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Story and photos by Larry Turner   February 1, 2010

  Skiing Granite Peak at Rib Mountain State Park in Wausau, Wisconsin is unique. It has Wisconsin's most vertical at 700 feet—that's small compared to the big vertical mountains of the American West—starting with a base of 1250 feet, rising to 1950 feet. What it lacks in vertical, it makes up for with an extensive system of runs for all skiing and riding levels...and Granite is a bright shining rock of friendliness with an accomodating staff and an abundance of fun-loving folks on the slopes. Granite Peak is a working class mountain loved by whatever collar one wears.    On Top of Granite Peak  
On Top of Granite Peak
  Granite Peak run   Granite Peak is a working class mountain. It is a family oriented mountain. It is also a local’s mountain…but it is also beyond that in my blue collar book of travel. It is a mountain—together with the City of Wausau—that harkens back to simpler times, such as depicted in the classic movie The Christmas Story. My several day's stay in Wausau—coupled with skiing Granite Peak—was wonderful and delightful, made even more pleasing by the friendliness and fun-loving spirit of the Mid-Westerners. In a tight economy, Wausau and Granite Peak are perfect fits for the axiom “getting more bang for the ski buck.” The bang also includes snowboarding, cross country skiing, ice skating, sledding and tubing. Comparable costs of a three-day ski vacation (based on round-trip vehicle travel from Chicago which is four hours one-way from Wausau) for two adults over the Christmas holidays: Granite Peak rings up at $679, Michigan $1110, Colorado $3157 and Utah $3082.  
Granite Peak run

Meeting Granite Peak operations manager Vickie Baumann was like getting reacquainted with an old high school classmate. I found that to be the case with everyone in the Wausau area, verifying Wisconsin’s notoriety as leading the nation in friendliness. Vickie gave me a history lesson on Granite Peak and Rib Mountain State Park, then outfitted me with ski gear and sent me on my way up the high-speed six-pack chair under bluebird skies, where I unloaded and explored the mountain for the rest of the day.

Granite Peak was established in 1937, one of America’s first ski areas, opened during the era of Stowe, Vermont and Sun Valley, Idaho. It has a history of cooperation between, local, state and private sectors. Granite Peak’s 400 acres of terrain (with 74 runs, eight lifts, 100 % snowmaking, 73% night skiing) is located in Rib Mountain State Park’s 1200 acres, less than five miles from downtown Wausau. The Peak is unique with signal towers on top along with a road system that accesses the Park year round. Non-winter use includes picnicking, walking trails, observation tower and decks, camping, outdoor amphitheater, bird-watching and biking. This is Wisconsin's highest mountain.

When it opened as Rib Mountain, it had the longest ski lift in the country at a half-mile, powered by an 85 horsepower V-8 Ford motor with a standard transmission.


  One of Rib’s first skiers was 85-year-old Chuck Luedtke who still carves flawless lines down Granite. Luedtke, who started skiing at age five in his family apple orchard, became a member of the famous World War II 10th Mountain Division. He was wounded in Italy. “I still have that damn bullet in my back, but it hasn’t affected my skiing much. Actually it reminds me to keep my weight on the downhill ski for turning,” he laughs. Luedtke’s left hand was shattered during the battle, requiring a one-year hospital stay. The enemy bullet had entered his hand first before lodging in his back. He arrived back in America via a hospital ship in 1946. “The one thing that I couldn’t wait to do when I got back to Wausau was to get into my ski boots and hit the slopes. I’m aging so quick right now that my memory can’t keep up. I wear tape on my right glove to remind me this it is my right hand. I often take the slow Donner lift up the hill. I call it the two-beer lift,” he chuckles, as he dips away from me into the trees as though he were a 10-year-old hot dog skier. God bless the 10th and folks like Luedtke! They are damn few and lucky are we who get to know them.   10th Mountain Division Skier Chuck Luedtkle   Chuck Luedtke's Hand  
10th Mountain Division Skier Chuck Luedtkle
Chuck Luedtkle's hand

