It's no secret that the Midwest has been crazy about lifts lately. So today, I wanted to examine some fun, historic, and interesting ski lifts across the Midwest that you can still ride as of the 2022/23 season.
1: The Hemlock Chair at Boyne Mountain, MI
This double chairlift started as a single, but more on that in a bit. This chairlift is located at Boyne Mountain in Boyne Falls, Michigan, a hill full of chairlift history.
Believe it or not, this lift is the world's first chairlift that was originally built and installed at Sun Valley Resort in 1936. And we've done a video covering that story - so be sure to check that out if you haven't already - by clicking here.
But how it got to Michigan is also a fun story. The ski legend and one of the founders of Boyne Mountain, Everett Kircher, began going to Sun Valley for annual ski trips starting in 1938. During his first trip out, Everett was introduced to Victor Gottschalk - Everett's very first ski instructor. Little did Victor know, however, that several years later, he would end up working for Everett and would be a critical element in Boyne acquiring what would become the Hemlock Chairlift.
Flash forward, and after several years of instructing Everett during his annual trips to Sun Valley - Everett offered Victor a job to help him lay out runs and be the head instructor at his new ski area in Michigan. When Victor overheard Everett discussing plans on installing a rope tow system - he immediately tipped them off about Sun Valley making some changes and thought they might have a used chairlift for sale.
Almost immediately, Everett reached out to Sun Valley with an offer, and in the summer of 1947, Victor went out to Sun Valley to dismantle the world's first chairlift. He would load the lift, wooded telephone poles, bolts, and terminals on a flatbed railroad car and have it shipped it back to Boyne Falls, Michigan. This removal/relocation would also mark one of the first times a chairlift had been dismantled and relocated to a new hill in chairlift history.
The chairlift would see its first passengers for Boyne's first season in 1948 and would also mark the first chairlift ever installed in the Midwest.
Over the years, the Hemlock chairlift would receive several upgrades and improvements, including double chairs that would replace the original singles. However, the upper and lower terminals are still the original from Sun Valley. So next time you are at Boyne Mountain, take a ride on this historic lift!
2: The J-bar at Powder Ridge, MN
Across the Midwest, you will see a lot of different types of ski lifts, but you will only see a J-bar at Powder Ridge in Kimball, Minnesota. That's because this J-bar is the last one in operation across the Midwest and one of only a few left in the country.
The J-bar is a mostly forgotten ski lift that uses an overhead haul rope and j-shaped carriers to guide skiers and snowboarders up the hill. The first J-bar was installed in Switzerland for the 1934/35 season, and news of this new type of lift spread quickly to lift manufacturers in the United States, such as Fred Pabst Jr., who went to work copying the design.
Powder Ridges's J-bar, which was installed for the 1973 season, was designed and built by Borvig and has been a staple in their beginners' area ever since. Although the j-bar is slower than its older brother the rope tow, there is something special about riding this type of lift, and others seem to agree. Even with a faster rope tow sitting less than 200 feet away, the Powder Ridge crowds head for that J-bar.
The J-bar is a lift that I always ride when I'm at Powder Ridge and, without fail, will always put a smile on my face, so be sure to check this one out.
3: 1/2 & 3/4 at Little Switzerland, WI
This one is a two-for-one -squared because it is a pair of up and over double chairlifts at Little Switzerland in Slinger, Wisconsin.
These chairlifts are the hills-only chairlifts and are labeled ½ & ¾. And if you're not familiar with up and over lifts - I wouldn't be surprised. Although the Midwest has four, they are a rare design, with less than ten across the country.
Up and over lifts were designed to cut costs and the space by creating two chairlifts with a single haul line. Instead of the chairlift stopping and circling back at the top of the hill, it continues going down the backside to another loading terminal, creating another chairlift. The cost and space savings are advantages, but this chairlift style can only be installed on hills with a layout to support them, such as Little Switzerland.
Little Switzerland's up-and-over chairlifts were designed and built by riblet, with the first lift ½ installed in 1964 and ¾ in 1971. After some research, 1/2 could be one of the first up and over chairlifts ever installed. Peter Lansman over at liftblog.com, and I could not find any up-and-over style lifts that predate this one - pretty cool.
And although both these lifts are get up in age, before reopening the ski area in 2012- brothers Rick and Mike Smitz completely overhauled both lifts top to bottom to ensure they could stick around for as long as possible. But it will be interesting to see what they decide to do when they need to be replaced - could we see some modern-day up-and-over quads?! Only time will tell.
Any way you cut it, these are some historic and super unique lifts that fit the hill's layout and design perfectly and are worth a visit.
4: The Magic Carpet at Buck Hill, MN
Buck Hills magic carpet in Burnsville, Minnesota. And I know what you might be thinking, what is so special about a magic carpet - well, this magic carpet was the longest in the country at the time of installation.
Installed for the 2008/2009 season, this carpet replaced two previous lifts, a rope tow, and a j-bar. When planning the lift installation, management had the option to create two separate carpets to account for the flattening of the land and the run now called Little Jibber, by why do that when you can go over these elements?
So instead, they opted to spend extra money to build a 320-foot pre-cast concrete bridge to extend the carpet to be nearly 800 feet long. The bridge crosses over Little Jibber and features a fiberglass canopy made by Magic Carpet.
This decision created a carpet that is exceptionally memorable not only for its size but because riders are taken through a covered bridge. Although the title of the nation's longest carpet has since been claimed, given its length, layout, and covered bridge, this is a unique lift that children and beginners love. Bonus: with the extra time, you can finish two beers on it!
5: The Summit Express at Lutsen Mountains, MN
This lift is located at Lutsen Mountains in Lutsen, Minnesota, and is the Midwest's only gondola. Although the gondola is used to move people from one mountain to another instead of lift access skiing - it offers up some fantastic views of the sounding landscape and Lake Superior.
Installed in 2015 by Doppelmayr, this eight-person gondola has a run length of almost 4900 feet - making it the longest lift in the Midwest. This new gondola replaced the original PHB/Hall that was first installed at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire in 1966. In 1988 it was relocated to Lutsen and saw its first passengers at this location in 1989.
When the original gondola was replaced in 2015, some of the cabins were sold to the public, so if you're lucky enough, you might catch a glimpse of one around the region- but if not, you can always check out the one hanging on the wall of Papa Charlie's.
The new gondola is more spacious for its riders and significantly increased rider capacity, making it quicker, easier, and smoother to ride back and forth to Moose Mountain. This ski lift is a must-hit if you are at Lutsen, and if you're looking for something to do in the off-season, taking a sightseeing ride on this lift in the fall will provide some stunning views.
But there you have it; five unique ski lifts across the Midwest. Massive shoutout to liftblog.com for helping throw this piece together. But until next, I hope all of you have a great week, pray for snow, and I'll see you out there!