A skier takes off from one of the features in the terrain park at Devil's Head Resort in Merrimac.(Photo: Devil's Head Resort)
When Michiganders Willis Stoick and Joe Kosik — who’d already built several ski areas in their native state — were scouting for new resort sites in the late 1960s, they traveled up and down Wisconsin.
The pair, who were from the Pontiac, Mich., area, eventually found their way to the relatively steep Baraboo Bluffs, which rise hundreds of feet above the Wisconsin River near Merrimac and are remnants of a billion-year-old Precambrian mountain range.
So Stoick and Kosik, brothers-in-law who came from rural backgrounds, bargained with the Sauk County farmers who owned the hills above the river valley. They came away with several hundred acres of land just to the east of Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area that wasn’t fit for growing crops but ideal for carving out ski slopes, thanks to a 500-foot vertical drop.
“That’s pretty much how Devil’s Head got started,” said Joe Vittengl, who has worked for the resort for nearly three decades and now serves as general manager. Two of his teenage children work at the resort and a younger sibling may join them in the coming years.
“Back then, this area was all about farming and those bluffs weren’t much good for that. In fact, they were really useless for growing crops. So Stoick and Kosik got the land for not much money. Then they went on to create what has become one of the more popular ski and snowboard resorts in Wisconsin, especially among people from northern Illinois,” Vittengl said.
The first phase of Devil's Head was built in 1969 and opened in 1970.
“The skiing’s in the winter, of course. Come spring and summer, we transition into a golf resort with our two 18-hole courses. Which is great for me, because I really like golf, too," he said.
Vittengl said Stoick and Kosik also built Alpine Valley near East Troy for a total of five ski areas/golf resorts on both sides of Lake Michigan.
Over the years, Devil’s Head steadily grew to 1,000 acres, including the golf courses — which are used for cross-country skiing during the cold-weather months, Vittengl said.
As the popularity of skiing grew in the 1970s and '80s, Devil’s Head added more runs and lifts. There are now more than two dozen slopes, served by seven chairlifts and two surface lifts. On a busy weekend, Vittengl said the resort can attract more than 3,000 skiers and snowboarders — as well as the occasional non-skiing mom or dad (or grandmother or grandfather) who’s content to sit in the lodge and work or read while the rest of the family plays on the snow.
The lodging has also expanded. The resort now has more than 250 rooms, suites and condos, plus several on-site restaurants. One of them, the Cornucopia, has a circular stone fireplace at its center. When my kids and I were there recently, we had the delicious lava cake dessert, which oozed chocolate once we cut into it.
The lodge also has a pool, hot tub, ski and snowboard rentals, retail shop and a bar for apres-ski gatherings. The resort stays open until 10 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and until 9 p.m. from Sunday through Wednesday.
“We’re somewhat unique in Wisconsin because our area has so much lodging and is really a destination resort,” he said, noting that most other areas have ski hills and other facilities, but no on-site hotels or condos.
Vittengl said one of the most popular runs at Devil’s Head is the terrain park that starts near the top of Devil’s Air Park and has numerous rails, boxes, jumps and other features or “toys” that skiers and snowboarders slide, grind and jump off of and on.
Until the mid-1990s, when snowboarding was expanding, he said resorts banned jumps because they were considered too dangerous. And when skiers or snowboarders built them on their own, the ski patrol knocked the jumps down. Many resorts initially refused to allow snowboarding on their runs.
Those days are long gone, except for a couple of resorts in Utah (Deer Valley and Alta) and one or two on the East Coast. The popularity of snowboarding has dropped somewhat at Devil's Head with the advent of twin-tip skis, which allow users to ride forwards and backwards. Now, Vittengl said, you’re likely to see more skiers in the terrain parks than snowboarders.
And for those folks who prefer to watch the daredevils ride the rails and fly off jumps, riding up the Quicksilver chairlift will give them a good view of the action on Devil’s Air Park, which flows into the Sidewinder run about halfway down the mountain.
Joe LaCour, a 48-year-old financial adviser from Merrimac, said he occasionally will head into the terrain park with his 12- and 14-year-old kids when he’s “feeling daring enough.” Usually, though, he’s content to cruise on the slopes that stretch along a ridge that tracks from east to west.
“I’ve been skiing here for more than two decades and really appreciate the variety of terrain they have — including the terrain park,” he said.
LaCour, who often skis in Colorado at resorts such as Keystone, Vail and Telluride, only lives a few miles from the resort, so lodging is never a need for him. But he said family members often stay at Devil’s Head when they come to visit. Several years ago, a relative got married there.
“It’s a nice destination resort and has a wide variety of runs for all levels of ability,” he said. “And I really like how they have bonfires that people can gather around at night and talk. After a day of skiing and a big cup of hot chocolate, that’s a nice place to hang out.”
More information: The lifts at Devil's Head are open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Adult lift tickets are $49 during the week and $55 on weekends; junior tickets are $43 during the week and $48 on weekends. On Thursday nights, all lift tickets are $16.
See devilsheadresort.com or call (800) 472-6670.
Getting there: Devil’s Head Resort, S6330 Bluff Road, Merrimac, is about 110 miles northwest of Milwaukee via Interstates 94 and 90 and Highway 78.