I spent the day exploring most of Granite’s runs. A small digression here: Granite is actually made of quartz, coming from a heat fusion of sand into gigantic hunks of quartzite, 2 billion years ago, take away a year or so. The quartzite resisted erosion, leaving behind Rib Mountain which is Wisconsin’s tallest from a level plain. Seven-hundred feet of vertical may not sound like much to us Westerners, but my legs were drained by day’s end as I swooshed down and around, covering the entire width of the mountain from the black diamond Shadowridge Run on one end of the mountain to the black diamond Western Frontier at the opposite end. If you like moguls, Sundance is a must...I don’t like them, so it was a must-not. Some fun fast runs were Exhibition, Miracle and Main Event. If you like moseying through the trees, try 10th Mountain Glade, Eastern Glade, Maple Glades and Prage’s Glade. I experienced a combination of corduroy, spring corn and ‘icy-slippery-ass-and-you-had-better-have-good-edges’ snow. Granite Peak traditionally opens in late November and closes in early April.

One unique feature about Granite is that you can drive to Rib Park on top of the mountain, park your vehicle, strap on your skis and ski down the mountain to purchase a lift ticket. Season or multi-day ticket holders can ski from the top and take the lift back to their vehicle at day’s end.

For the total winter sports aficionado, Wausau also has three ice skating rinks, Sylvan Hill Recreation Area with six tubing runs and Nine-Mile Forest Recreation Area. This facility, south of Rib Mountain, offers 33 kilometers of groomed skate and classic cross country skiing as well as night skiing on 6.3 kilometers of lighted trails. It is lovely woodland of aspen, birch, maple, oak and pine, complete with a chalet. Granite Peak's historic Stone Chalet, originally built in 1937, has been nicely refurbished. One of the rooms is named for Joe Duskey, a local who lost his life in battle while serving in the 10th Mountain Division.

  Colby Cheese   Round Wisconsin Barn   Downtown Wausau  
Colby Cheese
Wisconsin round barn
Downtown Wausau
  Wausau Countryside   Wisconsin Maple Syrup  
Wausau Countryside
Wisconsin maple syrup

Wausau is in the process of recapturing its glory days. A revitalized downtown compliments the charming private and commercial architecture of years past when times were simpler and less hectic. It is a city on the upswing that invites one to explore and participate in a variety of activities including great restaurants, shopping, art, music, theater, lodging, museums and strolling. Wausau is the heart of Marathon County, Wisconsin’s largest. Wausau translated from Ojibwe means “a place that can be seen from far away,” a direct reference to Rib Mountain. The Wisconsin River runs through this city of 38,000 on which canoeing, kayaking and fishing are popular activities.

The region is the hub of Wisconsin’s noted dairy products, including Colby cheese which was first made at Steinwand Cheese Factory in the tiny nearby town of Colby. Wisconsin is also well-known for its quality maple syrup.

I took a solo tour one day, exploring the back roads outside Wausau, photographing round and rectangular barns, bucolic farms, old country inns, and roads less traveled. Back in the city at the newly constructed Jefferson Street Inn, I parked Vickie’s car, dropped the key on the floorboard and left it unlocked at her request. She would pick it up later. How often can you park a car unlocked in any city? That type of trust and safety is alone worth a trip to Wausau.

Jefferson Street Inn Grand Theatre Back When Café Lunch Back When Café Owner Bull Falls Brewery
Jefferson Street Inn
Grand Theatre
Back When Café Lunch
Back When Café Owner
Bull Falls Brewery
Downtown Grocery Et Al’s Read and Unread Evolutions in Design Evolutions Leigh Yawkey
Downtown Grocery
Et Al’s Read and Unread
Evolutions in Design
Leigh Yawkey
Sweets on 3rd The Brewer's dad Don Wausau Art Wausau Cheers Yawkey Residence Tour
Sweets on 3rd
The Brewer's dad Don
Wausau Art
Wausau Cheers
Yawkey Residence tour

Located in the heart of Wausau’s historic River District, the luxury boutique hotel is part of the centerpiece of the new Wausau, developed right next to the old Wausau. The "Hometown, USA" feel exists a half a block outside Jefferson Street Inn and its upscale American Bistro City Grill (where I drank a Bitter Woman IPA which was quite bitter and most agreeable). Jefferson Street Inn (866-855-6500) is affordable opulence, made even more so with its three-day weekend package: book Friday and Saturday nights--Sunday night free. Adjoining Jefferson Street Inns is Wausau’s Historic Washington Square with a variety of shops and restaurants. Nearby Third Street is a must-visit with an array of interesting businesses, including my favorite Evolutions ( Whimsical in character, this treasure has many nooks and crannies where you’ll find fascinating flower arrangements, art, signage and many other visual surprises. Within easy walking distance is the Andrew Warren Historic District which is on the National Register of Historic Places…and a must-see for those interested in Wausau’s architecture from an earlier era.

