Skis, cheese and wine in Wisconsin

  • Article by: BILL HAMMOND , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2011 - 3:13 PM

Two ski areas near Wisconsin Dells offer perks that are rarely found in the Upper Midwest.

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Heading uphill on a chairlift at Cascade Mountain in Portage, Wisconsin.

Photo: Photo provided by Cascade Mountain

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Twin Cities skiers often drive north -- to Wild Mountain, Spirit Mountain, Giants Ridge or Lutsen.

Sometimes they head a wee bit east, to Afton Alps or Trollhaugen.

And, of course, they love to venture west to the Rockies.

But south? And to Wisconsin Dells?

Hey, don't laugh. Near the Badger State's self-proclaimed Waterpark Capital of the World lie two ski hills with significantly higher vertical rise than any in the Twin Cities area. One has a high-speed chairlift (rare in the Midwest) and the other is a sprawling resort with slopeside lodging (ditto).

At both Cascade Mountain and Devil's Head Resort, you'll find ample snowmaking, trails more than a mile long and equal chunks of beginner, intermediate and expert terrain. Both have night skiing, and large terrain parks to challenge the snowboarders or daring skiers in your group.

And, of course, there's always plenty of tasty Wisconsin beer, wine and cheese nearby.

CASCADE MOUNTAIN, PORTAGE

Located about 20 minutes south of Wisconsin Dells, Cascade overlooks Interstate 94/90 and is a familiar sight to those who frequently drive to Madison or points beyond. Since the 1970s it has been attracting skiers from near and far, but especially from Chicagoland (expect to see a lot of Bears logos on sweatshirts and parkas here).

With 10 lifts, 36 trails and nearly 500 vertical feet to play with, Cascade reminds me of northern Minnesota's Giants Ridge in its scope and comfortable feel. You can get a lot more skiing done at Cascade, though, thanks to a high-speed detachable quad lift, the Mountain Top Express. Its uphill capacity also keeps lift lines negligible.

Once you've been whooshed to the top of the hill, it's decision time. Ski to the right and find a nice web of trails marked Easiest and More Difficult, all well groomed, wide and flanked with pretty trees. Veer left off the lift to reach the terrain park and a series of shorter, steeper, narrower runs that are marked Most Difficult.

In all cases, it's a simple matter to return to the express lift for your next uphill trip, or hop aboard one of the lesser-used double chairlifts and take a breather with a more relaxed ascent.

When it's time for a break, grab a cup of java or other hot drink at the cozy upstairs coffee shop in the original chalet, or head over to the larger, newer day lodge, which has cafeteria-style food and a sunny upstairs bar with expansive windows that look out onto the slopes.

Not a skier or a boarder? There's an 800-foot snow tubing hill, complete with a "moving sidewalk" lift to get you and your supplied inner tube gently up the slope.

Cascade links up with several Wisconsin Dells lodging and waterpark operations to offer various ski/stay specials throughout the season.

For more information, go to www.cascademountain.com.

DEVIL'S HEAD RESORT, MERRIMAC

Compared with Cascade, Devil's Head is more secluded, has prettier views from its highest reaches and makes you feel as though you are off in your own little world. You can pad from your lodge room to the pool/hot tub without going outdoors, and likewise to the in-house restaurants, bar and gift shop. A spacious lobby has two guest computers for Web-surfing or e-mailing.

I visited midweek in December, which saved me money on lodging but curtailed some resort services. The sit-down restaurant, for instance, was closed -- all food came from a cafeteria and could either be eaten there or delivered to the bar and lodge rooms.

On the slopes, I was impressed by the panorama of the Wisconsin River Valley that lay before me each time I got off the new main chairlift, one of only two lifts that were in use during my visit. And amid single-digit temperatures, I appreciated the south-facing slopes, which directed plenty of sunshine to the few square inches of my face not covered by goggles or hat. (Purists say that south-facing trails are prone to icy conditions from melt/freeze cycles, but the snow I encountered was first-rate -- perfectly groomed and grippy.) For more information on the resort, go to www.devils headresort.com.

Off-site dining and nightlife options are to be found in Baraboo, about 10 miles distant, and at the Ho-Chunk Casino, an additional 5 miles past Baraboo. I highly recommend a day trip to the Wollersheim Winery at Prairie du Sac, about 15 miles southwest of Devil's Head. After a tour and tasting, you may want to stock up on the award-winning Prairie Fumé white, which -- like all Wollersheim wines, alas -- is not sold in Minnesota. The winery is beautiful and the staff is warm, welcoming and knowledgeable. Learn more at www.wollersheim.com.

Bill Hammond • 612-673-1730

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