Updated: Aug 4
Skiing out west in the Rocky Mountains is blissful, but getting out there (plane rides + winding car rides) is exhausting and expensive. If you live in the Midwest, you can get good skiing a short drive away! Here's the best Midwest ski resorts you should try with your family!
Boyne Highlands - Harbor Springs, Michigan
Crystal Mountain - Thompsonville, Michigan
Nub's Nob - Harbor Springs, Michigan
Bittersweet - Ostego, Michigan
Perfect North - Lawrenceburg, Indiana
My Early Days as a Ski Bunny
Growing up in the South, my first exposure to snow skiing was in sixth grade on the tiny North Carolina slopes. We had no lessons other than my Dad teaching us some basics. However, I don't believe he knew how to ski either, so I'm not sure how that worked. But we snowplowed our way down the bunny hill and figured it out just fine. In North Carolina, you rode the lift more than you skied, because the runs were so short, but we didn’t know any better. The slopes were about two hours away, so we ended up skiing at least once a year.
Then in college, I got my first taste of real skiing in Winter Park, Colorado on a family trip with my Dad, uncle and cousins. See pictures of us cry-laughing at Uncle Larry’s discussion of the “2-for-1 special” where every drink equals 2 drinks because of the altitude. He certainly brought that to life for us all.
I still remember our first ride to the summit. My sister and I stood there with our mouths open amazed at the vastness of it all. Once we were able to psych ourselves up that we could ski a mountain this big, it then felt like it took us all day to get back to the bottom, which was heavenly compared to what we were used to. After that, I was hooked!
In grad school, I found a ski bunny friend who grew up on the slopes with her family. Her dad invited me to join them a couple times, and she and I went on our own as well. Because why not spend your grad school loan money on vacations, right?? Then as a single girl working in Chicago with disposable income and friends who also loved to ski, and later a fiancée who lived in Alaska and loved to snowboard, I made many more trips out west – to Vail, Beaver Creek, and Winter Park in Colorado; to Park City, Alta, Snowbird, and Deer Valley in Utah; and an amazing trip to Whistler in Canada. I’m no expert - just a solid blue skier who can get down a black diamond if forced.
My role as ski bunny was going pretty well, until my belly got too big to fit in my ski pants. Yay for babies! Boo for the end of our ski lives. Vacations became places we went that would be easy with a little one, and skiing certainly doesn’t fit that bill. We did get my toddler son on a tiny slope outside Chicago (Villa Olivia), but that lasted long enough for us to get a few pictures. Then my daughter came along, which meant several more years of a ski break because no way was I skiing with two toddlers!
Five years later, we were finally ready to get back on the slopes! The kids were older and interested in testing the ski waters – Brady was 8 and Ava was 5. We had moved to Indianapolis by this point, so our first trip was to Perfect North near Cincinnati.
There is snow skiing in Indiana!
PERFECT NORTH - Lawrenceburg, Indiana
400 vertical feet
Perfect North is less than a two-hour drive for us, which was perfect for a quick day trip. However, the weather was unseasonably warm that weekend, and much of the mountain was closed. Aside from the lack of snow 😳, Perfect North was perfect for our first-timers. A 50-minute lesson is included with every lift ticket purchased for newbies, and a moving walkway makes it easy for beginners to get to the “top” of the bunny hill – way easier than a tow rope. The first-timer lesson went by quickly, so we signed them up for the next-step lesson, while Daddy and I got to do some skiing of our own. By the end of the day, Ava was going up and down the bunny hill with ease, and Brady was riding the chair lift with Daddy! And they were hungry for more! If you or your kids are first-timers, Perfect North is a great place to learn!
Skiing in Michigan
SWISS VALLEY - Jones, Michigan
225 vertical feet
A year later, we decided to go for a slightly bigger trip and drove up to Kalamazoo, Michigan (about 3½ hours from Indy) for a day at Swiss Valley and a day at Bittersweet. We stayed at a pet-friendly hotel in Kalamazoo and brought our dog, Tootsie, with us. Unfortunately, they didn't have skis to fit Tootsie.
Our first day we skied Swiss Valley, which is about 45 minutes from Kalamazoo. The weather was colder than expected and the equipment wasn’t super comfortable, so we spent the first chunk of the morning buying gear to try to get comfy and warm. Swiss Valley is an older “resort” with few amenities. Unfortunately, the amenities they do have are housed in several different buildings (one building has ski rental, another building has the ski shop, another building has food), so you end up doing a lot of walking outside. I remember being exhausted and muddy before we even started skiing. On a positive note, the lessons are inexpensive, so we signed the kids up for a 2-hour private lesson together. The instructors were amazing and so good with the kids - see the sweet Santa lookalike riding up the tow rope with Ava!
