An Upper Peninsula winter storm was brewing. As snowmobilers loaded up their trailers to safely journey home across the Mackinac Bridge, other long-distance riders settled in for an annual snowmobile trip on the Crazy 8 trail system from Grand Marais, through the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore parkland, and on to Munising.
Blizzard, schmizzard. We were there to ride and brave the elements, as previous trips had dished out sub-zero weather and 2-inches-per-hour snowfall.
Lake Superior upped the ante this time as we headed back from Wolf Inn and Pine Stump Junction, a vital gas stop where several trail systems connect in Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula. The wind howled. The dark sky unleashed February’s fury. Snow pelted my helmet. The visibility? Zero.
Blowing and drifting snow quickly swallowed the wide and well-groomed Trail 8. It was all I could do to follow the taillight in front of me as we traveled the 40 miles back to safety. Once we arrived, Grand Marais lost power for the night.
The weather can whip up a whiteout without warning along the shores of Lake Superior. And yet, on a calm winter day, the scenery in and around the Pictured Rocks shows off the best the season has to offer. Blue skies and sunshine. Crisp air and glistening snow. Icebergs jutting from the Great Lake’s shore. Knee-deep powder. Snow-capped pine trees as far as the eye can see, and sky-blue pink over the north woods as the sun sets.
Once the snow flies, the Upper Peninsula transforms into a snowmobilers’ playground that attracts sledders from across the globe. Michigan’s nearly 6,500 miles of designated snowmobile trails take sledders to unique destinations accessible only in winter.
The collection of groomed U.P. trails stretches from Gogebic County (the westernmost county in the U.P.) and the Keweenaw Peninsula (the northernmost region) to Sault Ste. Marie (Canada’s neighbor) and Drummond Island (the easternmost end). The trail network crosses the Mackinac Bridge (by vehicles and trailers) and connects communities throughout northern lower Michigan to the state’s southern border. How good is that network? One year, I met a solo rider in Grand Marais Tavern who had left from Wisconsin and was making his way across the U.P. and back. Not a bad winter excursion!
Michigan can’t claim the most miles of trails, but it has one of the most extensive interconnected trail systems in the nation. The Upper Peninsula ranks among the country’s top 10 snowmobile destinations.
“We have some pretty high standards that we hold our trail systems to,” says Ron Yesney, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Upper Peninsula trails coordinator. “There are lots of miles in other places, but those places are a lot more developed. There’s a lot more stopping and going and ditch riding (in those locations).”
Michigan’s snow-capped landscape glistens in winter, and sledders can choose trails that head into national forests or out to the Great Lakes. Memorable highlights near water include Lake of the Clouds, High Rock Bay, Brockway Mountain, Kitch-iti-Kipi, Montreal Gorge, and Drummond Island. Other amazing snowmobile adventures await at Tahquamenon Falls, across the Mackinac Ice Bridge from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island, and around the Mighty Mac bridge to see the blue ice formations.
Many trailheads start or connect in coastal communities such as St. Ignace, Sault Ste. Marie, Paradise, Grand Marais, Munising, Marquette, Big Bay, Ontonagon, Eagle River, and Copper Harbor, where snowmobilers support the local economy by staying overnight or buying food and gas.
Fifty percent of the state’s trails are on private land and only open to snowmobilers. Land leases allow the Michigan DNR and local clubs to connect trail systems.
“I think the most intriguing and interesting part of it, for me, is you can travel from community to community and you can go for miles and miles and miles without a stop sign, without any traffic,” Yesney says. “A lot of these trails are in some real remote scenic areas that aren’t accessible at any other time of the year.”
The DNR helps administer grant funding for trails, some land lease agreements, and the trail permit program. But Yesney credits the program’s success to partnerships with the Michigan Snowmobile & ORV Association, local clubs, volunteers, and landowners.
“There are so many partnerships and snowmobile clubs that do the day-to-day maintenance and management of these trails and work with the property owners to have these trails in place,” Yesney says. “On top of that, it’s a self-funded program.”
Annual trail permits and snowmobile registration fees fund the trail system, and those dollars are directly reinvested into the trails. Nearly 70 snowmobile clubs across the state work with local landowners, brush trails and install signs, and groom throughout the season. The DNR program reimburses for trail-brushing and signing, plus a certain amount per groomed mile, to offset the costs of maintenance and fuel.
Beyond the dedicated trail volunteers, the success of Michigan as a snowmobile destination hinges on the local communities that welcome those who travel by snowmobile. It takes a network of restaurants, gas stations, and lodging establishments to stay open and cater to snowmobilers.
If you don’t own a snowmobile but want to try it, snowmobile rentals are available from hotels, powersports retailers, and other businesses across the U.P., or in Lower Peninsula cities such as Harbor Springs, Traverse City, Indian River, and Gaylord.
Many U.P. businesses rely on snowmobilers to help them survive the seasonality of summer tourism. Pine Stump, located at historic Pine Stump Junction north of Newberry, has been a restaurant, gas station, and local attraction for more than 75 years. It added cabins a couple of years ago. Owner Rob Stein says winter is definitely a busy time.
“Snowmobiling is crucial to the economy here,” Stein explains. “If it wasn’t for snowmobilers, a lot of businesses wouldn’t be able to survive up here. It’s critical that we have a good winter.”
Snowmobiling attracts a melting pot of people with diverse backgrounds and incomes. Newer four-stroke snowmobiles run quieter and cleaner, with many averaging 20 miles per gallon. More women and families also are getting into the sport.
“Snowmobiling is my one true passion in life,” says Tara Pomaski, founder of Michigan Sled Chix (MSC), a Facebook group for women riders that spurred clothing and accessories. In 2019, MSC organized a Ride for Cancer on the Crazy 8 trails, raising $6,000 for the nonprofit Michigan Faith in the Fight.
Pomaski started riding 14 years ago and has been hooked ever since. When she first ventured into the sport, it was mostly men, but she didn’t let that stop her. “I’ve never felt so at peace, so excited, so in awe at the beauty of Michigan as when I’m out riding,” she says. “We always travel in groups, and it’s so fun to have mini-vacations all the time with your closest friends.”
Snowmobilers also make the most of winter, loading their sleds on trucks and trailers to attend festivals and races. Various clubs and organizations host organized rides, giving enthusiasts the chance to gather with other snowmobilers, show off their vintage sleds, and celebrate the sport. Take the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum in Naubinway, for example. It displays vintage sleds, and promotes vintage shows and rides throughout the year.
Downstate, the Harbor Springs Snowmobile Club grew out of an annual ride among locals — The Moose Jaw Safari — which led to grooming the Moose Jaw Trail System since 1975. The club maintains more than 100 miles of trails north of town, connecting to Mackinaw City, Indian River, and Gaylord. The Moose Jaw Safari, held annually in January, started in 1965 and was considered to be the nation’s longest-running snowmobile ride until COVID-19 forced its cancellation in 2021.
“Back in the day, they didn’t have trail systems,” says Dean Dryer, club president. “They would ride somewhere out in the woods, spend all day riding to it, and have a cookout. They decided to get a groomer to groom that trail and make it a better ride.”
A FUN MEMORY: After a blizzard in Grand Marais, a group of riders took to the trails and found huge snowdrifts and downed trees blocking many of them. Fellow sledders waved us down to warn us of the impending danger, and it didn’t take long for the Grand Marais Sno-Trails Association to get back out there — with chainsaws — to clean up the Crazy 8s so sledders like me could “braaap on!”
Michigan Snowmobile & ORV Association