Red ribbons dangle from slender tree trunks, dancing in the slightest breeze. The ribbons beckon us along the Bear Paw snowshoe trail, which winds through dense pockets of hardwood and pine. Bear Paw is well groomed, so there's no chance of wandering off course. But there are 6 miles of snowshoe trails here at Michigan's Active Backwoods Retreat, or ABR, and sometimes they cross. So these colorful bits of ribbon ensure that you stay on your intended path.
My husband, Ed, and I haven't spoken a word since we got on the trail 10 minutes ago. We're too busy drinking in the scenery. Giant alabaster mounds unroll along the forest floor. Fragrant pine boughs bow before us, crowned with inches of sparkling snow. And every branch on every hardwood is outlined in white, creating an intricate and unending lacy pattern.
"This looks like Santa's wonderland," Ed finally says in a rare show of sentimentality. I nod, wondering what tomorrow will be like, when we'll explore more of this breathtaking property on skis.
ABR is a 25-year-old cross-country ski resort in Ironwood, which sits in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Founded by father-son duo Dave and Eric Anderson, the resort debuted with about 10 miles of ski trails. Today, it boasts about 46 miles — plus the 6 miles of snowshoe paths.
In 2019, ABR was voted the fourth-best cross-country ski resort in North America in USA Today. Why is ABR so beloved?
It could be the beauty. The 1,100-acre resort features scenic tracts of hardwood and pine snugged against the meandering Montreal River.
Or it could be the amenities. ABR rents snowshoes and skis, runs a ski shop and offers waxing. Experienced instructors are often on-site or available for lessons as independent contractors.
A spacious and well-appointed warming cabin provides a welcome spot to rest or snack, as do three warming shacks carefully placed in the woods. You can rent time in a wood-fired sauna, which seats four. And those who love ski-in, ski-out lodging can rent one of five rustic cabins scattered among the trails, or a sumptuous three-bedroom, three-bath house.
But it's actually neither the beauty nor the amenities that draw thousands of visitors to ABR annually from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and beyond, says Eric Anderson, who runs the resort with his wife, Angela Santini. It's the meticulous grooming.
While most ski resorts groom their trails once or twice a week, ABR grooms every morning. The result is an exceptional skiing experience — every single time. "We're so remote here, we have to provide skiers with something that other places don't," Anderson says.
It also helps that Ironwood receives 200 to 300 inches of snow annually. This means ABR can open in November, well before many other regional resorts. And it stays open until mid-March, only closing then because guests from warmer climes have turned to golf and gardening.
Hitting the Wall
The next morning, Ed and I head out on some of the easiest trails. The River Trail leads us past the Montreal River, burbling in a few places, but mostly covered in a fat blanket of white. Despite a full parking lot, we don't spot another skier.
That's part of the plan, we later learn. ABR uses natural landscape features to hide its trails from one another, lending guests a feeling of spaciousness and privacy.
After an hour of seclusion, we stumble upon another skier studying a large map at a five-trail intersection. Admittedly bad with directions, she can't figure out how to reach her cabin. I help her map a route, and she snaps our photo near a giant snowman that appears to be welcoming skiers to an adjacent warming shack.
In the afternoon, we ponder trying the Tamarack and Otter Slide trails. They're marked "More Difficult," which makes us nervous. Anderson says ABR rates its trails conservatively, and those are actually pretty easy. Tracing his finger along a map, he points out two spots that might give us trouble. One, on Otter Slide, is called "The Wall" due to its steep pitch.
"If you're not sure about it, just take off your skis and walk it," he says. "A lot of people do that."
We find the trails easy, as Anderson predicted. The Wall is definitely steep, but we power our way to the top. I then carefully sidestep down its back side, while Ed attempts to ski it — and tumbles over with a curse.
But the experience doesn't sour him. Later that night, snug in our lodging, he blurts out that we need to spend several weeks here every winter. I like that plan.
And with that, ABR just scored two more fans.
Where to eat
The Iron Nugget in Hurley, Wis., has quality craft brews on tap, plus is known for homemade pasta and pizzas. Also popular is Brewster's Northwoods Bar in Ironwood, aka the Chainsaw Bar due to its unusual Up North decor. Try the Friday fish fry or the giant stuffed baked potatoes. For top suds, head to Cold Iron Brewing in Ironwood. Bring your own food or order from Brewster's or a Chinese restaurant. Kids and dogs are welcome.
Ironwood is four hours northeast of the Twin Cities. Active Backwoods Retreat (ABR) is 3 miles to the south (1-906-932-3502, abrski.com).
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a travel and adventure writer. She lives near Madison, Wis.