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Michigan offers skiing — and lots of it

Michigan has more downhill areas — 42 — than any state except New York. Altogether, Michigan resorts have more than 200 chairlifts, 840 runs and 40 terrain parks.
Image: Skiing in Michigan
A skier rides a lift at Boyne Falls, Mich. The slopes are open early this winter due to daily snowfall, allowing skiers and snowboarders to enjoy their sports earlier than the past few years.John L. Russell / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For most of his 66 years, Tom Fanning has been an avid skier, relishing the challenge of steep mountainside runs in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.

But the investment adviser from the Detroit suburb of Birmingham doesn't have to jet to the Rockies for an enjoyable weekend on the slopes. He simply drives north a few hours to Boyne Mountain, one of the best-known resorts in his home state.

Yes, Michigan has downhill skiing and snowboarding. Lots of it. The glaciers that scraped vast flatlands across the state's midsection also fashioned some pretty good-sized peaks before melting to form the Great Lakes 11,000 years ago.

No one will mistake these hills for the Rockies or the Smokies; their vertical drops mostly run between 200 and 600 feet. But they're big enough to accommodate a thriving ski industry. Michigan has more downhill areas — 42 — than any state except New York. Altogether, Michigan resorts have more than 200 chairlifts, 840 runs and 40 terrain parks.

"It's a different type of skiing," Fanning said. "You're going down a 500-foot hill instead of a 3,000-foot mountain."

For a dyed-in-the-wool mountaineer, Michigan might be a tough sell. But most skiers and snowboarders will find its slopes more than adequate. And given the dismal economy, many winter sports enthusiasts — particularly Midwesterners — may find the lower costs for travel, lift tickets and accommodations a powerful incentive to give Michigan a try.

"You get every condition known to man in one run," Duane Miller of nearby East Jordan said, taking a break on a recent day at Boyne Mountain. "It goes from waist-deep powder near the top to groomed, to ice, to slush, to packed powder. And back again."

Indeed, Michigan's offerings are diverse, from extreme woodsy dropoffs for experts to Olympic-sized half pipes. For those preferring cross-country, more than 3,000 miles of trails wind through lush forests.

Most ski areas offer other winter activities, to attract families and groups with varying tastes. Tubing hills and skating rinks are widely available. Snowmobiling is popular statewide, particularly in the Upper Peninsula, which boasts an extensive trail network. Or, for a real up-north experience, try driving a sled dog team or take a horse-drawn sleigh ride.

Need a break from the cold? Nearly a dozen hotels and resorts have heated, indoor water parks. Boyne Mountain's includes five waterslides, several pools, a wet climbing wall and a surf simulator.

Nature and improved snowmaking capabilities are providing a boost this year. Early storms enabled many resorts to open by Thanksgiving, and the snow was still coming in early December.

For those new to the sport, two dozen resorts around the state participate in Discover Michigan Skiing. The January package includes a beginner lesson, ski or snowboard rental equipment and a lift or cross-country trail pass. Price: $30 for adult skiers, $25 for children skiers ages 7-14, and $40 for snowboarders.

OK, you're sold on Michigan. It's a big state; where to start? Some options to consider:

— If driving from points south or flying into Detroit and your schedule is tight, you might remain in southern Michigan. Alpine Valley in Oakland County, just northwest of Detroit, has 25 slopes and nine chairlifts. Nearby Pine Knob and Mount Holly are just off Interstate 75.

In neighboring Livington County, about halfway between Detroit and Lansing, there's Mount Brighton, with 26 trails and seven lifts.

All offer easy access to the metro area's other amenities, from major-league sports to the auto-themed Henry Ford Museum and the Detroit Zoo.

The southwestern side of the state also has a few hills. Cannonsburg Ski Area, just northeast of Grand Rapids, offers 17 runs and three lifts with a 250-foot drop.

— Michigan residents heading on vacation often speak of going "up north." Resort country, including the best skiing, is based in the northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula.

A cluster of popular ski areas can be found near the tip of Lower Michigan, including Boyne Mountain, in the town of Boyne Falls. Celebrating its 60th anniversary this winter, the resort is modeled after a Swiss-Austrian village; its Mountain Grand Lodge and Spa opened three years ago. There's also a variety of cabins and villas.

Its sister resort, Boyne Highlands, is 25 miles farther north in Harbor Springs, also home to Nubs Nob, which has 53 runs, a 427-foot drop and wins raves from Ski magazine for the quality of its snow and grooming.

You can reach these and other area ski hills by driving north three to four hours on I-75 from Detroit, then taking county roads to your destination. Or fly into Traverse City or Pellston and rent a car.

Traverse City, about 65 miles west of Boyne Falls, is a good jumping-off point for a number of ski areas. Among them: Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, Caberfae Peaks in Cadillac and Shanty Creek in Bellaire.

All are near Lake Michigan and towns catering to tourists year-round. They offer a variety of shopping, dining and entertainment options, including several tribal casinos.

— For sheer adventure, you can't beat the winter scene in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The forests are thicker and wilder, the villages more far-flung, the hills steeper. The U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame is based in Ishpeming, its sloping roof modeled after the peninsula's ski jumps that sometimes host international competitions.

The far western U.P. bills itself "Big Snow Country" — justifiably so. It routinely gets more than 200 inches a year, courtesy of frequent "lake effect" squalls gusting off Lake Superior.

Indianhead Mountain in Wakefield and Big Powderhorn in nearby Bessemer, both with vertical dropoffs exceeding 600 feet, offer interchangeable lift tickets. Porcupine Mountain near Ontonagon boasts a 787-foot drop.

— If you crave extreme skiing, check out Mount Bohemia. It's located in Lac La Belle, near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts 70 miles into Superior in the U.P.'s far northwestern corner. The drive over snowy, two-lane roads is long. But the scenery, featuring icy lakeshore and isolated woodlands, is worth it.

This is no ordinary resort: The 900-foot drop is the Midwest's steepest; its 71 runs are the region's longest. Skiers dart along trails that wind through trees and hurtle over rock outcrops. No artificial snow or grooming here.

Fancy lodging or amenities? Forget 'em. Just trailside cabins, yurts (circular, tent-like dwellings) and a hostel, although motels are available in nearby villages.

In this isolated outpost, the restaurants are homey, the food hearty. After working up an appetite on the slopes, enjoy Lake Superior whitefish or pan-fried walleye at Mariner North in Copper Harbor. Or drive to the university town of Houghton for Cornish pasty, an Upper Peninsula culinary and cultural icon.

It's a filling dish, but you'll need it. There's more skiing tomorrow.