Skiing, snowboarding and beyond! Ski resorts continue to ramp up the off-slope amenities to satisfy the whole clan. Here’s a look at some sweet possibilities. The 2015 Northern Michigan Ski Guide was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
To say my family loves to ski is an understatement. Winter trumps as the favorite season in a 4-to-1 vote. Slalom courses are set up in our backyard. The lift operators, kitchen crew, front desk folks—basically everyone at our home hill, Nub’s Nob—can tell me at any given time where my kids are and what they ate (or didn’t eat) for lunch. We named our dog Picabo, after a ski racer. We’re the family other people call when they want to know about conditions, or equipment, or the best way to teach their toddler to love the slopes.
Here’s a secret: I am the anomaly in our family, the 1 in the 4-to-1 vote. I do not love to downhill ski. Sure, I’ll spend a sunny day carving turns in the name of family fun, but I’d be just as happy curled up in the lodge by a roaring fire with a cup of coffee and a good book. I’d rather be kicking and gliding along hushed hardwood trails, skeleton maples and beeches and black cherry trees lined in white. I’d rather … well, you get the picture.
So when it comes to family vacations—be it a weekend getaway or a weeklong adventure—I’m always on the lookout for options both on the slopes and beyond. We’ve discovered amazing off-piste amenities available at Up North ski hills, including everything from the best tele glades to discover or terrain parks to ride to the best in no-skis-required fun. Check it all out here, in our ultimate “beyond the traditional slopes” guide.
When it comes to lodging, there’s no better investment in fun than opting for a ski-in/ski-out condo for your crew. Those looking to stay cozy with a book and fireplace indoors have the comforts of home, while those heading into the white can gather gear, walk out the door and hit the slopes within minutes. The instant access to the hill is totally worth the extra cost (as is the ability to instantly return to toasty warm spaces, essential with young children).
Plus, anyone who skis knows bulky equipment can consume hotel space in two seconds flat. Ski-in/ski-out options make spreading out simple, says Crystal Mountain’s Brian Lawson. “Slopeside condos provide plenty of room, with great views of the slopes and features like cool bunk rooms for the kids.” Condos also come with fully equipped kitchens, which can cut costs, reduce picky-eater drama, and allow come-and-go grazing to happen all day. Most resort condo rentals include use of amenities like the pool and fitness room—not that you’ll want to leave the crackling fire or game of charades to join the crowds.
Ski-in/ski-out condos come with all sorts of extra bonuses. Stay at Crystal Mountain’s MountainTop condos, Brian Lawson says, and you’ll get first dibs on “untracked powder.” These sweet digs can sleep up to 12 people and allow skiers and riders access to the hill before the lifts open. “Many people ski down for breakfast and then hit the slopes,” Lawson says. “The Bungalows, on the other hand, offer “that winter escape while being able to step out and enjoy the energy of the heart of the village.”
Boyne Mountain’s Mountain Cabins are perfect for groups looking to get away from it all, while still being able to cross-country ski from the front porch. Just a short drive from the bustle of Boyne’s village happenings, the cabins—which include a wood-burning fireplace and back deck hot tub—are removed enough to keep the kick-and-glide calm of Nordic trails intact. Two-, three-, and four-bedroom cabins are available.
While not part of Nub’s Nob, Landmaster’s Hamlet Village Condos are just a few short steps from the backside of the resort. Get lift tickets the night before to make for easy chairlift or “lower loop” Nordic trail access, including nearly a mile of lit trail—one of the coolest cross-country experiences out there.
There’s no doubt terrain parks are the hottest thing in the ski industry right now, and resorts in Northern Michigan are doing their part to amp the enthusiasm. It’s like watching mini X-Games happening every day, with riders and skiers catching big air, cruising rails, twisting across boxes; there’s something totally cool about the whole concept.
“The evolution of parks has been driven by the riders and skiers, and what they do off the slopes like skateboarding and surfing,” says Shanty Creek Resorts’ Chris Hale. It’s also the most democratic spot on the slopes—resorts are constantly seeking feedback, ideas, and ways to improve the experience. “The key is to continually change it up. We listen to what people want. It’s constantly evolving,” Hale says. “We send our crew to ‘Cutter Camp,’ where mountain managers and ‘movers and pushers’ (groomers) share ideas and learn about new park building techniques.”
Gone are the days of terrain parks being tiny sections of the slopes. At Schuss Mountain, what started as one park has grown into a full-blown system. “Our partnership with Monster Energy was driven by the concept that we literally have a Monster Park,” Hale says. It’s true: in addition to a ton of features, there’s a run dedicated to jumps and landings, plus a glade area with all natural rails and trees, aptly dubbed the “Natty Park.” The resort also has a run filled with smaller features for newbies to try.
Boyne resorts are also in the park game, big time—Boyne Mountain boasts eight parks, and Boyne Highlands has four—and both resorts include a Burton Riglet Park, designed for the youngest little rippers (which makes for super cute pictures, in addition to skill-building opportunities).
Olympic snowboard coach Tom Hutchinson designed Treetops Resort’s terrain park. Called “The Yard,” it features jumps and rails of various sizes, plus tons of rotating features to keep things fresh. The highlight, however, is the only Olympic-size airbag in Michigan that’s available daily for those who want to take their tricks to the next level.
Terrain Parks and cool events seem to go hand in hand. Make sure to check your favorite resort’s website for fun happenings throughout the season. One of our favs: Nub’s Nob’s Mid-Winter Throw Down on February 21, 10 am to 3 pm. $15 gets you registered for a day full of skateboard-style inspired fun.
