Dubuque-area ski resort celebrating 50 seasons of family, fun

Sundown Mountain Resort

Address: 16991 Asbury Road

Phone: 563-556-6676

Online: sundownmtn.com

Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Special hours for the season can be found online. 

The season typically ends the second week of March, but the timeline is weather-dependent. 

A Dubuque-area ski resort has been part of Tony LoBianco’s life since its inception half a century ago.

Sundown Mountain Resort, located west of Dubuque and Asbury, Iowa, this winter is marking 50 seasons of welcoming families to its slopes.

LoBianco, who now is the resort’s ski school director, first remembers Sundown as a place he went to enjoy one of his favorite activities.

“I’ve been skiing for 60 years of my life, and I’m 71 now,” he said. “I’ve had very, very much fun here. I bought one of the first season passes here in 1973 for $30. Once it got started, and it started real small, it just took off. All of the sudden, it was a unique thing to do in Dubuque. Then, they just expanded and expanded and expanded.”

The family-run resort was opened in 1973 by Gene Gordon, father of Sundown’s current general manager, Mark Gordon. Mark Gordon said his father, who died in 2020, initially decided with several other people that Dubuque needed a ski resort.

“My father was a passionate skier,” Gordon said. “He was also, at the time, an architect, so he was able to create the design and layout for the major facility. He felt that there would be plenty of interest for a resort in Dubuque. At the time, the nearest resort was Chestnut (Mountain Resort near Galena, Ill.), which is a decent drive away. He got it into his mind that if he could find a decent spot, skiers could be right here in Dubuque.”

Gordon said the resort started with one building and a ski lift. Sundown since has grown to offer four lifts and 21 trails, as well as a lodge on the north side of the property.

Gary Schmit — who worked as the resort’s night manager for 44 years and still helps with maintenance and snow making — said the technology to run the resort also has changed over the years.

When Schmit started, six manual snow guns were used to create artificial snow on the slopes. Eventually, the number of guns increased to 16.

Schmit said the resort now uses computerized snow guns to create the perfect winter scene for skiers. Staff also use snowcat vehicles to groom the slopes for skiers. The snowcats can work better in warm or very cold temperatures than older equipment.

“We learned over the years what were the better things to do,” he said. “We can make snow at much higher temperatures, too. That part has developed throughout the industry, not just us. We’re a small, family-owned ski resort. We’re trying to be energy-efficient.”

While Sundown initially didn’t allow snowboarders on the slopes, the sport had become more and more common by the 1980s.

“We slowly got convinced to open up to snowboarders,” Schmit said. “The first few years were kind of rough. The snowboarders would challenge the skiers, and the skiers would challenge the snowboarders, and we got caught in the middle. But it slowly developed into a very welcome transition.”

Resort officials have been building up memberships over the past several years, with efforts such as the weekend and weekday warrior programs that allow skiers to visit the slopes during those days of the week throughout the season.

“In the last five years, we have seen an extremely strong rise in skier count,” Gordon said. “Even before COVID(-19), we were starting to see a rise, but COVID really brought people out to Sundown since it’s an outdoor area. We were able to give people a place to go.

“Sundown is a marvelous place. It’s a real gem for Dubuque. I firmly believe that it’s an awesome spot for kids to get off the couch. They have rosy cheeks, not sore thumbs.”

LoBianco said he has seen a lot of children develop strong skiing skills on the slopes over the years, and often multiple generations of families will come learn how to ski at the resort.

“It’s an independent sport, just a very, very healthy sport,” he said. “And it’s a retirement sport. It’s a family sport, a lifetime sport. A lot of people don’t realize how many retired people are out here skiing.”

Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque, said he learned how to ski 50 years ago at Sundown when the resort first opened. He even met his wife, Dyersville Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Jacque Rahe, at the resort, and their kids all learned to ski there.

“I think the ability for our community and area to have a resource like (Sundown) is amazing,” he said. “I always talk about Dubuque and Dubuque County as a year-round destination, and Sundown is a big part of that. How many regions have the ability to have a place like that in their backyard?”

Gordon said Sundown staff plan to mark their 50th season Jan. 30 with a founders’ party at the original lodge on the south side of the resort. The original lodge, which hadn’t been used in about two decades, underwent a remodel and reopened the first weekend of the year.

Looking ahead, Gordon said resort guests often make suggestions to add events throughout the summer months at Sundown. Officials have started hosting events such as weddings and music concerts in recent years in hopes of growing summer revenue.

Gordon also said resort staff have begun discussing a project to convert the slopes to natural prairie grass, which would be visible during the summer months.

“The program that we’re looking at is planting wild seeds and getting into a rotation to plant that to recreate natural prairie fires to try to not only make our land accessible to people but also make it more like it would have looked like 100 years ago,” he said.