Cruising at Whitecap

In a far corner of Wisconsin, this ski resort has the woodsy charm of the mountains.

Skiers at Whitecap Mountain's wine hut.
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 snowfall 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.

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 cheerful 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 nearby 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 for the lifts? 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 Whitecap Mountain.

Skiers on the hill at Big Powderhorn.
The Hurley-Ironwood area gets lake-effect snow from Lake Superior.

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 was a wild era, and Ralph and Al Capone once hung out in the town's saloons.

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.

I was pretty pleased with myself for finding such a good place to ski over St. Patrick's Day, but then a co-worker trumped me by taking her family of five up 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 Ironwood's ABR trails when little snow falls elsewhere. 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 Mountains in northern Wisconsin

Getting there: Whitecap is about 20 minutes west of Hurley/Ironwood, just north of the town of Upson on Wisconsin 77.

Ironwood-area alpine skiing: Big Powderhorn and Snowriver Mountain Resort, off U.S. 2 just east of Ironwood, also are good places to ski.

For more, 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.

The ski center rents skis and other equipment as well as guesthouses and rustic cabins along the trails and in the area.

For more, see Ironwood the reliable.

Information: Ironwood tourism.

Last updated on May 16, 2021

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