Lake effect (n.) The delirium cross-country skiers experience when they behold the abundant snow of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
If Minnesota hands us another brown winter this year, cross-country skiers need to be ready with Plan B and it should include Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Because the region benefits from Lake Superior and prevailing winds to receive a whopping 203 inches of snow each year, a meteorological phenomenon known as the “Lake Effect.” As northwest winds sweep across Superior’s open waters, they pick up moisture and dump it on the U.P. as snow.
You don’t have to drive far for great snow.
Let’s begin in Ironwood, 226 miles from Minneapolis (compare with Grand Marais at 264 miles). Every skier training for the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis., knows that ABR Trails outside of town has reliable snow throughout the winter and often opens before Thanksgiving. (At this writing, snow showers were in the forecast Friday in Ironwood.) Impeccably groomed with a mix of hills and flat, ABR has one of the best trail systems in the Upper Midwest. But the skiers in our family are divided in their allegiance. Some swear by the nearby Wolverine Ski Club trails. Beautifully laid out and maintained by the ski club, Wolverine has the added benefit of allowing well-behaved dogs on the trails. Our Sheltie is in heaven as she races down hills with us. There’s also a small warming hut with tables for a brown bag lunch.
Into the Porcupines
On Lake Superior’s South Shore, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park offers 26 miles of cross-country trails and a modest alpine operation. The trails wind through hemlock bogs and pinewoods. Pack a lunch, eat in the chalet and watch the slopes. For a small fee, Nordic skiers can buy a one-way pass via chairlift to the top of a run and either take trails back down or try running the alpine hill with those flexible cross-country bindings!
Heading up the Keweenaw Peninsula, (average snowfall 220 inches), check out the Michigan Tech trail system at Houghton. Trails are varied — some for skate-skiing, some for classic, some are lit for night skiing, some intimate through birch woods, all perfectly groomed. The system is now rated one of the best in the country.
Farther north, just outside Calumet, ski the trails maintained by the Swedetown Trails Club. The trails are extensive, but more open with younger forest than at Houghton. There is a warming hut for lunch.
On to Marquette
Now, east to Marquette, the U.P.’s unofficial capital (pop. 20,000), where the Blueberry Ridge Trail system, maintained by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, has 12 miles of groomed trails with seven loops of varying difficulty. There is a mix of skate and classic trails, and 1.7 miles of lit trails for night skis. Marquette’s student population is a lively presence in town and makes Marquette a good base for a four-day ski weekend.
Four miles south of Munising, do not miss the Valley Spur Ski Trails maintained by the National Forest Service. They knocked our socks off a few years ago when we skied them for the first time. Surrounded by incredibly scenic conifer woods, with boughs heavily laden with snow, the trails are perfectly groomed and well-laid out with big hills that challenge but do not terrify. These trails are a 50-minute drive from Marquette, so they are worth checking out if you’re staying there.
Night skiing and more
On the eastern end of the U.P., outside the perfectly named town of Paradise, Tahquamenon Falls State Park offers groomed trails, two scenic waterfalls (fourth-highest in Michigan), a loop lit with lanterns for night skiing, and a pub with a microbrewery — yes, you read that right — inside the state park, just off the trails. It’s excellent for lunch or supper. In town, tiny Paradise grooms the Paradise Pathway Ski Trails.
Paradise is situated just south of Whitefish Point, notoriously treacherous for Great Lakes freighters, including the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in Whitefish Bay. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum near the lighthouse on the point is not open in winter, sadly, but check out the lighthouse and Lake Superior from this location, even if the wind off the lake is eye-watering.
Lastly, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, just across the St. Mary’s River from Michigan, is the home to the superlative Stokely Creek Lodge. Stokely Creek is in a different category than the above trails. Its website claims it is “a special world unto its own.” The trails are so extensive that on a four-day stay, my husband and I skied only a third of them. They are impeccably groomed, sometimes twice a day if it’s snowing, and scenic beyond description, bordering creeks, crossing lakes and climbing hills studded with pines and white birch. No cars are permitted in the compound. Someone on staff picks up newcomers in a parking lot below the resort. Consequently, no trails cross roads, and all trails are pristine.
Cabin/lodge room rental is strictly on the American plan: three meals a day. This makes the resort more costly than we were used to on a ski vacation. However, we soon found out that the meals were amazing.
After the first day, I realized how I appreciated having someone prepare my dinner after I’d logged 10 miles on the ski trail. The evening meal is preceded by a happy hour (BYOB) in front of a roaring fire in the lodge, chatting with other skiers. Friends had told us for years that Stokely Creek was their favorite place to ski.
We now agree.
Author Sue Leaf lives in Center City, Minn.