While strolling Third Street, visit Back When Café (; voted “Most Upscale Restaurant” in Wausau) for a heavenly lunch with a great selection of wines, stop in for a chocolate at Sweets on 3rd, take a peak in Downtown Grocery ( and then visit one or many of Wausau’s art galleries (Center for Visual Arts is on 4th Street) and museums (Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum; Browse and pick up a book at Et Al’s Read and Unread Book Store. The centerpiece of art in downtown Wausau is the Art’s Block Grand Theatre/ Great Hall (4th street; which was restored and opened in 2002 after a $13.3 million renovation. The Greek Revival Theatre (1240 seats) is stunning inside. My group had the pleasure of attending a Saint Patrick’s Day concert in the Grand Theatre, performed by famous Irish Celtic singer Karan Casey. After the concert, we walked over to nearby McLarkey’s Pub where we sang Irish tunes, wetting our whistle with Guinness beer, under the pretense that all of us had ‘a little Irish’ in us. Actually, many of us do, myself included.

Though Guinness beer is from Ireland, Wisconsin has one of America’s greatest brewing traditions. Wausau is no exception. One afternoon we had the pleasure of visiting Bull Falls Brewery owner Michael Zamzow. It is Wausau’s first distributing micro-brewery, featuring craft-brewed German, English and American ales. I tried a taste of all ten (was I counting? could I count?) of Mike’s beers while he gave us a tour and I found all to be excellent, especially the Bull Falls Bock, the Bull Falls Midnight Star (the “dark beer with a blond soul” as Mike says) and the Bull Falls Oktoberfest.

Wagonwheel Supper Club Drink Maestro
Wagonwheel Supper Club Drink Maestro

Two restaurants of note while visiting Wausau: the Wagon Wheel Supper Club and The Wine Cellar’er, and the Wright Place on 6th, which was deemed Wisconsin’s Restaurant of the Month, March 2009. The Wagonwheel, under the proprietorship of brothers Gary and Dennis Brandenburg, is a beautiful time warp, reminding me of a dinner club which I grew up with in Southern Oregon. Dapperly dressed older brother Gary works the solid white pine bar top like a mixology magician as he makes martinis for a group of ladies that arrive soon after we do.We’re drinking wine this evening because the Wagonwheel has Wausau’s best selection and Gary has no peer as far as wine knowledge in this region.The Wagon Wheel has been featured in Wine Spectator Magazine numerous times and Chalk Hill Wine’s 5th Edition of the Sommelier Guide to Restaurants in America.

Opening the menu, I’m immediately impressed by the inside first page Biblical sayings: Ecclesiastes 8:15 “…a man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” Isaiah 22:13 “…let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.” I look at my friends and say, “Dammit, let’s get with it!” Our first bottle (we let Gary do the selecting; that’s what experts are all about) was a cab, merlot, cab franc and petit verdot red called Chappellet Mountain Cuvee. We died and went to heaven. Then we decided to die again, with a 2007 Santa Julia Organica. In the meantime, we ordered steak and seafood. As Gary said, “There is nothing better than steak and red wine.” His personal favorite all time wine is the 1968 Ridge Zinfandel. The Brandenburgs are known for their charcoal broiled cuisine. Master chef Dennis and his wife Mary Kay prepared us an unforgettable feast.

The several days in Wausau went way too fast. Seeing it in early spring gave me a yearning to come back and explore a different season. Add it to your "to do" travel list. To paraphrase Isaiah”…let us eat and drink and ski; for tomorrow we shall die.”

  IMPORTANT INFORMATION:,, Books: Wausau Chronicles by Mary Jane Uecker Hettinga; Big Bull Falls, Volume 2: Postcard Views of Wausau, Wisconsin; History of Marathon County by Judge Louis Marchetti; Forever in Focus by Bob Becker  
  Larry Turner can be reached at  

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