They say you can’t spell “Wausau” without “USA” right in the middle of it. That may be a bit cheesy, but Wausau is in the heart of Wisconsin and feels like a solid center for the U.S. My family and I were looking for a weekend getaway last year where we could ski, enjoy the outdoors, and explore the area—without having to get on a plane. Pandemic precautions were in place and we wanted a nearby destination we could drive to and that allowed us to leave our dog at home with a sitter. We picked Wausau, Wis., and found it fit all our needs.
Wausau is an easy, straight three-hour drive from the Twin Cities along Highway 29 that often gets overlooked because of its location. It’s not near the Minnesota border like La Crosse. It’s not along the lakeshore like Milwaukee, not a university town like Madison, nor is it the host of an NFL team like Green Bay. But with the highest ski hill in the state and a gorgeous adjoining state park, along with re-emerging restaurants and cultural activities, Wausau is large enough to offer a variety of things to do while maintaining some small-town charm. In addition to our ski weekend last winter, we have visited the area a few other times to explore, and we continue to be charmed by what it offers.
Skiing and Hiking
Finding a place to ski was our first criterion for a getaway. While my husband and daughter ski, my son is a snowboarder, and I tend to sit in the chalet. Granite Peak Ski Resort appealed to us for its more than 200 acres, 74 runs, a nearly mile-long run, and a vertical drop of 700 feet. For some background, Granite Peak opened as Rib Mountain Ski Area in 1937 as one of the first ski areas in North America—just a few years after Stowe in Vermont and Sun Valley in Idaho. The hill’s early decades included continued expansions and technological updates like chairlifts and snow-making machines.
Poor weather conditions led to financial tough times in the 1980s and ’90s, though. In 2000, Charles Skinner Jr., co-owner of Lutsen Mountains in Minnesota, took over the hill and renamed it. While the hill closed briefly in March 2020 because of COVID-19, it opened again that winter and continues to operate today with a number of safety protocols. General manager Greg Fisher explained that advance tickets will be required for weekends and holidays to help control against overcrowding. Bags will no longer be allowed in the base lodges either.
“In essence, we are primarily an outdoor activity and we believe we offer up a safe opportunity for people to enjoy the winter sports they love,” Fisher said of the safety measures.
For our visit last winter, we arrived in the late afternoon and bought evening passes. It was a busy night, but the waits weren’t long and the snow was in good shape. With music blaring from the loudspeakers and the runs all lit up, the mood was festive.
The hill hosts a number of special events, such as family festival weekends, a New Year’s Eve party, and the Midwest Masters race in February, so check the schedule before you book dates. Prices range from $75 for all-day passes Sunday through Friday to $95 on Saturdays and holidays, with deals on multiple-day packages and other discounts available.
During the off-season, the resort stays busy as an outdoor recreation site. Mountain bike the groomed trails or book a visit to see the amazing fall colors by chairlift in the fall.
For hiking and other outdoor activities, check out the south side of Granite Peak’s grounds, the adjacent Rib Mountain State Park, billed as “a billion-year-old hill.” The park is open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. year-round and offers nine hiking trails of various lengths and intensities, rock climbing, picnic areas, an amphitheater, and a 60-foot observation tower. We have hiked here in spring and fall and marvel at how different the same park is in different seasons. There is no overnight camping, however.
For boating and fishing options, Wausau sits on the Wisconsin River and offers a number of public launch sites. I’ve also discovered that Wausau hosts some of nation’s only urban whitewater canoe and kayak races.
Beyond Wausau’s outdoor activities, we have explored Wausau’s quaint downtown area on a few separate visits, the most recent staying at the Jefferson Street Inn. The boutique hotel is in easy walking distance from dining, shopping, and entertainment options, many of which are starting to reopen after closing for COVID-19. One night, we enjoyed an upscale yet affordable dinner at Lemongrass Asian Fusion Restaurant & Bar. The restaurant was packed, clearly the place to enjoy a special occasion. Be prepared when they ring the loud gongs hanging on the wall to call out the birthday boy or anniversary couple, however. (They did this three times in our 90-minute dinner.) The food was fresh and flavorful, and the drinks were expertly made. The LED-lit water wall feature is an elegant design aspect that separates the dining room from the bar area.
