If you're looking for a great destination that you can reach by car from Chicago, but still enjoy tons of winter sports, then Crystal Mountain is for you. This charming family owned resort in Thomsonville, Michigan - a five hour drive north of Chicago - is one of the Midwest's best four-season family resorts. It is particularly good in the winter since it has the highest elevation of all the skiing venues - which is a challenge to find.
Over President's weekend, we journeyed with another family to check it out and see exactly why generations of Chicago families keep returning year after year. After spending the weekend there we are quite simply, hooked.
The activity choices at Crystal Mountain are quite plentiful. From skiing to snowboarding and enjoying the spa there are lots of options to choose from. They offer over 40 downhill slopes, 40 km of cross-country trails, the award-winning Crystal Spa and tons of off slope activities for kids.
When it comes to accommodations, you can choose from more than 250 hotel rooms, suites, quaint cottages and resort residences, all tucked away against the backdrop of beautiful northern Michigan. As a family of five, we rented a three bedroom cottage which was absolutely delightful. Truth be told we could have sized down by a bedroom, as once my kids saw the room with the bunk bed and the King sized bed, they decided it would be more fun to have a slumber party. I also loved having a kitchen as it meant that we didn't have to race out for breakfast each morning before hitting the slopes.
We found the mountain to be very accommodating for skiers of all ages and abilities. While the slopes are not all that long (this is not Aspen after all) they do have 40 slopes, four terrain parks and tons of moguls to keep everyone engaged. The instructors were great and believe me, we put them to the test with the spectrum of abilities that we gave them.
My twelve-year-old son is an experienced snowboarder and spent three days learning new tricks in the four terrain parks. My seven-year-old son is a quiet and reserved skier who takes a while to warm up and spent three days with wonderful instructors who tailored the lessons to his serious and thoughtful approach. My daughter who is four (and whose zest for speed far outways her abilities) learned important fundamental skills like how to stop on the mountain (a pizza wedge) and how to get on and off the chairlift. What we were most pleased with is that they all left with more confidence then they started with. We chose private lessons for our children but Crystal Mountain also offers group classes starting at age three.
When the kids need a break from the mountain they can enjoy swimming in the indoor pool or gliding on the complimentary ice rink (bring your own skates or you can rent). If you're looking for a new experience, you might want to try dog sledding. My kids loved meeting the dogs and then having them pull them along on this winter adventure. A nice option for the younger kids, especially if they're looking to get out of the cold for a bit, is booking them in at Adventure Care which is right at the base of the mountain. This onsite child care program offers tons of fun activities for your kids to do, including face painting!
In addition to the café on the slopes, they have two restaurants on site for nice après-ski sit down dinners, The Wild Tomato and The Thistle Pub. These are great options for dinner if you decide that you don't want to bring a full load of groceries and spend your evening in the kitchen. The Thistle Pub is the cozier and more upscale of the two and a bit similar to an Adirondack Mountain house.
One of the great features about Crystal Mountain is the layout of the resort and it's amenities. You can walk to everything (yes, even when wearing ski boots) and they have a complimentary shuttle that you can call should you prefer a lift. We felt totally comfortable having our tween walk around the resort by himself, and to take the shuttle bus back to our cottage when he chose to stay on the mountain longer than the rest of us. At night, while we enjoyed a leisurely dinner at one of the restaurants, he and his buddy were able to walk over to the organized laser tag game (another activity provided), participate in some fun outdoor play and then meet us back at the restaurant for dessert. That sort of freedom is such a gift for parents of teens and tweens, and is often hard to find.
Tips: When you make your reservations, you definitely want to book your ski lessons, dinner reservations, spa appointments and any other activities that you're interested in doing. They do book up, especially on holidays and vacation weeks, and you could find yourself shut out of activities. They have a small grocery store on site but if you intend to have many meals or heavy snacks in your room, you should plan on bringing your groceries. Also, for good (blue/black slope) skiers, go to the far left chairlift as you face the mountain. There are few lines there.
Chrissy Jones is a local Chicago mom blogger with three children (12,7 & 4). Her blog Beyondthepark.com showcases the best special events, activities, restaurants and products for Chicago families.
See more of Chrissy's stories here.