There’s nothing quite like being on a cross-country ski trail after a fresh snowfall. Dark green pines curve toward one another under heavy white blankets. Bare hardwoods are outlined in white, sprinkling snow to the ground each time a chickadee lands. It’s more than just quiet. It’s sacred. It’s full immersion of winter’s stillness and raw vitality all at once.
We asked Nordic guru Jim Harrington why people should give Nordic skiing a shot. “It’s an amazing way to enjoy the outdoors,” he says. “Nordic skiing has been classified as one of the top aerobic sports, and people who ski not only burn lots of calories, but gain stronger hearts and muscles. Improved balance and skiing technique are also seen in skiers over time.”
Almost every resort in Northern Michigan has excellent cross-country trails—and skiing them costs a fraction of a downhill lift ticket. Here’s a rundown of what’s available. Both Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands have 35K of groomed trails that range from easy-peasy to difficult enough to challenge the best Nordic skiers around. Tickets at boyne.com.
Caberfae Peaks accesses 15K of Nordic tracks along the MacKenzie Cross-Country Ski Trail. Portions are groomed, some are left as backcountry, and as part of the National Recreational Trail system, trail use is free.
Crystal Mountain has 30K of trails, with rolling hills through aspen and oak stands and expert runs cutting through deep valleys. The resort’s new XC training center even includes a mini-trail system designed exclusively for learning and perfecting both skate and classical techniques. Day tickets are $18, but houseguests get a free pass. crystalmountain.com.
Nub’s Nob’s 20.8K of trails are diverse enough to satisfy all abilities. With a new groomer for 2014/2015, the trails are sure to be in prime condition all season long. Adult tickets are $18. nubsnob.com.
Shanty Creek and Schuss serve up nearly 30K of beginner-to-difficult XC terrain for $10 a day. Visit the village Nordic Center for the latest gear and tips or to set up a lesson. shantycreek.com.
Treetops Resort has more than 10K of beginner, intermediate and expert cross-country trails. All-day adult passes are just $12. A few times a season, the resort also mashes up two of the best things about winter: hearty meals and Nordic skiing. A five-station “skiable feast” overlooking the Pigeon Valley? Yes, please. Treetops.com.
Resorts have heard the message: not everybody in the family skis. And thankfully, they’ve answered with options that round out the fun factor for all. We’re talking way more than the traditional ice skating ponds and sleigh rides, too. Think more along the lines of mega indoor waterparks, full service spas and countless spots to cozy up with coffee (or a hot toddy) and take in the views without having to put on winter gear.
Boyne resorts have long blazed the “keep everybody happy” trail when it comes to winter activities, and communications director Erin Ernst says the resorts now have a nearly endless supply of off-hill options. “Boyne Highlands and Boyne Mountain both offer a tremendous number of off-slope activities—snow tubing, snowshoeing, and ziplining,” Ernst says. Boyne Highlands adds a few activities for the more adventurous, including dog sled rides, winter horseback trail rides, and fat tire snow biking. Being able to make the most of a mini-getaway or family vacation means making sure everyone has a good time.
Here are some of the best off-slope finds: Boyne Mountain’s Avalanche Bay is Michigan’s largest indoor water park, and can keep adults and little ones alike entertained just steps from the hill. The park’s newest ride, The Big Couloir, drops riders via a trap door into a narrow tube that instantly accelerates riders to 38 feet per second, and sends riders around a 360-degree loop before landing them (gently, promise) into the water. Day passes and lodging packages are available. boyne.com.
Instead of bundling up, go for the Zen experience of a yoga class, or swim laps at Crystal Mountain’s fitness center. The resort’s spa offers the ultimate in pampering with a menu of services that range from a balance massage to a time renewal facial. We like the Crystal Mountain Classic, which includes two 50-minute services for $239. crystal mountain.com.
Backcountry tele powder hounds can get their fix—yes, even in the Lower Peninsula—with these two words: glade skiing. Not for beginners, which is part of the draw, this backcountry option offers a chance to get into the woods and away from the groomed slopes. Nub’s Nob leads below-the-bridge glade skiing with true tree runs (some of which even involve a little hiking) found in several areas of the resort. “It’s a chance to take on a little more risk and reap the reward,” says general manager Jim Bartlett. “It is a natural dance with the trees and slope, and it requires better balance and decision-making, as picking your line is important. When the snow is good and your game is on, it is quiet, flowing and almost relaxing to ski natural snow in a natural environment.” Tele speeds are generally lower than on the groomed slopes, too. “It is different, challenging, and an absolute blast when done right.”
Strapping on a pair of telemark skis makes the difficulty, and pay-off, that much steeper. “There’s a great range of difficulty from easy gliders to tighter, steeper runs,” says Josh Baker, who owns The Outfitter in Harbor Springs. Baker and his crew are avid tele skiers, and have deemed Nub’s Nob the best place to catch consistent, seriously good tele snow.
Nub’s Nob’s latest glade project is the Tower Glades on the peak located between the front of the mountain and Pintail Peak. “There is a short hike to the top of that peak, which makes it more private and special,” Bartlett says. “We also mow and maintain these slopes in the fall, so they can be used on very little snow.” nubsnob.com.
Caberfae Peaks has also made a name for itself in the world of backcountry, with 25-plus acres of mostly hike-in terrain. It has everything an “enter at your own risk” skier wants: steeps, ridges, chutes and plenty of trees. While you’ll feel miles away, it’s easy to work your way back to the main drag. caberfaepeaks.com.