Stereotypes have a strong appeal to us because they often contain a germ of truth. For the Midwest, one of the stereotypes is that we’re all a bunch of farmers. After all, when the Beach Boys sang about Midwestern girls in their song “I wish they could all be California girls,” the singled out “the Midwest farmer’s daughters.” Depending on where you’re coming from in the Twin Cities and how you go to your favorite ski area, you’ll be heading through farm country. Afton Alps, Wild Mountain, and Welch Village all come to mind.
I don’t know how many farmer’s daughters you’ll see when you visit Powder Ridge, outside Kimball, Minnesota, but you’ll see enough farms as you drive up from the Twin Cities, especially as you draw near to the slopes. I passed silo after silo, and as made the last turn before the parking lot, I saw yet another irrigation spray system. And I kid you not, one of the first times I waited for a chairlift, the lift operator’s radio was playing a farm report.
One thing you may appreciate about Powder Ridge, by the way, is that there is no slippery descent to the chalet, as is the case with Welch Village or Afton Alps.
Kimball isn’t exactly “middle of nowhere.” Saint Cloud, which is 20 miles away, is already on its way to becoming part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. But still, Powder Ridge is a haul from the major cities, or even many of their suburbs, which is why many of its customers come from other exurban cities or those in outstate, or as it’s called here, Greater Minnesota. St. Cloud, by the way is home to a state university with some 16,000 students, so the resort offers discounts to college students.
As you pull into the parking lots, you’ll see to you left two black diamond runs, Gun Powder and Zonkers, that have a decent pitch near the top, but which quickly flatten out. (The reported vertical drop is 200 feet.)
The parking lots at Powder Ridge are rather small–then again, the whole place is–and they’re unpaved. Most of the season that’s not a problem, but in the spring, be prepared to walk over or through mud. Even though the lodge is the largest building in sight, it still looks small as you pull in the driveway.
Compared with the ski areas that are closer to the Twin Cities, the lodge is probably in the top third in terms of quality.
There is a short climb from the parking lot to the building, but that doesn’t require stairs, which is always nice when you’re carrying equipment. Once you get inside, the ticket area is easy to spot. The sitting areas are all carpeted and have a decent amount of natural light. The upstairs rooms feature a pleasant fireplace with an old quad chair placed in front of it for ski kitsch and sitting. The downstairs is bright with painted but bare drywall walls.
There’s free wi-fi. I didn’t put a lot of demands on it, and there weren’t a lot of people in the building, but it worked well. If you have come coins burning a whole in your pocket, you can give them to some kids to use on arcade games.
The restrooms are not spectacular, but good. There are some near the second-floor bar, of course, but there are also some on the main level, meaning that customers don’t have the chore of walking down steps in ski or snowboard boots. The men’s rooms have tile walls and floors, paper towel dispensers, bright lighting, urinals with dividers (no troughs!), and at least on the day I visited, were clean and well-maintained.
Upstairs is Chester’s Bar and Grill. The carpeting is on the dark side, but there are plenty of windows to brighten up the space. There are several TVs in view, but fortunately they were muted during my visit. The food menu includes your usual hamburgers, as well as chicken wraps, soups, and of course, cheese curds. I thought of taking on the day’s special, Walleye and chips, but opted for the bacon cheeseburger with fries ($8.99). It was good. I opted out of getting a beer, but they were serving Alaskan Free Ride IPA, Bell’s Smitten Golden Rye Air, Goose Island 312 Chicago, Schell’s Dark, and Odell Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout, plus a few mass-market beers. According to the bartender, they mix up most beers on an every-other-day basis, with Coors Light being the only stand-by. this is the upper Midwest, “we haven’t had a lot of Leinies this year.” Oh yes, they’ve also had Farmer’s Daughter, a blonde ale from Menominee, Wisconsin.
I can’t speak much to the rental shop since I only walked in the entryway, but there were four buses of schoolchildren on the grounds, and the shop was busy but seemed to be under control. It has all the usual features of a rental shop, including concrete floors. Maybe it was a lucky day, but it lacked the stench that rental shops sometimes suffer through due to all the pair of boots.
There are not many trees on the hill (no glades), and not many complicated ridges. But there is enough variation so you don’t feel like you’re sliding down one very wide, empty hill. On the other hand, there aren’t many places to ride up on small ridges on the side of the trail, such as what you would find at Buck Hill (Teacher’s Pet) or Afton Alps (several different runs in the Highlands).
As is common throughout the Midwest, the three lifts were all of the slow, fixed-grip variety, though the Zonker Quad lift did have nicer seats (not cracked or covered in multiple layers of paint) than you might find elsewhere. There is also a double that was not running when I visited (“Gun Powder”) and another double (“Powder Puff) that didn’t start running until noon.
A learning area (“Teachers Pet”) extends about two-fifths of the way up the hill, where fence keeps more advanced skiers and riders away. (They can in fact enter Teachers Pet, but they go through a chute that encourages them to slow down.) The learning area, meanwhile, is isolated from the main skiiable terrain by a surface lift on both the north and south side. I have never seen a J-bar in use use, but Powder Ridge has one. (Buck Hill had a J-Bar but replaced it with a very long conveyor belt a few seasons ago.) The two large terrain parks (one for rails, one for jumps) each have a dedicated rope tow. There is, I’ve been told, a smaller park on the south side, but for some reason I never found it.
There are three chairlifts. From the north to the south, they are Powder Puff, Zonker (the highest of the three) and Gun Powder (run in high-demand times). You can get either side of the area to another via one chair ride and one descent, if you pay attention. This doesn’t mean, though, that you can ride on just any trail you like as you go from north to south or from south to north. Going from north to south requires taking “Out Back,” a green trail that sits beyond the chairlifts and wraps around the back of the hill before it empties out on the south.
If you’re within an hour’s drive, give Powder Ridge a try. If you have a close hill available to you, that will probably serve you well.