Ready for the Rush
From the state’s most rugged Alpine slopes to its most serene Nordic trails, a run’s length or height isn’t why we ski in Michigan.
// By Bill Semion
Add up the vertical drops of Michigan’s 41 downhill ski areas, and you may find they could all be squeezed on possibly one or two runs at some renowned western U.S. destination.
But, as we Michigan skiers know, how tall or long a run is isn’t why we ski.
Whether you’re jumping the rocks of the state’s most extreme slopes at Mount Bohemia in the Keweenaw Peninsula, watching your kids take their first snowboard turn on the teaching hills of southwest and southeast Michigan, or enjoying the solitude of a cross-country trail in the state’s northeast Mason Tract near Roscommon, skiing is about simply being here.
It’s feeling the rush of cold air in your nostrils. It’s watching the wind twirl the last remaining poplar leaves clinging to branches. It’s standing at the top of a slope as an approaching squall dusts neighboring hills. And, it’s watching your children grow from their first tentative runs to suddenly realizing they’re out-skiing you.
That’s what Michigan skiing is all about.
Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s ski areas are located here, which is also where the sport’s earliest U.S. history can be traced. America’s oldest ski club, founded in 1888, calls Ishpeming home. So does the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame and Museum.
In 1947, Detroit native Everett Kircher headed north, found a hill near Boyne Falls he liked, and in building Boyne Mountain, built a ski empire now stretching coast to coast, while also installing the world’s first triple chairlift at a ski area, then the first four-seat lift, then the first six-seater.
And as more resorts even in the West rely on snowmaking in the face of climate change, they can credit Kircher and another snowmaking pioneer, Jim Dilworth of Nubs Nob near Harbor Springs, with influencing the process worldwide, including for the Winter Olympics.
But skiing here is also about making memories. Everyone who’s ever skied Boyne remembers the terror at their first halting run down Hemlock, the first run cut at the resort in 1948, and one of the steepest in the Midwest. That run has probably prepared more people than any other for mountain skiing out West.
Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa near Thompsonville, founded by fellow ski pioneer George Petritz, has built itself into one of the Midwest’s premier winter family destinations. (If you’ve never stood at the top of Buck run under the stars and been dazzled by what might be the state’s best night-skiing view, you owe yourself a trip there to do just that.)
In the 1980s, the owners of Shanty Creek Resort in Bellaire saw a chance to offer their guests a new experience and bought nearby Schuss Mountain, now linked via convenient free bus service to sister property, which also became Summit Mountain (shantycreek.com). Between the two and its Cedar River development, the resort now pairs its claim of most downhill runs (53) with five terrain parks, groomed Nordic trails and tubing hills.
And — just as The Homestead Resort’s Great Lake-facing slopes in Michigan’s acclaimed Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have made it a renowned place to make memories (homesteadresort.com) — Treetops Resort is being transformed by new management into another popular spot for skiing families, offering 23 downhill runs, snowblading, cross-country skiing and snowboarding (treetops.com).
In the western Upper Peninsula, get ready to experience the closest thing Michigan has to skiing the West, without the $90 lift ticket prices. Near Ironwood, the neighboring towns of Bessemer and Wakefield sport the U.P. Big Three of Big Snow Country: Indianhead Mountain; a recently reopened Blackjack, and Big Powderhorn, which opened its new lodge last season, replacing its original that burned in 2011. They provide all the fun and memories of being in the mountains, minus cost and the hassle of equipment-laden air travel.
I remember watching from a chairlift as my two children took to the ski school slopes at Indianhead Mountain: Sonja — the youngest, now an accomplished skier working in Denver — was headed straight for a tree. We could only watch what would surely be a crash. What happened? Steered around it, of course, adding to both her confidence and ours in her.
Want to take a different, and flatter, ski track? Talk to Bob Frye of Roscommon’s Cross-Country Ski Headquarters, who will put you on a pair of demo cross-country skis and steer you into his own trail network, or to surely what will be one of your ski life’s peak experiences: a cross-country trek along the 11-mile-long Mason Wilderness Tract, meandering beside the famed Au Sable River’s South Branch. After a snowfall, it’s as if you’ve just entered Narnia through the wardrobe. Balsams hang low with snow, and every so often, a breeze kicks loose tufts of it to fall in a shower of diamonds in the sun. Head to the riverside, where you might see deer or bald eagle grace the view. It’s a magical experience that only cross-country skiing provides.
And there’s more cross-country magic like it in the U.P. on trails like Valley Spur near Munising, or Active Backwoods Retreat near those Big Snow Country downhill resorts.
So if you’ve not been on your slats lately, it’s time to come back. Heck, the new skis are even easier to use for those of us whose knees don’t respond as nimbly as we remember. But if you’re an every season skier like me, you know that already, and you’re already waiting.
Waiting for those first flakes to fall.
Because this time of year, that’s what we do.
Freelance writer and author Bill Semion resides near Roscommon.
Warming up to Winter
After a day of sweeping down an array of white-capped terrain, slip into a plush robe and settle down to unwind in Michigan’s scenic resort destinations.
// By Tai Alexander & Lisa M. Jensen
Tucked into the wooded hillside just east of Harbor Springs, Boyne Highlands (boyne.com) tallies the most skiable acres in Michigan on its 55 downhill runs — including one of the Lower Peninsula’s longest. The property also features a snowboard terrain park, miles of cross-country ski trails, zip-lining, horseback riding, dog-sledding, and — earlier in 2011 — the Highlands opened The Spa.
Try it: This boutique facility’s signature treatment, a Bamboo Massage, employs heated bamboo rods to work deep into nooks and crannies of muscles while providing even pressure to relieve tension and rejuvenating warmth.
