We’ve done the work for you, with eight resorts and ski areas reachable by car from Chicago, with options for families, ski experts, beginners and everyone in between.
A resort that has it all: Grand Geneva Resort & Spa
Grand Geneva, conveniently situated between Milwaukee and Chicago, is home to 20 downhill runs serviced by three chairlifts and terrains designed for any age group and skill level. The resort’s snow-making abilities allows it to stay open even when there isn’t any snow falling.
Certified instructors trained in the latest skiing techniques offer individualized attention to both new and seasoned skiers taking lessons. A few pandemic-related notes: Lift tickets will be sold online only with a set amount available per day, and guests are encouraged to get ready in their car before hitting the ski areas.
For nonskiers, sledding or ice skating is an option, as is hiding out in the arcade with air hockey, pingpong and more.
After a day on the slopes (or at the spa), guests can tuck inside a heated igloo for 90 minutes of sipping hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps or a hot toddy under the Wisconsin sky. The igloos run from Nov. 22 to March 14.
Miles from Chicago: 83
Ski season: Dec. 12 anticipated opening date through beginning of March
7036 Grand Geneva Way, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; 262-248-8811; grandgeneva.com
Best beginner friendly resort: Chestnut Mountain Resort
Chestnut offers 19 ski slopes and snowboard trails, a good chunk of which is catered toward beginners, with 12 green or blue trails, a bunny trail and the Rookie’s Ridge for a designated spot to get your snow legs. The resort’s longest run is an impressive 3,500 feet.
Group ski lessons are $20 per hour. Interested in snowboarding? The Burton learn-to-ride package includes a lift ticket, rental of snowboards specifically designed for beginners and a two-hour lesson for $150.
And if you’ve never boarded a moving ski lift, worry not, Chestnut’s ski staff is equipped to help skiers every step of the way. Most of all, the views of the Mississippi River from the hilltops is worth every tumble, slip and ungraceful fall.
As far as COVID-19 safety is concerned, masks will be required indoors regardless of vaccination status.
Miles from Chicago: 162
Ski season: Nov. 25 anticipated opening date through March 14
8700 W Chestnut Mountain Road, Galena, Illinois; (800) 397-1320; chestnutmtn.com
Closest to Chicago, but adventurous enough: Wilmot Mountain
Under the same ownership as Vail, Breckenridge, Alpine Valley and Brandywine and just over an hour drive from downtown Chicago, Wilmot Mountain is primed for a day trip or an impromptu getaway from the city. Day passes start at $70 with early-bird pricing through Nov. 21. Once you get your bearings, shoop down four green trails, seven blue trails and seven black diamond trails, or test out freestyle terrain parks with ramps, fun boxes and halfpipes.
Face coverings are required indoors, and as of press time, proof of vaccination is required for guests over 12 years old to dine at some restaurants, including ski school programs that include lunch. Employees are required to be vaccinated and undergo daily health screenings.
Miles from Chicago: 66
Ski season: Dec. 3 anticipated opening date through mid-March.
11931 Fox River Road, Wilmot, Wisconsin; 262-862-2301; wilmotmountain.com
Most family-friendly: Crystal Mountain
The lineup of winter activities at this northern Michigan resort will tempt any adventure-loving kid, from an obstacle-filled outdoor laser tag course to an archery range to a sled ride on the 1,700-foot-long alpine slide.
And then there’s the skiing. Up to four family members can get a personal tour of Crystal Mountain with a ski or snowboard instructor, or kids can learn on their own with lessons grouped by age and ability. Parents can book Nanny McSki, certified instructors trained in child care who spend the day with the kiddos. Meanwhile, the adults can try out some black diamond trails or unwind with restorative full-body massages and soothing facial treatments at the spa. After the fun is over, the whole family can relax in select pet friendly lodging, quaint cottages or mountaintop bungalows with ski-in/ski-out access — and kids up to 17 years old stay free in the winter and ski free on weekdays.
Restaurants are equipped with HEPA air filtration, UV light filtration has been added throughout the premises and masking indoors is encouraged for unvaccinated visitors.
