Stipulated: the perfect travel time for a three-day weekend getaway is four hours. More, and you waste your vacation. Less, and you’re still near home. Hence our series, The 4-Hour Rule, dedicated to revealing the best destinations that are far away, yet still close to home.
Built by the designers of the award-winning Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links, Sand Valley is quickly becoming a fixture on the circuit of destination-worthy American golf courses. Our advice: get in before the big crowds show up.
To drive that point home (get ready for golf puns), the regional private airport is currently tripling in size to accommodate the additional jet traffic. “If you build it, they will come,” after all.
For those still driving cars, it will take the full four hours to get up to the center of Wisconsin, but once there, it’s a sight to behold. Sand Valley is the rare place where golfers, hikers, fishers and real-estate tycoons will all find their oyster.
It lies in the Midwest’s Driftless Area, which you’ve probably never heard of. It’s a sort of a geological anomaly where glaciers surrounded but never carved up the area. Rather than the typical Midwest topography of lakes and plains, the area uniquely sports limestone bluffs, steep canyons and towering sand dunes.
It is also home to the Midwest’s only native cactus plant: the resort’s endangered brittle prickly pear, which somehow made it through the last polar vortex.
Today, the area is home to a sustainably designed, rugged, links-style golf course architected by a two-time Masters champion. Find a foursome, pack your sticks and don’t forget your sand wedge — as the name implies, you’ll probably be spending some time on the beach.
PLAY: Sand Valley
There are three distinct courses at the Sand Valley resort, and each one of them has won a top award from Golf Magazine. Mammoth Dunes was their Best New Course in 2018, Sand Valley won the top honor in 2017 and the newish par-3, The Sandbox, won the Best New Short Course medal in 2018. Dynasty much?
The courses are public, scenic and a bit linksy (although not quite, as they are decidedly inland). From wide canyon gaps, to towering sand dunes, Wisconsin gets to shine in the details of these courses.
For as international as it’s likely to become, right now the course is still very Midwestern. For example, on Mammoth there’s no halfway house yet, so they’re grilling burgers and brats under a tent, and at Hole 3 on The Sandbox there’s a canoe filled with regional (and national) favorites like Leinenkugels and New Glarus’s Spotted Cow — all for $2!
If you’ve got the balls, go for Sand Valley. Here for the view? Mammoth Dunes has more to look at and is a lot of fun. Need for speed? That 17-hole par-3 has your name on it.
Be advised, the long courses are both cart-free, so get your caddie banter ready. And for those hot summer rounds, you’ll find Lake Leopold next to the ninth hole. Create your own Poppie’s Pond with a celebratory, Dinah Shore-esque dunk.
1697 Leopold Way, Nekoosa, WI 54457
WHERE TO STAY: Sand Valley
Perhaps this is getting redundant, but you’re coming here for Sand Valley. It’s a resort in the middle of a glacial desert, so there aren’t a ton of off-resort options. Within the property, however, there are many choices:
- Lodge Rooms: Consider this the hotel room option of the lodging offerings; each one has a course view. $165-400 per night
- Lodge Suites: Suites range from the Moderate for single guests or couples to the four-bedroom Mammoth Suite. $375-$1,800 per night
- Four Bed Cottages: These breathtaking standalone cottages are kitted with a full kitchen, four single bedrooms and a screened-in porch overlooking a Glacial Lake. If you have a group, do it, there’s even fire-pit access. They missed a real opportunity to call these Fore Bed Cottages, but still come highly recommended. $900-$1,800 per night
- Eight Bed Cottages: There are also cottages with eight beds, which are basically the same as the above but the bedrooms sport two queen beds per room to accommodate a large group. $1,000-$2,000 per night
Go here to check out specific rates for all room types, and book your stay.
1697 Leopold Way, Nekoosa, WI 54457
WHAT TO EAT: Aldo’s
Yes, they have cheese curds.
Now that that’s out of the way, Aldo’s, the resort’s farm-to-table restaurant, tries to stay as local as possible. Vegetables, fruits and herbs are grown in a half-acre spread on the property, and birdies — in this case chickens — are also puttering around the grounds to provide eggs. Everything else comes from more than 60 local producers.
True to the Badger State of mind, the drinks are giant and inexpensive and you can’t go wrong with the walleye.
Take breakfast and dinner here.
Sand Valley Trail, Nekoosa, WI 54457
Also check out: Craig’s Porch (in addition to fast bites, they’ve got nine ice cream sandwich flavors)
WHERE TO EXPLORE: Sand Valley Trail
Now that you’re hooked on those scintillating geological facts, you’re probably champing at the bit to get out there. So grab a trail map and head out on one of three routes accessible from the resort.
Like the idea of a hike, but looking to get off the property? The Ice Age Trail is 15 miles away from the resort. If you’ve heard of the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Appalachian Trail, this is the Midwest version of that. There are scenic trail markers with plenty of historical facts.
If you’ve had enough of walking, try one of the other non-golf activities. Tennis fans can book some time at one of 15 grass tennis courts, and anglers can throw a cast into one of three stocked lakes. And the highest adventure quotient you’ll hit in the middle of Dairyland is probably a dune ride along an 80-foot sand ridge on a fat-tire bike. They’re free to guests, so reserve early.
WHERE TO DRINK: Mammoth Bar
The best part about a golf resort in Wisconsin is New Glarus is on tap. Aside from that, Mammoth is a pretty standard post-round 19th hole, although the food is quite good. The pulled pork nachos are a no brainer. For vegetarians, go for the beets and sweets panini.
If the weather is nice, post up outside and enjoy the clubhouse views of Mammoth’s 1st and 18th. As the sun goes down, move toward the fire pit and keep the appetizers rolling before retiring for the evening.
You’ll never fore-get your time at Sand Valley.
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