Winter in Wausau
There's skiing, dining and sightseeing right in this modest paper town.
The first time I saw Rib Mountain it was nighttime, and I was driving toward Wausau from the north.
Looming over the Wisconsin town was a massive hulk lined with white lights, rising from the surrounding plain like a landing strip set on edge. It was a spectacular sight — and still is, day or night.
This billion-year-old quartzite ridge, one of the oldest on Earth, was thought to be the highest point in Wisconsin until Timm's Hill, near Ogema, was surveyed at 12 feet higher.
Timm's Hill, however, blends in with its northwoods landscape; Rib Mountain sticks out like a mile-wide rib cage.
It's the perfect spot for an alpine ski area, and there's been one on the mountain's north face since 1937. The top and south face is Rib Mountain State Park, and the Wisconsin DNR owns them both.
It leases the ski area, however, to Charles Skinner Jr., who has invested millions to upgrade the ski hill, Granite Peak.
It makes sense. It's easy to get to Wausau — it's all interstate or four-lane highway from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and the Twin Cities
- and the mountain has a 700-foot vertical drop, the highest in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The town at its feet supplies nearly 2,000 hotel rooms, many modestly priced, as well as restaurants, movie theaters and malls. There's even a highly regarded museum and a beautifully renovated opera house, which hosts Broadway shows on tour.
The town is on the edge of the northern Wisconsin snowbelt and usually has plenty of snow for snowshoeing in the state park and cross-country skiing at Nine Mile Forest, one of the region's best Nordic skiing destinations.
In fact, Wausau's parks, slopes, trails and ice rinks are used every year for the Badger State Winter Games, Wisconsin's big amateur sports festival, and the town has used the slogan "This is as Up North as you need to be!"
From the Twin Cities, Wausau is an easy 2¾-hour drive, making it farther than Duluth's Spirit Mountain but closer than Giants Ridge, Lutsen and the four ski slopes around Ironwood.
I skied at Granite Peak one holiday weekend with my children, and easy was the word. We found parking spots right next to the entrance and cruised up to the chairlifts, no waiting despite the holiday.
We found a special at the Super 8, which is five minutes from Granite Peak and has an indoor pool and whirlpool.
When we wanted to sightsee in town, we followed the blue "Art Museum" signs through downtown and the historic district to the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau's pride and joy.
Leigh Yawkey, the only child of lumber baron Cyrus Yawkey, loved beautiful things. The museum's gabled brick home overlooking Wausau was donated by one of her daughters, and the sculpture gallery on its picturesque grounds is named for another.
Admission is free, and it's child-friendly; besides the sculptures, my children especially liked an exhibit about "Mr. Imagination," a folk artist from Chicago.
Another weekend, my friend Becky and I skied cross-country at Nine Mile County Forest, home of the Badger State cross-country competition. We bought passes in the roomy chalet and headed out on perfectly groomed trails.
From a wide avenue lined with Christmas-tree firs, we entered a thick grove of towering pines, their upper branches holding so much snow they mirrored the forest floor.
Skate-skiers whipped by us as we strode along into hardwood forest and onto the Bushwhacker Trail, which included a long, leisurely downhill run.
Back at the chalet, we relaxed near the wood stove, looking out through big picture windows. Becky had skied there before with her family and some friends and reported that it, too, is child-friendly.
"When we were here with the kids, we took over a table and spread out coloring books and games," Becky said. "It was great. We had shifts, and when it was my turn, I took the kids out back sliding."
Skiing in Wausau is even better now. Granite Peak has expanded and has a terrain park and 74 runs served by seven chairlifts, one high-speed.
Its Sundance Chalet & Grill and Bears Den Saloon & Tavern offer live music on Saturdays. Its restored 1938 stone mountain chalet has a coffee bar.
Wausau, population 38,000, still is a quiet town. But for people looking for a relaxing getaway from the big city, that's not a bad thing.
Trip Tips: Winter in Wausau, Wisconsin
Events : January-March, Badger State Winter Games.
For summer events, see Wausau's liquid assets.
Downhill skiing : There are 74 runs at Granite Peak and five terrain parks.
Monthly Family Festivals include a brat cookout, sleigh rides and fireworks.
Cross-country skiing : Marathon County maintains 55 kilometers of cross-county trails. Nine Mile County Forest has 33 kilometers of forested, well-groomed skating and striding trails, including six kilometers of lighted trails.
There's a heated chalet with a concession stand. The forest is four miles southwest of downtown off Red Bud Road, just south of Granite Peak/Rib Mountain State Park. 715-261-1550 (county) or 715-693-3001 (chalet).
Snowshoeing : Nine Mile County Forest has six kilometers of trails and rents snowshoes.
Rib Mountain State Park has 13 kilometers of snowshoeing trails. The 60-foot observation tower is open in winter, though not shoveled.
The park is off Exit 188 from U.S. 51, one exit farther than Granite Peak. 715-842-2522.
Tubing : Sylvan Hill Park has six runs, two wire tows and a chalet with fireplace and snack bar. 715-842-5411.
Accommodations : When booking, ask about ski specials, or check Granite Peak's web site.
Families will like the Grand Lodge Waterpark Resort, which has a 50,000-square-foot indoor water park.
Downtown, the Jefferson Street Inn is a boutique hotel with 100 suites and rooms, some with fireplaces and whirlpools. Pets are allowed. It offers a shuttle to Granite Peak.
For budget travelers, the Super 8 at the junctions of Wisconsin 29 and U.S. 51 is well-run and convenient. It has a pool and whirlpool, and there's a cinema across the street. 715-848-2888.
Large groups can rent Camp Sturtevant, a YMCA camp that's especially popular in winter because it's so close to alpine skiing at Granite Peak and cross-country skiing at Nine Mile Forest.
Dining : The Back When Cafe on the square downtown serves rich beef and seafood dishes with organic vegetables and a nouveau Italian touch. It's open Tuesday-Saturday. 715-848-5668.
In the Jefferson Street Inn, City Grill is an American bistro, serving grilled fish and steaks with a choice of glazes and toppings. 715-848-2900.
On Washington Street, Red Eye Brewing serves soups, salads, sandwiches and wood-fired pizzas.
Just off I-39 on Sherman Street, Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. is an outpost of the well-known Madison pub.
Nightlife : The downtown ARTSblock hosts concerts and touring Broadway productions and is the home of the area's community theater, children's theater, lyric choir, ballet and symphony.
At its center is the Grand Theater, a restored 1927 opera house. 715-842-0988.
Museum : The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, and admission is free; be sure to visit the sculpture garden, even in winter. 715-845-7010.
Information : Wausau tourism, 888-948-4748.