In a world of large ski areas and large-scale real estate development, there are still some places left where the scene is still about sliding on skis or a board. One such place is Mont du Lac Recreation Area, outside Superior, Wisconsin.
Located a 20-minute drive or so from Duluth, Minnesota, MDL is overshadowed by Spirit Mountain, which has twice as much vertical. So while while skiers and riders from the Twin Cities probably won’t find it worth their time to make a special trip up north just for MDL, an outing there can fit in nicely with a trip to Spirit.
The base lodge
On the day I visited, the driveway into MDL tested my vehicle’s suspension. Torrential rains two years inflicted some damage on the property, including the dirt access road. On the spring day I visited, the road swallowed up my tires on a regular basis. Another problem I had was that the entrance to the lodge is not marked very well. “Is that building the day lodge? The owner’s house? Something else?,” I thought. I parked, walked up the snow-filled hill between the lot and the building, and hoped for the best. Turns out, I was right, though it was only when I got much closer to the building that I saw a sign pointing me to the entrance.
The lodge is tiny. You can sit in the dining area and see from one end (ticket counter) to the other end (rental shop). The rental shop, in fact, is not much bigger than the retail counter at some other resorts. I would be surprised if there were more than 50 skis available for rent; I don’t recall how many boards I saw.
The lodge has everything you need, though. There’s a food service area (my purchase: chicken strips with potato chips and a bottle of Gatorade: $9.50). If you want to check email or post Facebook updates, there’s WiFi service that is free and easy to use. The bar comes in a northwoods design, complete with a mounted head and shoulder of a buck. Take the beer onto the wooden deck and you can watch some freestyle tricks on the hill, or simply take in the sunshine and the classic rock station that is playing over the speakers. (Don’t worry, the sound doesn’t blast customers, as happens at some areas.) On the “necessities” side of things, the men’s room was clean, well-lit, and as far as restrooms go, pleasant. I don’t, however, recall seeing a water fountain in the lodge.
One rope services a beginner area, aptly named “Pancake.” (A warning for beginners: There’s a big step-up in difficulty from that never-ever terrain to the rest of the hill.) A high-speed rope serves the middle of the hill, which is given over to jumps, down-flat-down rails, other freestyle features, and a pole flying a Jolly Roger flag. The two jumps in “Jump Line” looked surprisingly large.
Most of MDL is served by a double chair that is at the far western side. Somehow it works: Though the lift is on the right side of the hill (looking up), once you get to the top, a ridge can carry you to the leftmost edge of the area. You can drop in at several places, or ride the ridge in its entirety to make a giant circle tour. (Snowboarders need not worry; once you get started, the ridge is sufficiently sloped that you won’t be walking.) By the way, the lift has a nice touch: The motor is housed in a faux farm house.
The profile from the Midwest Ski Area Association says MDL has 393 wooded acres, with a vertical drop of 310 feet. Those stats would put it in the range of Twin Cities areas, though simply from my perception of riding the place, the 393 number is resort property, not skiable acreage. (Afton Alps, which claims 300 acres, feels much bigger.)
If you remember that trail ratings are relative to a resort, the trail ratings at MDL are true. If you stand at the top of a black diamond trail, you’ll notice that you’ll start with a blind drop, as it (briefly) disappears during the initial descent. “Nose Dive” is one noteworthy trail; it offers a combination of steeper dropoff with a twist to the right. But consider the snow conditions before you check your speed on top, as the trail levels off into a long flat road before joining up the main hill. Since Nose Dive faces the western sun, it had some bare spots of dirt and grass when I visited, late in the season.
Several times during my visit I thought “This place has potential.” There appear to be several spots, especially over by the far western side of the area (represented by Nose Dive) that could be thinned a bit and turned into some fun, steeper, “back woods” skiing. Put up some orange and black warning poles, and you’ve got some small drop-offs that could be a lot of fun in the right snow conditions. I suspect, though, that riders and skiers may have to walk up a ravine to return to the base of the double chair were this to come to pass.
In the “Western Bowl,” meanwhile, you’ll find some trees that may be worth exploring, though I did not try them on my visit. Underneath the chair you’ll find a part of the hill that is divided into “Chase” and “Main Face,” both rated as blues. Further to the east is “Ridge run,” a short tame blue ramp that ends up in the bowl. There’s also a bump trail.
The incomplete trophy
One intriguing part of MDL is the massive building that sits on top of the ridge. The Trophy Lodge is an impressive sight from outside, bringing to mind, say, the Seattle Ridge lodge at Sun Valley. It’s that large. But there is, as of April 2014, nothing to see inside but an incomplete construction project. [Update: The lodge opened in late 2014, and according to a posting on the company’s Facebook page, is open during peak periods.] An employee I spoke with blamed the torrential rains I mentioned earlier for diverting attention from that project to more immediate needs. Those rains, by the way, also washed away some of the skiable terrain, making the tops of the black trails steeper than they had been. So the rains have had some mixed effects.
The current owners bought MDL in 2008. By 2010, reports the Duluth News Tribune, they spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades.” Let’s hope they can continue.
On a final note, in the summer, MDL offers disc golf, mountain biking, and camping.