Or, kick back for The Highlands Foot Ritual. From knees to toes, legs and feet are gently massaged before being wrapped with hot herbal-infused towels, soothed in a volcanic clay mask and cooled with a restorative arnica cream.
Boyne Mountain Resort (boyne.com) in Boyne Falls has been welcoming visitors since 1947. The acclaimed destination — which offers 59 downhill runs, 12 lifts and ski in/ski-out mountainside cabins — opened its family-friendly Mountain Grand Lodge & Avalanche Bay Waterpark in 2005. Inside, Solace Spa delivers its own rejuvenating splashes.
Treat yourself: The Hot Toddy for the Body features a vanilla- and cinnamon-scented scrub, renewing chai soy mud mask and soothing scalp massage. The final touch: a hydrating vanilla bean lotion. But if your ski limbs are craving something more, treat them to a Hot Stone Treatment. At Solace Spa, basalt and fossil stones found only in northern Michigan are heated and strategically placed with aromatic oils to penetrate tight, sore muscles.
Offering a menu of 45 slopes — 27 of which shine bright for night skiing — Crystal Mountain Resort (crystalmountain.com) in Thompsonville also boasts northern Michigan’s fastest lift, the Crystal Clipper, powered by renewable wind energy. The 18,500-square foot Crystal Spa also powers its own energy as Michigan’s “Green” Spa Destination, one of only six LEED-certified facilities nationwide.
Scandinavian inspiration: Crystal Spa’s Signature Evergreen Renewal piques the senses with natural elements like citrus and sea salt and taps into the healing powers of water. After a gentle exfoliation, skin is soothed by a seaweed wrap infused with Icelandic moss extracts and refreshed by a gentle rain shower. Last but not least, savor a fragrant evergreen massage from head-to-toe.
Just beyond downtown Traverse City in Acme, Grand Traverse Resort and Spa (grandtraverseresort.com) invites cross-country skiing within its own scenic 900 acres, while two community-based, downhill ski areas — Mt. Holiday and Hickory Hills — can be reached in less than a half-hour. Even closer is Pere Marquette State Forest’s multi-loop VASA Pathway.
After a day in the great outdoors, transition to nature-inspired Spa Grand Traverse, the resort’s two-level, 7,000-square-foot sanctuary.
Want to really recharge for the slopes? Succumb to natural elements at resort spa destinations.
Regional bliss: A fresh mix of local cherry concentrate and sugar, the Cherry Honey Glow exfoliates and polishes skin. After a rhythmic Vichy shower rinse, hydrating cherry lotion is up next to soften and renew skin’s appearance. Need more pampering? Enjoy a Cherry-Infused Manicure or Massage, or, opt for the seasonal Winter Body Polish.
Nestled high in the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, The Homestead Resort (thehomestead.com) arguably delivers the “most beautiful” mountain-top views. With 15 runs, three chair lifts and a terrain park, this serene resort enhances its scenery with ample recreational outlets.
Emerge renewed: Overlooking the Manitou Islands, more intimately-sized Spa Amira can enhance your well-being with a transformative De-Stress Aromatherapy Cocoon. Applied warm, pure essential oils soothe senses and release stress before your entire body is enveloped in a warm wrap, and hands and feet are lavished in paraffin. Want to really recharge for the slopes? Inhale earthy notes of Arabica coffee and other scents of revival during an Espresso Mud Body Scrub.
Situated along Little Traverse Bay between Petoskey and Charlevoix, the Inn at Bay Harbor (innatbayharbor.com) is a close neighbor to three major ski nirvanas (Boyne Highlands, Boyne Mountain and Nub’s Nub). After a blustery day on these slopes, slip over for a Sporting Foot Treatment, an enhanced pedicure for fatigued feet. Trimming, polishing and a warm-mud mask leave toes relieved and ready for more action on the slopes.
Or, from toes to head, opt for the spa’s Awakening Treatment featuring your choice of Swedish Massage or Couture Facial (a skin-nourishing escape combining natural botanicals, vitamins, antioxidants and plant-derived proteins with lauded lifting affects), plus a reviving manicure and pedicure.
The 45,000-acre Shanty Creek Resort (shantycreek.com) in Bellaire is home to Schuss Mountain and Shanty Creek, collectively offering 53 downhill ski runs, five terrain parks, and a 300-foot half-pipe. On average, some 175 inches of snow fall here each winter, making the 450-foot vertical drop especially memorable.
More than a handful of northern-inspired treatments evoke memories inside at Shanty’s Spa, as well — including the Skier’s Massage, which targets major muscle groups used tearing up the slopes with a deep-tissue treatment, trigger point therapy and passive stretching intended to improve flexibility and endurance.
Or, succumb to the elements with a Northern Exposure session. Beginning with the signature Micro Buff Body Polish — an exfoliating, hydrating hot towel treatment, followed by a warm, hydrating lavender-infused white clay wrap and finished with a Swedish massage utilizing warm body butter.
Last but not least, nearly two dozen ski slopes and three chair lifts can be found at Treetops Resort (treetops) in Gaylord, where abundant snowfall and high elevation combine for unparalleled scenic beauty that extends out for miles in all directions.
Step off the chair lift and head for straight for the massage chair for 15 minutes of respite. Releasing tension in the upper back, neck and shoulders, this quick session will have you back hitting the runs in no time.
The Tension Reliving Massage is more targeted, using Swedish techniques to calm nerves and relieve tension. A series of long, slow, rhythmic strokes allow for a more intense experience for up to 90 minutes.
For more information on Michigan skiing and spas, log onto Michigan.org.
Tai Alexander is a West Michigan-based freelance writer. Lisa M. Jensen is editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.