Slopes and Trails Abound in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

With all the winter weather we’ve had lately, it’s the perfect time to plan a ski trip in Pure Michigan! Mickey MacWilliams from the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association gives us an overview of some spectacular Upper Peninsula ski slopes to check out this season. 

Powder glade skiing, uncrowded lift lines, ski jumping, scenic trails and terrain parks for every skier ability level, comfortable accommodations, ski jumping and lift ticket rates that are at least half the price of those in the Rockies.  If this sounds too good to be true, then you haven’t skied Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Although the U.P. might not immediately come to mind when thinking about skiing, the area actually has a long and colorful ski history.  At the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century, ski jumping was the primary form of competitive skiing in the country and the Upper Peninsula was a key center, hosting one of the most popular ski jumping tournaments at that time.

Touring the Upper Peninsula’s ski areas is a fun and relatively inexpensive way to take a ski vacation.  For this article, our trip begins in Marquette and heads west from there, stopping at nine ski areas along the way.

Taking a leap at Marquette Mountain

Home to Northern Michigan University, Marquette is a picturesque town along the shore of Lake Superior.  Marquette Mountain is just a few miles out of town and although the ski area doesn’t have on-site lodging, they partner with local hotels to provide packages for as little as $55 per night.  Marquette Mountain is a large Midwest ski area, with 169 skiable acres, 25 runs, a 600 foot vertical drop and trails up to 1 ¼ mile in length. The day lodge is comfortable and there are slopes for all ability levels. Marquette Mountain’s website has a “Special Rates” page that lists discounts that change as the season progresses.

Heading west from Marquette on US 41, a stop at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame is definitely worthwhile.  Located in Ishpeming, about 10 miles west of Marquette, the Hall of Fame is home to the world’s largest skiing museum.

The view from Mont Ripley, overlooking the cities of Houghton and Hancock

Next stop is Mont Ripley in Houghton.  The ski area picturesquely sits on the Portage Lake Canal, which separates the cities of Houghton and Hancock.  From the top of Mont Ripley, the view of the canal and the cities below is breathtaking.  A popular destination for Michigan Tech students, Mont Ripley features 25 runs of all ability levels.  NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center keeps track of annual snowfall and listed Hancock Michigan as the third snowiest city in the United States (behind Crested Butte, Colorado and Valdez, Alaska) with an annual average of 215.8 inches of snow. Like Marquette Mountain, there is no on-site lodging at Mont Ripley, but accommodations are available in Houghton and Hancock.

Heading north from the Houghton/Hancock area on US 41 takes one up the Keweenaw Peninsula, where the snow doesn’t ever seem to stop and the mountains get higher with each mile traveled.  Close to the tip of the peninsula is Mount Bohemia, an expert-only ski area.  MSN.com has called Mount Bohemia “one of the top ten undiscovered ski resorts in the world” for a reason.  The lift lines are short; there are over 500 acres of skiable terrain, a 900-foot vertical drop and powder skiing most of the winter. This hidden secret is a true treasure for backcountry skiers and riders. The average snowfall in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is 273 inches. The lake effect snow is dry, similar to the conditions in the Rockies, and accumulates as powder which is untouched because Mount Bohemia’s slopes are never groomed.  Mount Bohemia offers on-site accommodations that include hostel beds for $25 per night, heated yurts that can sleep up to 10, trailside cabins and The Inn on Lac Labelle that includes breakfast and dinner.

The Yurts at the base of Mount Bohemia provide cozy shelter for the night.

Once you’ve had your fill of the steep and the deep, the western side of the U.P. offers a variety of recreational options that fit all ability levels and price ranges.  Taking in the beauty of the Upper Peninsula on snowshoes or cross-country skis is a must and Porcupine Mountains State Park near Ontonagon offers thousands of acres of snow-covered backcountry wilderness to explore. Four main and several smaller cross-country ski trails combine to form a 42 KM Nordic Trail System through the unspoiled beauty of the state park. The trails feature two warming shelters and are power-tilled and groomed daily. As a bonus, a trail pass includes use of the downhill ski chairlifts, giving skiers quick access to the heart of the Nordic Trail system, as well as the entire Alpine Ski area.

After a day of state-park beauty, it’s time to enjoy some comfortable accommodations in preparation for skiing in Big Snow Country.  The western border of the U.P. is called that for a reason.  The town of Bessemer, which is in the heart of this area, registers in at 210 inches of snow annually.

Lodging options abound at Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort in Bessemer.  Its location provides easy access not only to Big Powderhorn, but also to Black Jack Ski Area, Indianhead Mountain and Mt. Zion.  Sporting a new lodge built two years ago, Big Powderhorn provides accommodations from, modest to luxury, in chalets and condominiums at the base of the slopes.  Big Powderhorn Mountain offers 33 downhill trails with a 622 vertical drop.  There are 9 double chairlifts and a beginner hand tow to get you around the 253 acres of skiable terrain.  There is something here for every ski ability level, with 35% novice runs, 35% considered more difficult, and 30% expert.