BITTERSWEET - Ostego, Michigan
350 vertical feet
The next day, Bittersweet was a breath of fresh air! Less than 30 minutes from Kalamazoo, the resort reminded me of skiing out west but miniaturized – and without the shopping, restaurants, and nightlife, given Bittersweet is in the middle of nowhere. The Lodge is lovely and all together – no traipsing outside to get from one building to the next. The equipment is top notch with super easy fittings. The lifts were smooth and fast, and the runs were good, although short as expected. We put the kids in Sno Kids, the group 2-hour class. After the private lesson at Swiss Valley, the kids were spoiled and weren’t excited about the group class, but the price was right. Afterward, we booked a private lesson for them together for extra practice. By the end of the two days, the kids were pros!
We ran into old neighbors by chance and took advantage of the outdoor après ski to catch up at the end of the day. Ava fell asleep on my lap and kept me warm while I helped our neighbors finish their pitcher of beer. Bittersweet was impressive – a great day for all of us. We knew we’d be back!
One year later ...
BITTERSWEET - Ostego, Michigan
As promised, we’re back! Later that year between Christmas and New Year’s, we rented a house in South Haven, Michigan with my mom, my sister and her kids, and our two dogs. South Haven is a beautiful beach town on Lake Michigan that we’ve visited in the summer, but this was our first time in the winter. The town was sleepy as expected, but more fun than Kalamazoo last year. We ice skated downtown South Haven, played on the beach in the crazy cold, and skied Bittersweet twice – once on our own and once with the cousins. Bittersweet is about 45 minutes from South Haven and did not disappoint in round two!
CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN - Thompsonville, Michigan
375 vertical feet
8 lifts including 1 high speed quad
After my family left, we drove up to Crystal Mountain for some bigger mountains and bigger skiing. Crystal Mountain is about 3 hours from South Haven and would’ve been about 5½ hours from Indy if we had driven from home. This family resort is so stinkin’ cute! The volume in the car rose with excitement as we drove into the picturesque village at the bottom of the slopes. The ski facilities, restaurants and a small grocery store plus beautiful cottages, villas, and traditional hotel-type rooms surround a cozy, small outdoor ice rink. And it’s dog-friendly! We had Tootsie and Teddy with us, and they met tons of friends on our walks through the village.
We LOVED Crystal Mountain! It reminds me of a mini Vail - so charming and so easy with everything all in one place. You walk everywhere and everything is right around the corner. And the skiing was the best we’d had in the Midwest. With 58 downhill runs and four different ski areas, one of which we didn’t even find until the tail end of our second day (The Backyard – our favorite!), we had plenty of good skiing without getting bored. Runs are still on the short side, but that’s to be expected of Midwest ski resorts.
Kids did morning private lessons so they could get more practice, and we could still ski together as a family in the afternoons. The pool and hot tub were right across from our room and were the perfect end to our evening. Food options were not plentiful but were adequate. Crystal Mountain, we will be back!
WINTER PARK - Winter Park, Colorado
3,000+ vertical feet (base is at 9,000 feet so the summit is 12,000 feet)
23 lifts including 3 high speeds + a 10-person gondola
Going off topic here, because in the middle of all this Midwest skiing, we took a detour out west to Winter Park, Colorado. This detour will provide a comparison point to our Midwest skiing. We chose Winter Park because it’s the easiest drive from Denver Airport (about 2 hours) and because it’s family-friendly. In 2019, USA Today ranked Winter Park the #1 ski resort in North America, for the 2nd year in a row. We also looked at Utah, but flights were cheaper to Denver, so we chose Colorado.
Now why is that drive from the airport so important? Because I once spent a terrifying night in the back of a van with strangers, praying our driver would make it through the snowstorm from Denver airport to Beaver Creek. I arrived in time to see my fiancée off for a day of skiing while I got in bed to get some sleep. That’s not an experience I wanted to replicate, especially with my kids. For Winter Park, you break off of I-70 before the major traffic and before the Eisenhower tunnel. That’s not to say that the road to Winter Park isn’t curvy, because there is a stretch where I nearly lost my lunch. But the drive to Winter Park is shorter and has less risk of delays and danger than the ride to the more popular resorts like Vail and Beaver Creek. Don’t get me wrong, though, I love Vail and Beaver Creek. But I wanted my kids’ first trip out west to be as easy as possible, so we chose Winter Park.
In Winter Park, we stayed at The Vintage Hotel, which is a tram-ride away from the Village where everything is. The tram ride was a little cold, but it was fun and quick, except when it closed while we were at dinner in the Village. The walk back in the dark not knowing exactly where we were going was not fun. Next time, we will spend the extra money to stay in the Village, which is super cute and manageable with lots of restaurants and shopping in easy walking distance of the base of the mountain. We had breakfast and dinner there every day and did our fair share of shopping.
