Welch Village is a small but pleasant place for riders and skiers in southern Minnesota, northern Iowa and western Wisconsin. Now if it only would have a more honest trail map.
Welch is one of the several ski areas in the Twin Cities area. It’s southeast of Saint Paul, beyond land that is still home to corn fields and cow pastures. A friend of mine says “In Minnesota, we don’t ski down mountains; we ski down to rivers.” And that’s certainly the case for Welch Village. Its 330-or-so vertical feet aren’t of the “Mount Trashmore” variety, in which a bump on the land is created through the development and then closure of a landfill.
Instead, Welch’s slidable surfaces come about because you descend into a river valley, take a lift up to the “normal” altitude for the region, and then take your snowboard or ski back down. Hey, at least you’ve got the scenery of a river, on your short (one intersection) trip through “downtown” Welch.
A recent trip to Welch Village the day after a major snowstorm convinced me of this fact: It wins the award in the Twin Cities for “most treacherous last-3 miles of approach.” The trip from the north is on County Road 7, two-lane, twisting road that goes both down (and sometimes back up, temporarily) and side-to-side on its way to the Cannon River, “downtown” Welch, and then to the ski area. It’s a great drive on a summer day when the sun is shining and you’re in a convertible with the top down. But the drive can be a bit uncomfortable during the winter when the roads are snowpacked and slippery.
Welch faces north, with 3 major sections, plus a relatively new “back bowl.” From the top of the middle grouping of lifts, you can descend into any of those sections. You can also, if you get the right lift, go from east to west in one lift ride and one run. But you can’t make the west-to-east trip in just one trip; the layout doesn’t allow for that, and the permanent closure of one run–more on that later–doesn’t help matters.
My favorite part of Welch may be the eastern section. It’s got a couple of country-road runs through trees, both which open into a meadow suitable for trying ground 360s, small jumps, or the maximizing-snowboarding-time maneuver known as riding from one edge of the meadow to the other.
The east also has a couple of green runs that require some skating to get to from off the lift, but which can reward you with powder (along the edges) after the good stuff has been smashed down elsewhere. But these beginner trails actually require some intermediate skills to use properly, as they empty out into a long nearly-flat road that has a slight incline just before it drops down into the meadow. If you’re going to avoid a quarter-mile walk, you better keep up your speed, which newbies can find unsettling.
The east is also the home of a “back bowl.” It’s not really a bowl, but it do have a “back there” feel to it, as it’s far from the main lodge, and quite different from many of the trails on the hill. Briefly stated, it’s steep for around here. It also has a small glade section that’s worth checking out. The “bowl” is served by a newish quad lift.
The east section of Welch is also home to Madd Jaxx, the place to enjoy an adult beverage. Tailgating commonly takes place in the parking lot, which is accessible to the main base area by a dirt road. Jaxx has the usual collection of ski bar kitsch: old skis and snowboards nailed into the ceiling; a license plate from a state (Montana–Minnesotans seem to love Montana) blessed with far better terrain; and advertisement after advertisement for beer and hard liquors. That latter–including a 4-foot tall poster of Captain Morgan–is a bit over-the-top for my preferences, but then again, I don’t own the place.
Moving from east to west, you have a couple of decent diamonds that are used for slalom racing (Pete’s and Dan’s) which is a big deal in these parts. There’s also a bumps run, Dud’s Dream. Ski Bob is an oddity, but it usually ends up as some sort of natural halfpipe.
The steepest section among the always-open slopes (the back bowl closes at 3 or 4 in the afternoon) is called Chicken. It’s reasonably gentle on top and becomes more severe until right before the end. I don’t straightline it.
After you ride the top fifth of Chicken, you can take a short path to the east and another trail. The name of that path: Chicken Little.
If you keep riding on Chicken until just before it drops off, you have another opportunity to leave, to the west. The name of that exit: Chicken Out. A sense of humor is also evident in the name of a beginner’s trail of “Mary Jane.” I’m not thinking of reefer so much as the bumps run at Winter Park that has the same name. What a contrast.
Freestyle riders and skiers won’t find much of interest here. They will find much better pickings at Afton Alps, Buck Hill, Hyland Ski & Snowboard Area, Trollhaugen, and Wild Mountain. It’s as if freestylers are not welcome.
Terrain is what it is, and I can’t fault Welch for not being Whistler. But if there’s one thing that I can fault it for, it’s the trail markings. Welch, like a lot of areas, inflates its trail count.
The marketing material boasts of 50 runs. But in the years that I have been visiting (at least once a year, some years, often), a few maps on the trail have never been open. These include (for those of you in the area): Southern Cross, Eastern Star, Adam’s Rib, and Cedar Fork. There are also two double-diamonds that I have never seen open. I’ve been told that they do get used on powder days, though truth be told I’m not sure that I’d want to try them. If you would, get there exactly on the powder day; if you’re there the day after, you’ll be out of luck.
Another problem with the trail count is that things that should never have a separate name do. Two short trails start at the top and then merge to form a single trail? Three names.
One unique feature of Welch is that none of the eight lifts are rope tows. That’s good for newbies, and for snowboarders generally, though — keeping with the resort’s old-school style — not for freestylers.
Make sure you know what lifts are running before you start; in non-peak times, the eastern slopes (Mary Jane, for example, not to mention the bowl) are closed, and the closure of some lifts can leave riders with a long walk back to a chair.