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A Hill & Some Snow: Where to Find Outdoor Fun This Winter

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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.

Wilmot Mountain, in Wilmot, Wis.

Wilmot Mountain, in Wilmot, Wis.

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? This is a season to be savored.

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 that 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.

Connect with Nature in the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County

The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County offer 10,500 acres of diverse public trails spread through 43 preserves where visitors can truly experience the beauty of nature in winter.

“Exploring nature in winter offers a chance to escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life and enjoy the textures, colors and sounds of the winter woods, rivers and prairies,” says Jamie B. Johannsen, director of marketing and community relations. “Spend time outdoors in parks and preserves this winter and discover the subtle beauty of nature in ‘the offseason.’”

The county has several forest preserves that are ideal for winter fun. These locations feature activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing – provided there’s adequate snowfall. The most popular preserves include Kieselburg, in Roscoe, Ill.; Hononegah in Rockton, Ill.; Sugar River, in Durand, Ill.; Pectatonica River, in Pecatonica, Ill.; and Oak Ridge/Deer Run, in Cherry Valley, Ill. Hiking, nature study, photography and winter bird watching opportunities abound in these wild landscapes.

Vehicle access may be limited due to snow and ice, but the public is always invited to walk in.

For more winter fun, Severson Dells Nature Center features Science Saturdays throughout the season. Aimed at kids, these weekend gatherings provide family-friendly activities and guided hikes, weather permitting.

Simple Fun at Alpine Hills Adventure Park

For affordable family fun, grab the kids and head to Snow Park at Alpine Hills Adventure Park, located about 10 minutes from downtown Rockford. During the winter months, the park features a 5-acre snow area with tubing and terrain sections designed for riders of all abilities.

A surface lift conveniently carries visitors to the top of the hill, where fire pits await to help keep visitors toasty. Throughout the season, the tubing lanes and terrain park features are sculpted and rearranged for different experiences and challenges. If there’s only a little snowfall this year, like last year, the park has its own snow-making equipment to keep the hills well groomed.

The Lodge serves up snacks as well as hot and cold beverages.

“Our terrain park features a unique drop-in area and is a great place to work on your skills without traveling for hours,” says Becky Lambert, Rockford Park District Outdoor Recreation and Education Manager. “All of this family fun costs about the same as a trip to the movies.”

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 sweeping 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.”

Explore the Byron Forest Preserve District

The extensive open spaces of Byron Forest Preserve District, located near the Rock River in Byron, Ill., allow for some of winter’s best outdoors activities.

The newly renovated Jarrett Prairie Center Museum, which opened to the public in 2016, promises to keep the family entertained. The museum boasts 4,000 square feet of exhibits and hands-on learning opportunities for visitors of all ages. Admission is free, and it’s open daily.

Inside the museum you can visit an immersive theater that teaches about local prairie ecology, several expansive
natural history and historical dioramas, fossil exhibits, displays on prairie restoration and a prairie agriculture exhibit where visitors can design their very own farms.

For a unique winter treat, visit the museum’s Weiskopf Observatory every Saturday after the sun goes down. The beauty of the night sky shines through the observatory’s telescope.

“It may be cold, but the stars look better in winter,” says Mark Herman, superintendent of education.

There’s also a lot to see in the daytime from the prairie observation deck, where visitors can enjoy the sweeping views of the forest preserve and watch wildlife roaming about.

Head over to the sledding hill at the Jarrett Prairie Center and take on the rolling prairie hills. Embark from the Jarrett Prairie Center on trails for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Sleds and snowshoes are available for rental.

Learn-to-ski programs for cross-country skiing will be offered on select dates from January through March.

Additionally, a free winter lecture series will take place in February and March on Sunday afternoons.

“A good way to cure cabin fever is with a free lecture,” adds Herman.

Bring Out the Fun in Beloit

The City of Beloit’s Operations, Parks and Recreation Division offers a myriad of options for winter fun. Cold-weather enthusiasts can participate in outdoor activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking and more. Hospital Hill and Leeson Park have some of the city’s favorite sledding hills.

“If the wind blowing through your hair as you race up and down the ice on a pair of steel blades is your passion, there are two options for ice skating,” adds Mark Edwards, interim superintendent of operations and parks for the City of Beloit. “There is a lagoon at Riverside Park, or you can ice skate indoors at Edwards Ice Rink.”

The most popular location for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is Big Hill Park, with five miles of trails that offer challenges for any skill level. Greenway Trail, adjacent to Turtle Creek, is a bit longer at almost 7.5 miles, and it’s also a favorite among visitors. All trails are groomed to accommodate hiking, snowshoeing and skiing.

Let the Powder Fly at Chestnut Mountain

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 before enjoying 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.”

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