Clouds of sparkling snow swirl skyward and the buzz of snowmobiles fills the air as 40 racers chase one another around a one-mile oval of ice. Snowsuit- and balaclava-clad fans shout to be heard over the roar as they excitedly cheer on the drivers, oblivious to the cold thanks to their thermal gear, woolen blankets, and cups of hot chocolate.
A steady falling snow and a breeze off St. Marys River isn’t enough to dissuade fans from watching the I-500 Snowmobile Race, which for more than 50 years has enticed North American racers to put their grit and determination to the test. Which snowmobiler will earn the status as the world’s toughest endurance athlete, after completing 500 laps and 500 miles at speeds exceeding 100 mph over the course of eight hours in the middle of February?
If there were any doubt, the I-500 proves the point: Sault Ste. Marie embraces the winter. But you don’t have to be an athlete of racing caliber to appreciate the quality and quantity of cold-weather activities in Michigan’s oldest city, which is home to some 13,500 residents.
Sault Ste. Marie enjoys more than 120 inches of snow annually, thanks to its location on Lake Superior. The region’s vast network of snowmobile trails has turned this part of the Upper Peninsula into an international sledding nirvana.
More than 6,200 miles of trails criss-cross Michigan’s snowy landscape, making the Great Lakes State among the most popular destinations for snowmobilers in the United States. Two-hundred miles of those trails are located within the Sault Ste. Marie area. Beneath snow-laden evergreens and over frozen trout streams, through picturesque small towns and along the Lake Superior shoreline, snowmobilers zip easily over groomed, well-marked trails designed to make exploring by snowmobile as easy as it is by car. Ride past lighthouses like those at Point Iroquois or Crisp Point, cloaked in ice and standing sentinel over the Soo’s frozen stretch of Lake Superior. Power your way atop snow-covered dunes for jaw-dropping views of Whitefish Bay.
Afterward, you can ride right back into Sault Ste. Marie, where snowmobiles are street legal. A 12-foot-wide snowmobile tunnel ushers riders onto downtown Sault Ste. Marie’s city trails. Hotels and restaurants, convenience stores, and shopping venues all welcome customers on sled. Once you reach the evening’s dining and lodging stops, you’re likely to encounter more snowmobiles in the parking lot than cars.
If Sault Ste. Marie is welcoming to snowmobilers, it’s the Upper Peninsula’s natural areas that make the region inviting to skiers and snowshoers.
In winter, the crowds at Tahquamenon Falls State Park shrink dramatically in size. But as temperatures drop and the snow piles up, the park’s trails are transformed into one of Michigan’s most beautiful snowshoe destinations.
Skimming atop the knee-deep snow, snowshoers walk across a smooth blanket of white, marred only by the intricate tracks of winter birds and mice. Gracefully drooping evergreen limbs, heavy with snow, sparkle in the sunshine. Tahquamenon’s famous waterfalls freeze into root beer-colored icicles, and in February you can explore under the stars, when the trails are lit by lantern light.
Lanterns shine on the Soo’s groomed Algonquin cross-country ski trails after dark, too. Carving up the landscape near the Tanglewood Marsh Golf Course, the Algonquin system, and the Sault Seal Recreation Area, both only 10 minutes from downtown Sault Ste. Marie, the trails morph from summertime running and hiking paths to quiet snowy playgrounds when winter arrives.
An easy drive across the International Bridge and the St. Marys River leads visitors on a wintery day trip in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Like its American counterpart, the Canadian Soo embraces many of the winter sports popular on the American side, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. But the opportunity for a little foreign flare and a strong U.S. dollar can make an Ontario getaway especially appealing.
Just north of town, the Hiawatha Highlands ranks as a perennial favorite for Ontario’s winter sports enthusiasts. More than five miles of mixed terrain — the relatively flat and easy Pinder Trails and the hillier, more challenging Crystal Trail — make it possible to enjoy the beauty of this snowy landscape whether you’re a beginning or an experienced snowshoer.
The Hiawatha Highlands are best known for their 30 miles of finely groomed cross-country ski trails. Thanks to many generations of active Finnish settlers in this region of Ontario, cross-country skiing has long been part of the culture of a Sault Ste. Marie winter, with plenty of trail access, equipment rentals, and lessons for all abilities.
For magical views of Ontario’s Lake Superior shoreline, head west out of Sault Ste. Marie to the rocky coast near Gros Cap or Red Rock. Here, where Lake Superior is channeled into the narrows of the St. Marys River, the frigid surf splashes and freezes into ice, crumbles, and freezes again, creating fantastical formations. On a sunny day, icy furrows, frozen archways, and small ice caves gleam in the sunlight and reflect the sky’s blue hues. Delicate ice filigree adorns the entrances to tiny ice caverns, and the landscape looks bejeweled.
Spending the day in the snowy outdoors is only half the fun of a winter getaway. The other half is warming up at a toasty hotel or restaurant back on the Michigan side.
Since 1927, the Hotel Ojibway has been welcoming visitors to its location on the banks of the St. Marys River. United States presidents, Olympic athletes, and ordinary travelers have headed to this hotel for a cozy stay overlooking the International Bridge and the Soo Locks.
The Ojibway proudly touts its history, displaying vintage black-and-white photos of the Soo area from a century ago in its common areas. Enjoy dinner in the restaurant’s dining room and look out over Soo Locks Park and across the river to Canada.
There are no river views at Sault Ste. Marie’s Kewadin Casino hotel, but with lavish hotel rooms, spacious suites, and three on-site restaurants, you may not mind. Enjoy a meal at DreamCatcher’s Restaurant, which serves up generous omelette breakfasts and custom-made burgers, steaks, and local seafood to fuel guests before and after a day in the outdoors. For a more relaxed meal for two, room service is a fine option.
A U.P. landmark and a Sault Ste. Marie casual favorite, Antlers Restaurant is located just a short distance from the downtown riverfront. Simple, substantial meals of hamburgers, BBQ, wild game, and local fish washed down with a Michigan beer satisfy hungry customers. The restaurant’s real claim to fame is its display of more than 200 taxidermied animals — from fish to moose, otters, and lions — which adorn its walls and ceilings.
If you haven’t had your fill of winter yet, bundle up and head to Bird’s Eye Outfitters gastropub. There, igloo dining offers a memorable meal that feels simultaneously indoors and outdoors. The igloo’s walls keep the winter chill out, and the clear walls and ceiling allow one more opportunity to soak up the beauty of a Sault Ste. Marie winter.
Sault Ste. Marie Convention & Visitors Bureau
By Amy S. Eckert & Photos courtesy of Sault Ste. Marie Convention & Visitors bureau