Getting on the slopes, I expected the kids to be in awe of the size of the mountain like I was my first time out west, but I guess a mountain is a mountain to them at this age. They enjoyed it but weren’t as impressed as I was. I actually think the size was a bit intimidating for them, and it was very cold up at the top. From that standpoint, I think the kids enjoyed Midwest skiing more. Keep that in mind before you spend the money to go out west!
We skied three days, which I think is plenty with younger kids and older adults like us. :) We put both kids in ski and snowboard school the first day. Brady was ready to try snowboarding like Daddy! At dinner after our first day of skiing, Ava was asleep at the dinner table. We thought it was just exhaustion, but her fever disagreed. So day two was spent with Daddy and me alternating skiing by ourselves and napping with Ava in the hotel room, while Brady did a second day of snowboard school. For our last day, Ava was too tired to do her ski school, so she skied with us for a half day and Brady used her lesson for a third day of board school. By the end of the trip, Ava was beating me down the blues and Brady was feeling good boarding greens.
BOYNE HIGHLANDS - Harbor Springs, Michigan
552 vertical feet
8 chairlifts including 1 high speed
At the end of the year, we decided to venture further north in Michigan and try out the resorts near Traverse City. Based on recommendations from friends, we chose Boyne Highlands, which is about a seven-hour drive from Indy. We originally planned to stay four nights to have time to ski and explore, but the weather was predicted to be warm and rainy, so we pushed the trip back and shortened it to ensure better weather. Luckily, the resort was flexible. In the end, we stayed three nights at the Main Lodge and skied two days.
Thankfully, the rain turned to snow our first morning - lots of it - so we leveraged the gear shop and an awesome salesguy to help us prepare for a wet day of skiing. Brady got a new waterproof ski coat to replace his coat from Target, and I got the free pair of pants that came with it - plus neck warmers, handwarmers, socks, and anything else we could find to stay dry.
Per our usual, we put the kids in half-day morning ski and board lessons, which I think is ideal. They get real instruction (because us as teachers just doesn’t seem to work), and we get some alone time to ski. Then we meet up for lunch and all ski together in the afternoon. Brady boarded the first day but didn’t love not being able to keep up with us on the blues/blacks in the afternoon. He fell hard on his last run of the day, so he switched to skiing day two. Our last day, my littler skiers were toasting me!
Comparing Boyne Highlands to Crystal Mountain, I thought the skiing at Boyne was better (more slopes, longer slopes), but I liked the Crystal Mountain village and lodging better (more charm, more to do, and more updated).
When we weren’t skiing, we were eating, and here’s a recap in case you’re hungry. After the long drive from home to Boyne, we went to Teddy Griffins Roadhouse for dinner, based on a recommendation from friend who grew up in northern Michigan. Teddy’s is right outside the resort but required us to get back in the car. Groan. Luckily, it was worth it! Teddy’s is high energy with good food that everyone loved! The following night we debated going back to Teddy's, but ate at the resort for convenience. Our last night was New Year’s Eve, so we had to do it up big! We made reservations at Willow, a farm-to-table restaurant and treated the kids to some fine dining. On a regular night, I think I would’ve loved the food, but the menu was fixed and not quite what I would’ve chosen. But the kids loved theirs, and we loved the champagne and party favors. Even though we toasted the New Year around 8:30pm, we adored our fancy night out! The town of Harbor Springs is super cute and probably lovely if you could see it in daylight.
Right outside of Boyne Highlands is the Nubs Nob ski resort, which all the locals rave about. It doesn’t look like a place you would stay, but the skiing is supposed to be great. About a half hour away toward home is Boyne Mountain, which we heard is similar to Highlands. Locals say Highlands has a better mix of runs and that if we like skiing blues, that we’re better off at Highlands. We had planned on trying one of these other resorts when we were staying longer, but with a shortened trip, there wasn’t time.
In summary, if you live in the Midwest and want decent skiing a short drive away, you can’t go wrong with Bittersweet (<4 hours from Indy and <3 hours from Chicago). If it’s a cold winter and you’re coming from Indy, Perfect North is even closer (<2 hours from Indy) and a fantastic option! If you want bigger mountains, then you need to go further north. Crystal Mountain and the Boyne area are both great options (6-7 hours from Indy)! Midwest ski resorts offer the convenience of bringing your own car with all your gear vs. trying to pack it all to fly. And the drive to northern Michigan is comparable to the flight + drive time to Denver or Salt Lake, barring no major snowstorms in either place. But after the long drive home from Boyne, which seemed like it took way longer than 7 hours, I am voting to fly for our next big ski trip. I vote for Utah, because the drive from Salt Lake City airport to Park City is under an hour. Let's start planning!
Midwest Ski Resorts - Stats
P.S. This is what your kids will be doing on the drive home from skiing.
Heather Vergara is a former PepsiCo marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never went back. In addition to family, Heather is passionate about kindness, community, travel and adventure, whole food, and sweating every day. Heather has an MBA in Marketing from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Executive Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.