Cruising at Whitecap
In corner of Wisconsin, the ski resort has the woodsy charm of the mountains.
© Beth Gauper
Skiers take a break at Whitecap's Wine Hut.
Ah, the smell of Coppertone in spring.
Leaning back on a chairlift, basking in sun bounced off acres of snow, I was getting quite a tan — on St. Patrick’s Day.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with its towering stacks of snow, is a good place for skiers to be in the spring.
The annual average is more than 200 inches, courtesy of winds out of the Canadian Rockies, which, when they hit land after whipping across Lake Superior, dump enough to make the western U.P. one of the snowiest spots in the nation.
When a friend and I were there in mid-March, snowbanks were rust-tinged and curling at the edges, but they still reached up to the windowsills on ramblers and over my head along roads. We were after the snow, of course, but also skiing variety and bargains.
Just inside Wisconsin's border with Michigan, Whitecap Mountains is no glamour puss. Some of its buildings are musty galleries of ’60s-style decor, and when we were there, the parking lot was as lumpy as a lava field and the staff at subsistence level.
But this is the Gogebic Range, a rough-and-tumble former mining area whose charm lies in authenticity, not polish. Hurley, 12 miles east, was known as the nation’s roughest town in the 1880s, and Silver Street still has a faintly menacing air, especially where it dips past a small gantlet of “gentlemen’s clubs’’ before transforming into the cheerily bourgeois main street of Ironwood.
And Whitecap, as a ski area, has lots of charm. Rising from deep forest, its three hills feel more like mountain than other ski areas, and Ski magazine has ranked it No. 1 in the Midwest for terrain.
Forty-three runs, four of them double black-diamond, plummet down Thunderhead, Eagle’s Nest and Whitecap mountains,
which rise in each others’ shadows. And lines? Barely there.
The long, woodsy cruises down Thunderhead were our favorites, particularly Hintertux, a lovely, intimate lane that winds
around the mountainside, allowing skiers to take in the view of fjord-like Weber Lake before depositing them at the bottom of
I’d never seen anything like it, nor anything like Thunderhead’s ski-in Wine Hut. Standing by a wood-burning stove, we gazed out the open door and sipped hot cider spiked with cinnamon schnapps and white wine made in Iron River.
The atmosphere, combined with Whitecap’s isolation, made us feel as if we’d walked through a time warp. Our room, however, was in a brand-new building, with two king beds, a phone, and a TV; there was no maid service and no staff on the premises, but we didn’t really care.
The best lodgings at Whitecap are the newer ones; the older ones have quaint Tyrolean-village exteriors, but interiors with one foot in the ’60s.
The 1960s not only were the heyday of Midwestern ski resorts but the end of an era in Hurley. The Montreal Mine, the largest
underground mine in the nation, closed in 1962, and Cary Mine in 1965. At the Iron Nugget, where we had dinner, glass cases
hold miner’s gear and ore samples, and there’s a nifty “Historic Tabletop’’ made of wooden
nickels, old drink chips and dice.
At the turn of the century, little Hurley had 101 saloons, five gambling dens and 14 brothels. Prohibition also was a wild era; visit the 1923 Mahogany Ridge Saloon to get an idea of what the town was like when Ralph and Al Capone hung out there.
Ironwood’s downtown, just a few yards away, is pure small-town Americana, with furniture stores, a renovated 1928 vaudeville house and a pub where we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with green beer and live music.
© Beth Gauper
ABR, Active Backwoods Retreat, retains its snow through March.
One of the best cross-country ski areas in the Midwest is just a couple of neighborhoods south on the Montreal River, the state line. ABR, or Active Backwoods Retreat, is run by Eric Anderson, whose exacting grooming, along with the prodigious snow, has earned it a reputation for the region’s best early- and late-season skiing.
There we were, in sun and 40-degree temperatures, and the skiing was superb. We glided along, our heads swiveling to take in the sights: an ice falls on the north face of a hill, a vertical bluff covered with paper-thin fungus and a sand quarry made artful by the voluptuous shadows of late afternoon. It didn’t take long to see why some Twin Citians regularly make the four-hour drive to ski there.
For our last stop, we had to leave our quiet little pocket of yesteryear and go back to U.S. 2, lined by franchises.
Big Powderhorn Mountain is the first of three ski hills just off the highway, all facing Lake Superior. It was tidier, more cheerful and more open than Whitecap — in the sun, its glittering white slopes nearly blinded us — but also less interesting. Still, skiing there was a whole lot of fun, partly because of the absence of crowds and the calm, sunny weather.
“There’s a permanent smile on my face from being outside so much,’’ my friend Shar said, as we let the rocking chairlift lull us into tranquility.
I was pretty pleased with myself for finding such good places to ski over St. Patrick’s Day, but then a co-worker trumped me by taking her family of five up to Big Powderhorn for April Fool’s Day weekend.
“There were times when only our family was skiing,’’ she said. “It was really nuts, but it was really great.’’
Nordic skiers already have discovered the area’s remarkable snow, flocking to ABR when little snow falls elsewhere, and one of these days Whitecap and its neighbors on the U.P. also will get the skiers they deserve.
Until then, consider yourself in on the secret.
Trip Tips: Skiing Whitecap
Getting there: Whitecap is about 20 minutes west of Hurley/Ironwood, just north of the town of Upson on Wisconsin 77.
Whitecap: The best rooms are in the Whitecap Lodge, which has a pool, whirlpool and sauna, and in the newer condos and townhouses. 800-933-7669.
Ironwood-area alpine skiing: Big Powderhorn and Indianhead, off U.S. 2 just east of Ironwood, also are good places to ski and offer value-season rates in March; see Ski the UP.
Ironwood-area cross-country skiing: Active Backwoods Retreat (ABR), a popular
cross-country ski center on the southern edge of Ironwood, has reliable snow and state-of-the-art grooming on its
40-kilometer trail system. There's no lodge, but the ski center rents skis and other equipment. Call 906-932-3502.
For more, see Ironwood the
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