Miles from Chicago: 306
Ski season: Thanksgiving through April 3.
12500 Crystal Mountain Drive, Thompsonville, Michigan.; 855-995-5146; crystalmountain.com
Most budget-friendly: Cascade Mountain
At Cascade Mountain, kids 12 and under ski free with a paid adult ticket. That, plus the fact that it boasts some of the best terrain parks and longest, well-maintained runs in the Midwest and proximity to Wisconsin Dells, makes the resort a one-stop shop for families looking to stretch their winter vacation budget.
The resort underwent quite a few off-season updates in preparation for its 60th season, including newly lit terrain, resulting in 125 total acres available for night skiing.
Face coverings are not required for guests, but they are highly recommended, especially in crowded indoor spaces. Lifts will be loaded at full capacity, and those uncomfortable riding with other individuals should let the attendant know, and they’ll make accommodations. It’s usually packed, as most resorts are during the holiday season, but skiers — especially the early birds — might find solace in the resort’s limit on daily ticket sales.
Miles from Chicago: 177
Ski season: Cascade Mountain typically shoots to open by the weekend following Thanksgiving as long as the weather allows.
W10441 Cascade Mountain Road, Portage, Wisconsin; 608-742-5588; cascademountain.com
Largest Midwest resort: Granite Peak
Granite Peak’s 68 runs and variety of terrain is what skiers would normally expect to find out west near the Rockies. And for Midwestern standards, the 700-feet vertical drop gives the illusion that just maybe, you really are far from home.
The drop is by far the highest in Wisconsin and the third-tallest in the Midwest. Frequent Chicago skiers will likely find the 275-mile trek worth it to experience the resort’s 55 trails and 225 acres of terrain (the most for a Wisconsin resort), seven lifts including the only high-speed 6-pack lift in Wisconsin and an upgraded powerful snow-making system with a price tag of $2.5 million.
In a change from last year, Granite Peak is hoping to make things “as normal as possible” by not mandating masks for guests while skiing, riding chairlifts or waiting in lines, but they do hope skiers use their best judgment when it comes to COVID-19 safety.
Miles from Chicago: 280
Ski season: Nov. 20 anticipated opening date
227200 Snowbird Ave, Wausau, Wisconsin; (715) 845-2846; skigranitepeak.com
Most classic ski lodge experience: Boyne Highlands, Boyne Mountain
What the Midwest lacks in towering altitudes, it makes up for in glimmering lakeside towns like Boyne Falls, Michigan. There you’ll find Boyne Mountain — the one place to visit if you’re seeking out a classic ski lodge experience where you can zip through the groomed cross-country trails during the day and sip cocktails and coffee around the fireplace at night. Within a few miles is Boyne Highlands in Harbor Springs, Michigan, which combined with Boyne Mountains adds up to more than 400 acres of skiable terrain.
To cap off the Hallmark-holiday aesthetic, Boyne Mountain offers plenty for après-ski, or the nightlife following a day of skiing.
Miles from Chicago: 347
Ski season: Depends on the first snow. Check website for updates.
1 Boyne Mountain Road, Boyne Falls, Michigan; 855-688-7024; boynemountain.com
A no-frills, pure ski resort: Nub’s Nob
Just up the road from Boyne Mountains is Nub’s Nob, a quaint resort with small-town charm. It’s burrowed in one of the most scenic nooks of northern Michigan, just a 90-minute drive from Mackinac Island.
The resort has 53 runs on 248 acres, complete with nine lifts and a 427-foot vertical drop. Avid skiers say Nub’s Nob is more of a local ski resort, where people are much more focused on skiing than socializing. And depending on which hill you’re on — there are 12 black diamond trails, plus a handful of double black diamond glades — there typically aren’t too many out-of-control beginners wobbling down a slope. It’s an excellent choice for those wanting a simple, no-frills place to get those ski boots on and go.
Miles from Chicago: 371
Ski season: Opening date depends on weather
500 Nubs Nob Road, Harbor Springs, Michigan; 231- 526-2131; nubsnob.com