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Cover Story

Ski Iowa?


Yes, there’s powder to be found and exercise to be had at a number of ski hills and flat grounds across our state.

Maybe you have not looked outside in a while, but here is a news flash for you: It is wintertime out there. For many of us, that means staying bundled up as warm as possible and being inside more often then not. But for others, the fun starts when the snow falls. And for a lot of people, that means

We know. We have heard all the skiing in Iowa jokes. Too flat. No mountains. And, yes, it might be true that there is nothing inherent in the Iowa landscape that evokes images of snow bunnies and slaloms. Even so, the Hawkeye State is crawling with skiers of all types and ages. Most split their winter recreation time between here and places like Colorado or Utah, but many are just recreational types who like to exercise outside. No matter how they got there, the end result is the same: There are heaps of people skiing in Iowa.


Breaking the mold

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“You know what bugs me most?” asked Des Moines native Natalie Woodbush. “It’s how dismissive people are, for not good reason. You say, ‘Oh, I like to ski’, and suddenly they’re rolling their eyes and laughing. ‘Oh yeah, on all of Iowa’s mountains?’ It’s like, you know what, buddy? We’re not trying to pretend like skiing in Iowa is the same thing as skiing in Colorado. Playing basketball on a playground isn’t the same as being on a professional team, either, but it’s still fun.”

Sleepy Hollow’s areas are lighted at night and groomed every day.

Sleepy Hollow’s areas are lighted at night and groomed every day.

For people who are fans of skiing in the state — or just fans of skiing in general — the jokes are familiar.

“Why do you ski here? Are you afraid of the real slopes,” Woodbush continued, outlining a few more ways people dismiss the hobby. “I’m fine with the ‘real slopes.’ It’s just that I don’t want to take a week off work and spend $2,000 in Telluride every time I feel like putting my skis on.”

Breaking through the notion that there is no place in the state worth skiing is the biggest obstacle skiing fans encounter when they try to recruit new people to the sport. And for anyone looking for a legitimate downhill challenge, Iowa obviously comes up short. The closest the state has to a genuine “mountain” slope is located within the bluff-covered recesses of Dubuque County, nestled in the embrace of Iowa’s “Driftless Area,” where the hills and crags were untouched by the bulldozing action of glaciers during the last ice age.

But while Iowa may not have a ton to offer in the way of black diamond slopes, ski lovers find that it makes up for it in other ways.

“It’s just so convenient,” said Des Moines’ Tracy VanVleet of the “ski Iowa” experience. “And it seems so much simpler. People are so much friendlier. I know it’s short runs, but you go with the mindset when you’re in Iowa of ‘I’m just going out to have a blast,’ and you don’t take it too seriously. It’s still a nice experience.”

VanVleet is a veteran skier who’s made regular trips out to the Rocky Mountain states. For her, Iowa’s ski slopes help scratch that itch without breaking the bank, or trying her patience.

“We would go (to Colorado) in February or March,” she said. “You can barely get in the parking lots, then you have to take a tram to get to the lift line, and then you’re waiting around for a lift.”Another shortcoming that Iowa slopes have to contend with that is virtually unheard of in the mountains is one of sufficient cover. Iowa’s recent past has provided us with winters that have been bitterly cold, accompanied by relatively little snowfall. So when Mother Nature does not seem to want to cooperate, Iowa’s ski slopes bring out the heavy machinery: snow machines.

Seven Oaks’ slopes consist of 11 runs.

Seven Oaks’ slopes consist of 11 runs.

Snow machines do their thing by taking water, breaking it down into very small particles, supercooling them, and spreading the result in a fine powder of crystals. While this is an effective method for covering any of your hills’ bald spots, it does have one significant drawback: It requires a literal ton of water.

For example, if a resort needs to cover a relatively small area of 200 feet by 200 feet with 6 inches of snow, one would need 20,000 cubic feet of snow, which is created from 1,000 cubic feet of water. For those of you who do not have bar napkins handy to do the math, this is 82,000 gallons of water or roughly 11 truck tankers full. Then consider the fact that many ski areas can convert more than 5,000 gallons per minute of water into snow. That works out to 1,250 tons per hour. Or, stated another way, a truckload every minute. And the result, while good enough to get the job done, is not ideal.

“Obviously it’s not the same consistency as fresh snow,” VanVleet said. “The whole texture and how you manipulate your skis is different. When it’s man-made, it’s a little bit wetter and sloppier.”

“Skiing on man-made snow is more of a slog,” Woodbush added. “You can definitely feel the difference in your thighs when you’re done. When it’s loose, it feels much heavier on your skis, which makes you expend more energy to turn.

“But when it’s packed,” she continued, pausing to widen her eyes a bit, shooting a hand out in front of her for emphasis. “You just GO.”

The straight and narrow

But, of course, downhill skiing isn’t the only way to get your kicks. There’s another way to slap on some skis and enjoy the snow: cross country skiing. And, while Iowa may be sorely lacking in mountains, the state is absolutely stacked when it comes to flat, open spaces and trails.

Mt. Crescent Ski Area has been open since 1961.

Mt. Crescent Ski Area has been open since 1961.

Aimee Kittell has been cross country skiing for five years. A marathon runner and Ironman participant, Kittell was looking for a good way to stay fit and keep her endurance up during the winter months.

“I tried downhill skiing and failed miserably,” she admitted. “You can’t bike in the winter, and you don’t want to run because of all the ice. (Cross country skiing) was a way to get sunshine on your face and some exercise in the winter.”

Now, Kittell says she gets out whenever she can, but cross country skiing tends to be a bigger slave to the whims of the weather than downhill skiing. Where a resort can fairly easily powder their slopes with man made snow, it is another beast entirely to coat a four-mile trail.

