The mountains of Minnesota are mostly known for the majestic way in which they don't exist. Buck Hill is therefore one of the few skiable slopes in the 32nd state. The Dakota people supposedly named the site because it offered expansive views of deer gathering to drink at nearby Crystal Lake, still visible just across Interstate 35. I approve of the sensible way in which they called it a hill. Other local ski areas often sow confusion by naming themselves after loftier terrain. Yeah, I'm looking at you "Afton Alps" (Alps, my buttocks)...
A thriving, always busy ski area in the snowy months, Buck Hill has set up several warm-weather side hustles, including hiking, biking, and disc golf. Lying (okay, okay..."standing tall") only 15 miles from home for me, it has been on my list to play, but with so many free courses in the area, it took me awhile to get to this $6 pay-to-play-all-day (spoiler: you won't) offering.
Set up to move more than 8000 skiers per hour, you won't have any problems parking at Buck Hill . Summer maintenance and construction workers take up a dozen or so spots, leaving you hundreds to choose from. Right in the center there sits a cluster of EV chargers, which caught my eye for the nifty way they didn't seem to have a card-reader on them. I drove up...plugged in. It was working, and my car told me I'd be topped off in a few hours. Maybe I'd play a few rounds and make a profit...
The course begins in back of Buck '54 Bar and Grill, which is apparently open for business. There was no one there but a kid standing on a bar stool to mount some doo-dad high up on the wall, but he would take my order if I were so inclined. He pointed out back to where the course began.
This was my first experience with pay-to-play, so I had imagined walking up to a counter with three two-dollar bills in hand. Instead, there is QR code by the first tee for self-service, in case there was no kid standing on a barstool to mount a doo-dad high on the wall when you walked through the restaurant. I whipped out the phone and did the transaction, looking up at the hill as it processed. It definitely seemed to have grown since the parking lot. I swear to Matthew Broderick that my phone droned, "How about a nice game of chess?"
Buck Hill only rises about 300 feet above the surrounding terrain, but you get to climb all 300 of them several times over in the course of this 18-holer. I happened to be out on an unseasonably warm (88F/31C) October day. Breaking a sweat doesn't do it justice. In fact, if you are on the back nine and don't happen to be huffing and puffing, there's a decent chance it's because you recently fell over dead.
What transpired in the heat though was an enjoyable round quite unlike any other I've played. The first four holes work you up to the top of the northern most ski slope. This is no Rocky Mountain glade. There are trees on both sides of you on most holes, but very few actual guardians. The challenge lies the gains and losses in elevation. First shot down the hill is #5, but you immediately head back up for #6 through #9. What altitude you lose on #10 is gained right back and then some on #11, putting you up on the spot from which the first peoples probably watched the deer. If the ski resort ever goes under, this would quickly re-green to a pretty expansive view, but the long walk from 11 to 12 looks a bit more like a dirt parking lot, populated by various excavators, tractors, and snow cannons. Somewhere along that stretch, my watch suggested that I should ask my doctor if I was healthy enough for disc activity.
Those downhills though! Wanna flex a Zone 500 ft? It can happen here (#5, #10, #14). Of course on the holes moving uphill you might occasionally get only 125 with the same disc. #16 sends you 400 ft down a half-pipe on a steep angle to a basket standing uncomfortably close to a duckweed covered pond behind. I suppose this is the signature, but there is so much off-season construction currently going on just past the basket that this one loses a bit of its luster.
I had not played disc golf on a ski slope before, so I had expected constant reminders of winters past. Instead, the trappings quickly began to seem tailor-made for disc golf. I mean yeah, I know that's a chairlift, but it seems more like a series of dangling metal guardians--aim an anhyzer FH above the chairs, but below the cables, and let the hill and the updrafts do the rest. From time to time my eye would catch a slight irregularity in the slope, and I would remember pausing there with my kids as I taught them to ski.
So should you play Buck Hill? Sure--I think you'll enjoy it, at least once. You have to disc up on the uphills, but experienced players will see many of these as ace runs. Not me, but I know I'll be back soon to work on those uphill/downhill throws. In my opinion it's not as good of a course as nearby Kenwood Trails, which is free. During the school year though, the latter is off-limits during school hours. Buck Hill offers another option in the area with a much different flavor. And $6 isn't a bank-breaker, but don't kid yourself into thinking you'll make it more worthwhile by playing 36. Such thoughts were beaten out of me by the time I reached the top of #9. True, not every fall day is pushing 90, but by 4 weeks after this round was in the books, they'll likely be pumping out the white stuff during the colder, longer nights, and the course will disappear for more than 6 months.