Grayling: Capital City for Winter Sports

Riding the biggest toboggan in the world was a thrill.
Grayling Winter Recreation Map
Photography Courtesy of Vintage Views

Winter sports in the northern Lower Peninsula were promoted in the 1920s to help communities profitably bridge the gap between the deer hunting and trout fishing seasons. Grayling was a pioneer in the development of winter sports as a big attraction.

In the late 1920s, the Grayling Chamber of Commerce formed Grayling Winter Sports Inc. It picked a state-owned site on the ridge between Grayling and Lake Margrethe in the Hansen State Military Reserve, where it operated as a nonprofit with a lease from the Michigan Department of Conservation.

One of its first developments was a toboggan run. Skiing and snowshoeing trails were developed on old logging roads. A 66-foot ski jump was built in 1934 and other improvements included a bobsled trail, large ice-skating rink, a warming house and refreshment facilities. The Department of Conservation, later renamed the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, provided toboggans, skis and snowshoes for use by visitors.

Fine Slope Skier
Photograph Courtesy of Vintage Views

The ski jumps and toboggan slides were built on “Johnson’s Hill,” which rises 135 feet above the surrounding landscape. The most popular attraction was the toboggan run, and by 1937, the park had six runs and 70 toboggans for visitors. At peak times, a toboggan was sent down every 11 seconds; they reached 70 to 90 miles per hour. The crowds were large and long lines formed.

Grayling also boasted the biggest toboggan in the world. It was 16 feet long and named “Suicide Sal.” It carried 20 people and hit speeds over 100 miles per hour.

Thousands of winter sports fans poured into Grayling most winter weekends during the 1930s and early 1940s. Some came by auto, but many arrived on the “snow trains” from Detroit, Bay City and Lansing. The annual Grayling Winter Carnival, famous for its elaborate ice sculptures and crowning of the Michigan Snow Queen, drew huge crowds. Peak attendance at the park was 30,750 people in 1939-40.

Thousands of winter sports fans poured into Grayling most winter weekends during the 1930s and early 1940s.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), assisted by the National Park Service, spurred the park’s growth. By 1941, the park featured a three-course, 3,100-foot steel-sided toboggan slide over ice, the only one in the world at the time. The toboggans returned to the top by conveyor belt, while riders walked back up the hill.

The park had many other attractions: several fine ski slopes, three with rope tows. Skiing lessons were available for a fee. A coasting slide was built for the youngsters. Twenty-five miles of ski and snowshoe trails wound in and out of the park that also boasted Michigan’s two largest outdoor ice rinks, with night lighting and music provided for skaters.

But gas rationing and lack of transportation to the Grayling Winter Sports Park forced its closure during World War II, and the nonprofit Grayling Winter Sports Inc. was dissolved. The park reopened in the winter of 1945-46 and was operated by the Department of Conservation until 1957 when a local nonprofit group took over. By then, it had grown to encompass 600 acres. While the toboggan slides still were a big attraction, downhill skiing was gaining popularity in the 1950s, and 12 ski runs with eight tows and a ski patrol were added.

Grayling Winter Sports State Park
Photograph Courtesy of Vintage Views

Facing competition from the growing number of ski resorts in the region, the Grayling Winter Sports Park operated until the late 1960s. Then its name was changed to Bear Mountain, after Fred Bear, an archery hall-of-famer, with plans to expand into a major, commercial ski resort.

Bear Mountain faced a legal challenge in 1973 over the use of state-owned land for commercial purposes; that led to its closure. The site has since operated as Hansen Hills Recreation Area by the Grayling Recreation Authority. Winter sports still are featured, including downhill and cross-country skiing, tubing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and fat-tire biking.

BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the new book “Vintage Views Along Scenic M-22 including Sleeping Bear Dunes.”

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