Chicago may not have any mountains to speak of, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of winter fun. Downhill skiers and snowboarders willing to drive a bit can find plenty of places to get their thrills in Wisconsin and Michigan. You even have options like Galena, Villa Olivia, and Four Lakes in Illinois for those who need a closer fix.
There are also plenty of sledding hills, ice skating rinks, and tubing venues. Cross-country skiing and snowshoe rentals are available in local forest preserves, and ice fishing is even an option for those who like their winter adventure sedentary.
But believe it or not, Chicagoland has even more winter sports available for those looking for something a little outside the box. Most of these sports only get attention once every four years during the Winter Olympics, but you actually can enjoy them in person this year when conditions are right. Don’t let the cold keep you inside when you can hop in the car and enjoy these unexpected winter thrills in the Midwest.
1. Ski Jumping
Yes, there is a place to ski jump in the Chicagoland. The Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove, Ill., has been in operation since 1905 and features the only place in the area to watch world-class ski jumpers on a 70-meter hill. Their 110th annual ski jump tournament takes place this year on Jan. 24 to 25 and offers spectators quite a spectacle watching the competition.
Of course, if you want to jump yourself, the club offers training programs to teach the sport. Don’t worry, you don’t start on the 70-meter hill. The facility includes 2-, 5-, 10-, 22-, 40- and 64-meter options, and beginners are trained at the bottom and gradually work their way up. They even have an indoor practice ramp with landing mats to work on technique.
But for most people, ski jumping is a spectator sport, and the annual tournament is one big party with food, beer, wine, and Jägermeister. Dress warmly, bring lawn chairs and blankets, and enjoy the show.
It may not be the state-of-the art track that you remember from Sochi, but the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex on the other side of the lake in Muskegon, Mich., is one of only three luge tracks in the United States. It’s smaller than the Olympic-level tracks, but that’s a good thing, making it accessible to the public.
The 850-foot track consists of six curves and two starting areas. The public starts from about three-quarters of the way down the track and can reach speeds up to 30 mph. The track is designed for beginners and safe for those with no previous sliding experience. All equipment is provided, including the sled (one of four Austrian or Latvian luges), a sanitized helmet and forearm pads. Coaches will spend about 15 minutes before the run teaching you the technique, and then you’re free to sled as many runs as possible in your two-and-half-hour group session. The cost is $45 on the weekend, $40 on Friday nights.
About a three-hour drive from Chicago, the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex also offers ice skating, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and traditional sledding.
3. Speed Skating
This is the one sport that is perfectly at home in the Midwest—it just doesn’t get much attention in non-Olympic years. The Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee is the epicenter of the sport in this country. An astounding 80 percent of U.S. Speedskating medals have been won by athletes who trained and/or competed at the Pettit Ice Center. Learn-to-speed-skate classes are offered in the facility, but there are also options closer to home.
The Evanston Speed Skating Club has been around since 1966. It meets at the Robert Crown Ice Center in Evanston on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:45 p.m. to 7 p.m. and welcomes new members. It’s the club that gave Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis his start.
In the western suburbs, the Glen Ellyn Speedskating Club also welcomes skaters of all ages, abilities and interests. A three-week intro to speed-skating class is $60 and takes place at Center Ice of DuPage.
This shooting and cross-country skiing event seems to draw laughs from those who don’t get the connection. But the sport is a demanding challenge—maxing out your heart rate skiing and then stopping on a dime and getting your body still enough to shoot is harder than it looks. To see for yourself, travel to the McMiller Sports Center in Eagle, Wis., which is part of the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest , about two hours from Chicago. There, the Wisconsin Biathlon Association offers clinics and events, including instruction for first-timers with all the equipment included. It also holds the Wisconsin Biathlon Cup, a series of six events throughout the state.
5. Dog Sledding
If you’re interested in just checking out these impressive dogs, the Chicago Park District’s Polar Adventure Days on Northerly Island (Jan. 24 and Feb. 21) will feature dog-sled demonstrations, weather permitting. The same thing goes for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, which offers its [Huskies Heroes]((http://www.mortonarb.org//events/husky-heroes) program on Jan. 24 to 25, with demonstrations throughout the weekend.
But if you just want to see what a ride is like, take a trip to Boyne Highlands Resort, near the top of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The resort, which also features downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, fat-tire biking and a host of other winter activities, offers guided dog-sled rides that provide a unique view of that beautiful area.