“You need at least 6 inches of snow on the ground,” Kittell explained. “So the problem with cross country skiing in Iowa the last three or four years is a lack of good snow. Most people work during the day, so by the time they can get out, either it is too dark to go far or the snow has blown around or melted.”

However, unlike downhill skiers who are limited to a small number of slopes across the state, cross country skiers have a lot more options. Many people who live on the outskirts of a city or in a more rural area can just slap on their skis and head out their own back doors. But even people solidly within the city limits can find multiple areas to go.

“A lot of people cross country ski out at Waveland,” Kittell said. “You can see the track marks as you drive down 235. Big Creek is also nice.

“Places like that groom their trails,” she continued. “They’ve got a machine that will pack and groove the snow, so the skis just automatically fit into it. Places like Walker Johnson don’t groom, so it can feel more freestyled.”

The other big advantage many people find in cross country over downhill skiing, is the learning curve. It can take quite a while to master the nuances of downhill skiing enough to tackle a Colorado slope. But cross country skiing?

Sundown Mountain is located in Dubuque on 85 acres.

Sundown Mountain is located in Dubuque on 85 acres.

“If you can roller skate, you can cross country ski,” Kittell said.

If you are going to go out and try some Iowa skiing for yourself, you’re going to need the right equipment. Skis, boots, bindings to keep the former and the latter attached, poles…it can be a lot to think about. Beginners starting from scratch can buy their way in for about $300, but just like any other hobby, there is plenty of space for the more hardcore followers to go crazy on specialized equipment.

“Cross country equipment can be very straightforward,” said Jason Juehring at Active Endeavors in Clive. “It comes in two types: waxable and non-wax. Obviously the non-wax skis are simple. It snows, and you take them outside and go. Traditionalists are still going to want a waxable ski, but for recreational skiing, it’s easy to not have to worry about scraping old wax off and putting new wax on.”

Just like when you are picking out running shoes or swimsuits, getting the right skis is all about proper fit. But while your ski boots might be determined by the size of your feet, skis are measured differently.

“Ski sizing really ultimately depends on body weight,” Juehring explained. “Somebody could be tall and skinny or short and stocky, so it’s all about how much weight is going to be on top of that ski.”

The equipment used will differ, depending on if you’re hitting a slope or the open range.

“Cross country skis are very skinny by nature,” Juehring said. “Downhill skis are wider, much more stiff, and have a metal edge, which allows them to be turned. (Cross Country skis) are much lighter, because they’re not going to have the internal structure of a downhill ski.”

Most of the people interviewed agreed that downhill skiing is the more popular of the two types in the state, mainly because so many of Iowa’s skiers are veterans of the bigger slopes out west who are looking for a cheap fix close to home. Cross country skiing, on the other hand, probably has a higher ratio of regular practitioners, due primarily to the sport’s “go anywhere” nature. But for both varieties, the mercurial nature of an Iowa winter will limit how often skiers can get out.

“Those days with good snowfall lately have been few and far between,” Juehring said. “If we get snow, it all blows away and there’s none in the open spaces where you’d want to go skiing, or it snows and then it’s too bitterly cold to go out and enjoy it. We’re in that special area of the Midwest where it’s kind of hit and miss.”

“There have been days when the weather has been fantastic, but the snow is just too damn thin or spotty to bother with,” Woodbush added. “Or you get the other end of the spectrum, where there will be a gorgeous bed of snow out there and the cold and wind just pile on and make it unbearable.”

But for as difficult as it can be to actually go out and get your ski fix in Iowa, that certainly will not stop people from trying. When the slope or trail is right in your back yard, it makes it easy to be persistent.

“Nobody is here training for a gold medal,” Woodbush said. “But there’s a lot of fun to be had out there, if you just shut up and strap on.”

“It’s just simple,” VanVleet said of the state’s ski experience. “It’s just Iowa.” CV


Iowa Ski Resorts

Sure, there’s nothing in Iowa to rival the slopes of Colorado or Utah, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still places to get your downhill on. Here are some of the most popular.


Sleepy Hollow Sports Park, Des Moines

Sleepy Hollow manufactures all their own snow, so their slopes are always covered and ready to go. All of Sleepy Hollow’s areas are lighted at night and groomed every day. Their bunny hill offers free beginner lessons, and private lessons are available. They’ve also got a rental shop for all the equipement you’d need.

Hours: Friday 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday noon to 8 p.m. Rates: Adults lift tickets are $30, children under 13 are $25.


Seven Oaks Recreation, Boone

Seven Oaks Recreation is family-owned and operated and offers skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing. They also offer ski and snowboard rentals. Seven Oaks’ slopes consist of 11 runs varying from beginner to expert and offer a terrain park, rail yard and beginner area. There are two triple chairlifts, two surface lifts and a snow tubing park.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days, see website for specifics. Rates: Lift tickets for adults range from $10 to $34, depending on day and time. Kids under 12 are $10 to $25.

Mt. Crescent Ski Area, Honey Creek

One of the older ski resorts in the state, Mt. Crescent Ski Area has been open since 1961. Ski Runs reach up to 2,400 feet and the resort comes equipped with snow machines, rental and a 7,000 square foot, Swiss-style lodge.

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Rates: Adults range from $25 to $39, Children under 12 are $25 to $35.


Sundown Mountain Resort, Dubuque

Sundown Mountain Resort offers 21 runs, 2 terrain parks, 4 lifts with 2 conveyor carpets and 475 feet of vertical. The resort also sports Two mountain top lodges overlooking 100 square miles of countryside, a total vertical drop of 475 feet, 21 scenic trails with beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain, two terrain parks with progressive features, snowmaking and grooming machines, and ski and snowboard lessons for all ages and abilities.

Hours: Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Rates: Adults range $32 to $44, children under 12 are $25 to $33.

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