A couple of miles away is Black Jack Resort with its family-friendly atmosphere.  Black Jack has 24 slopes on 126 skiable acres serviced by four double chairs, a rope tow and a handle tow.  Looking to make skiing affordable to families, kids 12 and under ski free with a paid adult lift ticket, plus discounts for military personnel and college students, and ski slopes and terrain parks for every level make Black Jack a fun and affordable place for all.

Mt. Zion, operated by Gogebic Community College, provides affordable winter recreation for everyone.  With 10 slopes and free cross-country ski trails, a snow tubing park, a 300’ vertical drop, free skiing for Gogebic Community College students and senior citizens 62 and over, the slopes are a popular place for the local community. Adult full-day lift tickets are priced at just $20, making Mt. Zion one of the least expensive areas to ski at in the state.

Also located in Big Snow Country is Indianhead Mountain.  Voted Visitor’s Choice Favorite Family Friendly in 2011 and Best Terrain in 2012 by OnTheSnow.com, Indianhead has been a favorite of many families for generations.  With a 638 vertical food drip and 30 runs over 230 acres serviced by 9 lifts and tows, there is plenty to explore.  Fifty percent of Indianhead’s runs are considered expert terrain, but there are also 10 intermediate runs and five for beginners.  Indianhead also has two terrain parks so there really is something for everyone.  Indianhead’s comfortable lodge is at the top of the mountain, and lodging is available in Mountain Top Hotel Rooms, Mountain Top Village Chalets and Trailside Condos.  Dining options range from cafeteria cuisine to The Lodge, which is considered one of the region’s quality restaurants.

Leaving Big Snow Country and heading south along the Michigan/Wisconsin border, brings one to Ski Brule in Iron River.  Ski Brule prides itself as being the first ski area in Michigan to open for the season and the last to close.  A favorite of many, for the sixth consecutive year Ski Brule was voted the Midwest’s Overall Favorite Ski & Snowboard Resort at OnTheSnow.com.  With 17 trails, 11 lifts (five chairlifts, two T-bars, three rope tows, one paddle tow), 150 acres of terrain, 500 vertical feet, three terrain parks, two terrain trails and cross-country ski trails that wind around the slopes and down to the Brule River, the whole family can easily find recreational options to suit their needs.   Affordable on-site lodging in chalets and condominiums is available and since Ski Brule is usually open for skiing six months out of the year, a return trip in April – or maybe even May – is always a possibility.

The final destination on our U.P. ski loop is Pine Mountain, which features 27 runs, serviced by three lifts and two surface tows.  Night skiing is available Wednesday through Saturday.   Pine Mountain offers three terrain parks including beginner, intermediate and advanced parks for all levels of skiers and riders to enjoy.  All terrain parks are accessible from the triple lift and all are hittable in one run. In addition to the downhill skiing options, Pine Mountain also has a ski jump! Every year The Kiwanis Ski Club hosts one of the most popular jumping tournament in the United States. Top jumpers from around the world make their way to Pine Mountain to partake in this historic annual event. With an attendance of over 20,000 spectators and tailgaters flocking to the resort for the competition, Jump Weekend is truly a unique experience.  This year Jump Weekend is scheduled for February 6 – 9. Pine Mountain offers a variety of room accommodations in their lodge at the base of the slopes, as well as slope-side condominium units to suit both short-term and long-term stays.

To experience all that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has to offer, a weeklong trip is recommended.  However, if you don’t have time to do it all, that’s okay.  Fun can be had whenever you visit.  For more information on Michigan ski areas, go to goskimichigan.com and click on the Ski Areas & Conditions button.

Have you been skiing in the Upper Peninsula? Where did you go? 

Mickey MacWilliams is the executive director of the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association, which represents the ski and snowboard industry in our state.  She is an avid downhill and cross-country skier and a very timid but enthusiastic snowboarder.  You can reach her at info@goskimichigan.com.

  • Rosalie Dean

    As a person that was born & raised in Northern Michigan (Kingsford) I attended many ski tournaments at Pine Mountain . At no time did I ever think of how cold it was or how much snow we had to walk through. We all enjoyed the day there. I no longer live there but just this past summer I vacationed in Upper & Lower Michigan and loved every day. Plan on a winter vacation next year. I loved your article and get Pure Michigan updates all the time. Thanks again..

  • http://same bernie

    yes the up is pure and wonderful.I was stationed at K.I Sawyer AFB in mid sixties.The winters on the flightline were challenging while we worked on B-52s and KC 135 aircraft.
    I took short motoring trip in Sept in U.p with my son.He was amazed at the beauty and the untouched terrain.