Why You'll Love Skiing in Michigan
It’s my first day back in Michigan, and already I’m reminded why I love (and miss) skiing here—cruising through deciduous hardwoods. Their varied forms are a welcome contrast to the conifers that overwhelm the landscape in my adopted home of Washington. Also, my hair already smells like campfire smoke.
I grew up in northwest Michigan, where rippling hills cradle an impressive cluster of ski resorts. My goal: Hit three of the biggies in one long weekend. I’ve started at Shanty Creek (150 miles north of Grand Rapids). After sailing through my first run, I encounter a lone bearded ski patroller near the base of the lift. He’s chopping wood and building a small fire in a glade. Tibetan prayer flags are strung between the beech trees, and the sweet smell of burning cherry wood—appropriate for an area known for its cherry harvest—beckons me from the trail.
“Mind if I join?”
“Everyone’s welcome,” he says, swinging his axe. “No one ever wants to come sit at the firepit if it’s just the ski police.” He adds another log and pulls a severed, ash-covered ski pole from the snow to poke the fire. Soon, another man joins us, followed by a family with two young daughters. I couldn’t ask for a warmer homecoming.
Moments later, I’m gripping my poles and carving turns down Kingdom Come, the steepest and fastest run at Shanty Creek. This brings a different burn that warms me from the inside out. The run regularly hosts ski-racing championships, including one I competed in during my last visit here years ago. At the bottom, I realize I held my breath nearly the entire length of the run.
I ride the wave of that rush to the quieter backside of Shanty’s Schuss Mountain. A few inches of fresh snow blankets the ground and trees. I bask in the calm as a chairlift cranks me to the top of the slopes. Then I float down through the kind of powder most skiers dream of.
I can’t claim day one complete until I’ve got an après-ski drink in my belly. Luckily, Shanty offers a complimentary shuttle to downtown Bellaire, a small town that resort vice president Chris Hale describes as “surprisingly cosmopolitan.” That’s a compliment. Even in the relative middle of nowhere, surrounded by snow-muffled beauty, skiers have a slew of options for toasting the day. I settle in at Short’s Brewing Company, a requisite stop for anyone visiting northern Michigan (especially when you have a free shuttle at the end of the night). After an extra IPA, I turn in. After all, I’ve got Boyne Mountain and Nub’s Nob resorts ahead of me, lined up like gates on a slalom run. Tips up!
Three Day Challenge
Three of Michigan’s best ski resorts are lined up within an 85-mile span, not far from Traverse City: Shanty Creek, Boyne Mountain and Nub’s Nob. Follow my lead and hit all three in a long weekend. Is there any better way to cash in one vacation day?
My day at this resort barely scratches the surface. Shanty Creek is a two-slopes-for-one deal, with runs spanning both Schuss Mountain and Summit Mountain. The result: 450 vertical feet, 53 runs and four terrain parks. All of that creates quite the buzz in Bellaire, a town of just 1,000. Short’s Brewing has become a landmark, complemented by a meadery, a wine bar and Mammoth Distilling, which opened in 2019—all within walking distance of each other.
This resort is all about full-blown adventure for the whole fam. There’s ziplining, fat-tire biking, tubing, horseback riding, a spa and even an arcade. Lucky for me, the slopes are just as epic. Fresh groomers, soft snow and a bluebird sky greet me for a few laps on the high-speed quad. Then I journey to the southernmost runs. Super Bowl is a great place to carve big turns, particularly on a powder day. And to top off the experience, literally, Eagle’s Nest lodge rests at the summit. Pick a window seat for sprawling views.
Full disclosure: This is my hometown hill. But personal bias aside, Nub’s Nob is a mom-and-pop charmer. In Iieu of big-resort accoutrements, you get friendly staff, well-groomed snow and dazzling views of Lake Michigan. I carve down Smokey, Scarface and Chute on the frontside. Then take my time on Bayview for the namesake money shot—especially at sunset. By late afternoon, I’m tired and grateful for the only post-ski option, Nub’s Pub. I grab a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and sit on the deck to watch skiers close out the day.
Other Midwest Resorts
Terry Peak | Lead, South Dakota High above the Wild West City of Deadwood, Terry Peak Ski Area claims the highest lift service between the Rockies and the Alps. Novices can hit runs like the winding, 1.2-mile Gold Run through narrow passes lined with pines. Experts test their skills on the steep black-diamond Holy Terror. Even on days when the powder lies thick on the hill, it's possible to find yourself alone on a run.
Lutsen Mountains | Lutsen, Minnesota Skiable terrain spreads over 1,000 acres on four mountains in the Sawtooth Mountains. It's larger than any other Midwest ski resort. Lutsen also claims the only gondola in the region, just like you're in the Rockies. Except here, you're overlooking Lake Superior and its splendid North Shore.
Afton Alps | Hastings, Minnesota Within 30 minutes of the Twin Cities, this popular resort was bought by Vail Resorts in 2013. That made it part of the Epic Pass family, which gives unlimited access to 37 ski resorts—including Vail, Breckenridge and Telluride in Colorado. Other Midwest Epic resorts include Mt. Brighton in Michigan and Wilmot in Wisconsin.
Green Circle, Blue Square, Black Diamond A run’s rating (from easy to difficult, respectively).
Pizza and French Fries The two basic ski tip positions: tips in to slow, and straight to go fast.
Carving Digging the edge of your moving ski or snowboard into the snow to make a turn.
Slalom A ski style that involves quick turns through alternating colored gates (poles) placed across a run.
Pow-Day the first day after (or during) a big snowstorm. Ideally, at least 5 to 6 inches of virgin powder on the ground.
Corduroy The ridged surface pattern on a slops that has been maintained by a groomer.
Vertical Drop The elevation difference between the base of a resort and its highest point.
Yard Sale A major wipeout that strews the clothing and equipment of a skier/boarder across the slope.
Backcountry Unpatrolled and wild ski terrain, typically accessed by hiking or helicopter drop-off.
Moguls Mounds of snow or bumps that make a run more challenging.
Goofy Foot A right-foot-forward snowboarding stance, instead of regular, with the left foot forward.
Terrain Park A maintained area with jumps, rails, boxes or half-pipes for freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
Grom Young snowboarder with mad skills on the slopes (also used for child skateboarders, surfers and some skiers).