Another night, we walked across the Wisconsin River on Falls Bridge and past Big Bull Falls Park for gyros at the charming Chatterbox Bar. The pub has an outdoor stage and live music, but we walked from there less than a mile back to the downtown area to the funky, spacious Whitewater Music Hall and Brew Works. There, we enjoyed a talented teen singing covers of her favorite musicians and checked out the art throughout the industrial building. There was no cover charge the night we visited, but the hall hosts ticketed concerts too, mainly for folk and bluegrass acts like Pert Near Sandstone and Willy Porter.
The next day, I did some shopping in the boutiques in the street-level building connected to the Jefferson Street Inn. Isaac’s Fine Apparel & Accessories carries a number of labels you find at many women’s boutiques. Campbell Haines Menswear offers black-tie apparel, think tuxedos and suits, but also a selection of silk ties and fitted dress shirts.
After shopping, I walked over to the Mint Cafe for lunch. The restaurant, open since 1888, has an expansive menu and retro diner decor. Across the street from the Mint is the city’s open-air park with an amphitheater they call 400 Block for community events. I’m sure it’s a popular place to hang out before a musical, dance, comedy, or other type of performance at the Grand Theater across the street. From the Mint, I walked to Wisconsin’s oldest bookstore, Janke Book Store, to browse everything from bestsellers and DIY books to stuffed animals, clothing, and other gifts. Make sure to visit the downstairs, where you can play LPs on the record player, shop a variety of used books, and wander into the back room of odds and ends that includes vintage bicycles, a full sleigh, and some mannequins for sale.
Also, if you seek out those large murals of wings that lots of cities now feature for photo opps (I’m a sucker for them), you can find one painted outside the La Prima restaurant along McClellan Street.
Away from the downtown area, we have enjoyed dinner and drinks at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., which brews its own beers, and Tine & Cellar in nearby Weston. I’m a fan of the good old-fashioned supper club (with good Old Fashioneds), and the Wausau area has a number of great options. The Palms Supper Club and the nautical-themed Nueske’s at Gulliver’s Landing are my favorites.
With everything it has to offer, we’ll be back to Wausau for another visit. Because it truly is in the heart of it all.
Wausau events for Jan-Feb 2022
1-2 Midwest Snocross Races at Wausau 525
5 Pizza & Theme Nights It’s A New Year at Willow Springs Garden
8 Badger State Games Alpine Skiing
8-9 Family Festival at Granite Peak Ski
8-9 Badger State Games Youth Hockey Tournaments
12 Pizza & Theme Nights Movie & Craft at Willow Springs Garden
14-16 Leinenkugel’s Classic Pond Hockey Tournament
14 Jim Belushi & Board of Comedy at Grand Theatre
16 Mary Poppins Tea Party Celebration at Willow Springs Garden
19 The Choir of Man at Grand Theatre
21 Bill Blagg & Magic of Motions at Grand Theatre
22 Badger State Games NASP Archery
22 Resurrection at Grand Theatre
23 Sleigh Rides at Willow Springs Garden
26 World of Musicals at Grand Theatre
26 Pizza & Theme Nights – Lighted Snowshoe Walk at Willow Springs Garden
27-30 Badger State Games Figure Skating
28 Classic Albums Live at Grand Theatre
28 Badger State Games Curling 29 Winter Fest at 400 Block Downtown Wausau
29 Tropical Enchantment Night at Willow Springs Garden
29-30 Badger State Games Youth Hockey Tournaments
29 PVR Vintage Snowmobile Races at Wausau 525
4 Genevieve Heyward performing at Grand Theatre
5-6 Badger State Games Handball
6 Sleigh Rides at Willow Springs Garden
9 Pizza & Themed Nights Casino Night at Willow Springs Garden
18 Tedious & Brief performing at the Grand Theatre
19-20 Badger State Games Fat Tire Biking
19-20 Badger State Games Youth Hockey Tournament
23 Pizza & Theme Nights Iditarod/Sled Dog Fun at Willow Springs Garden
26-27 Badger State Games Bowling
26 An Officer and A Gentleman at the Grand Theatre