If you’re someone who thinks that the ski world has gotten to corporate, there’s always Coffee Mill Ski & Snowboard Area to take you back to an older era. Set near the Mississippi and the town of Wabasha, Minnesota, Coffee Mill is a throwback to the world of small operations that are modern enough to have snowmaking and grooming, but rustic enough to make the world of spiffed-up skiing and riding seem a world away.
It’s hard to even know when you’re close to Coffee Mill, which is just off the intersection of U.S. 61 and Minnesota 60. As I drove down river from the Twin Cities, I saw plenty of the Mississippi to my left and its bluffs to my right, but nothing announcing that a ski area anywhere around. There is a small billboard right outside the intersection, but it’s not angled for visibility, so I missed it the first time going past.
Pulling into the parking lot at 11:30 on a Saturday morning, I saw a sign announcing that I was at the county fairgrounds. With only 50 cars or so in the parking lot, the feeling I got was more of “remote, not used much business” rather than “hopping with activity.”
At about 40 acres, it’s roughly the same size as Hyland Ski & Snowboard Area, but in some ways it feels even smaller. At Hyland, the loading stations for the lifts are spread out, while at Coffee Mill, the loading stations for the two chairlifts are a short walk from each other. You could take a sequence of one chair ride, one descent, one short walk to the second chair lift, and another descent, and you would have gone from one edge of the area to the other. But the contours of the land, plus the ample tree coverage, means that when you’re skiing you won’t necessarily see all across the area.
Services on the hill are sparse, though functional. There are 14 named slopes; if you take every combination down the hill, it will take you 13 trips. All skiable acres are open for night skiing. Nearly all the area is covered by the snowmaking system, but not all of it: “Kitty Walk” is a natural-snow trail and was closed on the day I visited. The snow was mostly frozen corduroy, though there was a frozen sitzmark (of a noticeable size) on one trail that groomers did not or could not undo.
The two chairlifts are slow two-seaters that could stand a coat of paint, some rust-removal, and cushions, but they take you to the top of the hill, even if, as was the case with a chair I took twice, they make a ringing sound as you ascend the hill.
The “Barnburner” lift, which is on your left as you look uphill, has a mid-point station for loading and unloading. It sits on top of the lower quarter or so of the hill, a flattish area known as Midway. The station is positioned so that novices don’t have to go all the way to the top, so that’s good. Everyone else benefits too, though, since they can make laps on the upper portion of the hill without spending chair time riding over the lower, flatter portion.
Though the terrain park is subject to change, on the day I visited it had two or three small jumps, plus a few objects for jibbing, such as partially buried plastic barrel, plus a small rail. The park, “Off Chute,” is set on a road trail, so there’s only one line to ride. Without a dedicated rope tow, park users must take laps on the slow chair lift and then ride a ways from off the lift to the top of the park. Even so, it’s a popular place. Over the course of a few minutes, I watched 16 snowboarders and skiers head off from the “Run of the Mill” unloading station. Of the 16, 15 made a line for the park.
The black trails are definitely a step up in difficulty from the intermediate ones, since they are substantially steeper. At some ski areas, the diamonds earn their marking by having a segment that is reasonably steep but also a short portion of the trail length. At Coffee Mill, the steepness is more thoroughly sustained. The vertical descent at its greatest is about 425 feet, which makes it greater than you’ll find at any of the Twin Cities-focused ski areas.
From the Run of the Mill lift, you have three options: a trail of the same name, a terrain park, and “O Chute.” My favorite of the three was Run of the Mill, an intermediate trail that has some interesting undulations near the top and middle sections. “O Chute” is perhaps the steepest slope in the state, short of the back side of Moose Mountain at Lutsen. If you’re going off the the Barnburner lift, pick any of the black diamonds. Nellie’s Pass is a blue, narrow road that, once it makes a 75-degree turn, flattens and broadens out and is named Barnburner. Head in the other direction off the lift and you’re on Chippewa Connect, which is so flat for so long that snowboarders stand a good chance of having to skate for about 300 yards or even unbuckling entirely before dropping in.
If you’d like some help with your sliding skills, either to learn from the beginning or to take your abilities to another level, lessons are available, and they’re inexpensive. Private lessons are only $25, and group lessons cost even less.
Coffee Mill laid in a snow-tubing facility before the 2013-2014 season. It has three lanes, and is served by a tow rope. A handle on the rope attaches to the tube, pulling riders up the hill. Due to the warm winter the area has experienced lately, it has yet to open for the season.
There’s one base lodge, a big, open octagonal building. It has an open, welcoming feel, with rental shop, ticketing window, cafe, bar, seating area, restrooms, and lockers all in close vicinity.
The restrooms are small, with no benches for changing, so if you want to put on protective padding before heading out, make sure that your long underwear doesn’t have any holes in it, because you’ll be gearing up in public. Seasonal lockers — made of wood that looks like it’s one step up from subfloor boards — are available for rent. There are no day lockers or even cubby holes, but the good news is that you’re free to leave your stuff on the tables.
You can bring a bag lunch, of course, but if you don’t, you’ll find typical ski resort food for sale. The prices are reasonable; I bought a hot chicken sandwich with bacon and cheese for $8, tax included. The tables close to the serving area evoke an Americana feel, with gingham covers on the condiment table and Coca-Cola logos on the dining tables.
If you’d like an adult beverage, check out the tiny bar, tucked near the door that exits to the lifts. It serves local craft beers as well as national mega-brands.
Back outside in the main room is a space dubbed a football lounge. It’s an elevated platform, filled with couches and stuffed chairs, plus a very small play area for children. The soft-fabric nature of the space provides a nice contrast with the functional but concrete floor and unfinished feel of the rest of the chalet, though the serenity is mostly likely wiped out on football afternoons. A large screen (though not large-screen TV) sits high above the lounge, ready to display feats of mayhem and commercials gone wild.
The chalet is in some ways too basic: Twice during the space of three hours one of the circuits blew, leaving the bar and some other areas briefly without power. But basic it is likely to stay. The owner of the lodge — the Wabasha County Agricultural Fair Association — lacks the incentive to improve skiing amenities. The operators of the ski area — a local volunteer organization — lack the legal ability to make improvements, either. But for the most part, the arrangement works.
If you go to Coffee Mill from the Twin Cities metro, you’ll end up driving on U.S. 61 at some point. Be prepared for slow spots along the way, including a 3-mile 30-40 m.p.h zone in Lake City.