This wild backcountry ski area, six hours from the Twin Cities, is not for beginners — and that's the point
Mount Bohemia's reputation certainly precedes it, which was why I finally found myself there last winter, perched high atop the plateau on the northern tip of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.
As I took in a breathtaking view of Lac La Belle — a frozen inlet off the sprawling south shore of Lake Superior — it immediately became clear why I had needed to experience this wonderland for myself. I strapped into my snowboard and stood agape at the elegant simplicity before me.
In a word: Wow. Raw nature in its untouched splendor, an untamed fluffy wilderness splayed out for exploration and escape.
An ungroomed, no-frills, backcountry ski area, Mount Bohemia boasts not just the highest vertical drop in the Upper Midwest (about 900 feet, topping Minnesota's Lutsen) but also nearly 300 inches of lake-effect snow each winter.
As I leaned forward and down into the steep face of this relatively speaking small mountain, it was clear from my first high-edge turns that I was descending into the same rush I felt when I first began shredding nearly 30 years ago.
But even better. This unkempt playground was different — not like the Rockies or Northeast slopes, but rather the Northwoods of my Midwestern youth: rising and falling dense forest ravines and bluffs; cold echoes of cracking branches and twigs; whoops of joy in the distant frozen air.
It's no place for beginners, but then, that's the point. This Bohemia is Midwest backcountry adventure at its finest — an adventure of your own making.
'The real deal'
It's no easy feat to get there, but at six hours by minivan across the Wisconsin woods, it's an easier carpool than Colorado. That was one of my biggest calculations last winter, when several other St. Paul "powder dads" and I began plotting a realistic 72-hour getaway.
Over more than 20 years as a snowboard instructor, I'd heard repeated stories of this mystical, snow globe Shangri-La of the Upper Peninsula — mostly from fellow instructors. "Mount Bohemia does not disappoint," raved one on social media, after a long weekend there. "Place is pretty awesome. Can't wait to go back!"
"It is a place like nowhere else in the country, with runs like nowhere else in the country," Nick Nerbonne, media relations director for Pure Michigan, assured me. "They deliver a product that is the real deal."
This big cape on Lake Superior has always held an allure.
These 625 acres were dubbed Bohemia shortly after Michigan statehood, by miners exploring for copper and iron in 1845. That panning never panned out, leaving this tip of land mostly undeveloped but for Houghton, pop. 8,386 — home of the original Michigan Mining School (now Michigan Technological University), founded in 1885.
But as ski resorts go, Mount Bohemia is a youngster, opened in 2000 on a gamble and a hunch by Lonie Glieberman, a former Canadian Football League executive from Detroit.
"I had people tell me I was the stupidest person in the entire ski industry," Glieberman told me, after I'd been wowed by Bohemia on my own. "They assured me it would fail."
Those first years were indeed lean. After erecting just two chairlifts, the resort ran on a shoestring for more than a decade, struggling to draw skiers and snowboarders with six yurts providing space for bathrooms, a cafeteria and ski patrol.
But word of mouth began taking off with the advent of social media. Powder Magazine ranked Mount Bohemia No. 1 for powder skiing east of the Rockies in 2013. Glieberman also launched a YouTube channel, Mount Bohemia TV.
The resort, with its playful anti-establishment approach, was here to stay. That's for sure: On Friday, Mount Bohemia was named the No. 1 ski resort of 2023 in the USA Today 10Best Readers' Choice Awards. (Minnesota's Lutsen Mountains came in fourth.)
Mount Bohemia is nothing like a Western ski resort, and you vibe it the moment you arrive. More Carhartt than Gucci, it feels unpretentious and off-the-grid. Two-lane country roads lead to a deep-woods, snow-packed gravel parking lot full of RVs (yes, you can camp overnight), morning tailgating, and skiers of all ages suiting up for the day's adventure.
There's no ticket window — just a 'sup-dude powder hound in a fat leather chair in the corner of the log-cabin bar, with a laptop and lift tickets. While the resort boasts 107 trails, it's still serviced by the same two chairlifts from 2000 (one of which is in the process of a multi-season upgrade). The bulk of Bohemia's trails end on gravel roads, near shuttle stops along the forest's edge. Food — think grilled burgers, pizzas, microwave soups and sandwiches — is available in the spiderweb of yurts next to the bar.
It's like a time capsule, almost more relic than real, a carefree, survive-at-your-own-risk adult playground — like if you built a tow rope and homemade jumps in your backyard and invited 1,000 of your friends.
Not for 'experts only'
From a bird's-eye view, Bohemia splits into eight sections, though once you're in the thick of the backwoods, the areas bleed together so closely it's often difficult to know where one begins or ends.
The front face of the mountain makes for the steepest open runs that flow into long mellow glides back to the base.
The backside is where the true adventure awaits, with a dealer's choice of trails: a bevy of long, topsy-turvy and technical flowing runs, or a wingding buffet of tree runs through places with names like Middle Earth, Outer Limits and Haunted Valley.
These aren't the tree runs you see out West. In Northern California, fat pines litter wide berths over rocky, often steep terrain. In Colorado, tree runs are deep-welled glades so thick and shady and steep that at times you're bound to come out bruised.
Bohemia's tree runs, by contrast, largely consist of cottonwood, birch and maple trees spreading thick across gullies, ravines and rollers. The result, for me, was a feeling of constant dancing and dodging trunks and branches in a fluffy skate park, dipping and table-topping natural features before graduating into ever faster, hairier descents.
"It's not for beginners, but I think it's important to say it's not just for experts only, either," Glieberman assured me. "This isn't a place for 4- and 5-year-olds. But if you're an intermediate, and take it slow, you can have a great adventure, too."
It wasn't easy. When it wasn't technical, it was flat, which led to a few unscheduled, unstrapped slogs through the snow. Still, the uniqueness of the place made for exhilarating shred after shred — capped with shuttle bus rides back to the base with like-minded Bohemians sharing the joys of our exploits before another refill.
And another, before ending the day with singalongs in the Nordic spa pool, waiting for the night to begin.
Why haven't you been there yet?
If you go
Where: Mount Bohemia (mtbohemia.com) is about 400 miles or 6 hours northeast of the Twin Cities, near Houghton, Mich.
Where to stay: Don't expect traditional ski lodges and hotels. The ski area offers around 50 billings — trailside cabins, cedar log cabins or yurts, as well as a hostel. Houghton, 30 minutes south, has plenty of hotel space.
What to do: Mount Bohemia is for intermediate and expert skiers and snowboarders. Nordic skiing and snowshoeing is available nearby. The ski area does not provide rental gear, but does have a small repair and retail shop. Houghton has several ski rental shops.
Troy Melhus is a St. Paul writer and professional snowboard instructor at Vail Ski Resort in Colorado.