Skiing tends to be a conceptual thing in the Midwest. What we think of as ski mountains are nothing more than molehills to families who ski in the west.
But if you happen to be a Midwesterner without the time or the cash required to take a family vacation in Colorado or beyond, the ski hills of northern Michigan are a reasonable, affordable family vacation alternative.
I spent three days playing in the snow in northern Michigan as the guest of Travel Michigan, the state’s convention and visitors’ bureau. The scenery was beautiful, the temperature was bearable and the activities were varied.
What to Do on a Family Vacation in Michigan
If you come to Michigan in the winter, plan to play in the snow. There is snowshoeing, snow tubing, cross country skiing, downhill skiing and snowmobiling. And those were just the winter sports we had time to try during a whirlwind three-day visit. The best of it: snow tubing. The worst of it: snowmobiling. But that may just be me. I would rather commune with Mother Nature than drown her out.
The tubing hill at Shanty Creek Resort in Bellaire, Michigan, features sturdy inflated inner tubes like those you might pull behind a boat during the summer. There are four groomed runs with increasing levels of intensity, but none is particularly challenging. Even the 77-year-old was tackling the most advanced run and smiling all the way down. Best of all, there’s a pull rope that latches onto a ring attached to the tube. So, unlike tubing at the neighborhood sledding hill, this snow tubing requires very little in the way of physical exertion. ($10 per hour per person.)
The ski instructors at Schuss Village, a part of Shanty Creek, were thorough and patient, even with a bunch of journalists, some of whom were experienced skiers and at least one of whom didn’t even own a pair of snow pants.
The downhill runs top out at 450 feet, but the runs are connected in way that allows skiers to ski a mile before coming to the bottom and getting back on the chair lift.
For a flatlander like me, staying on the ground is best. So I was happy to learn to cross country ski. Our instructor fitted us for our equipment (the resort rents everything you need for any sport) then took us out to one small portion of the 10 miles of groomed trails. It is, he said, just like walking. Well, not quite. Especially when it comes to skiing up a hill. But we all were good sports. The falls were epic and entertaining.
Snowmobiling During a Family Vacation
Now, the snowmobiling. This has been on my bucket list. I wanted to feel the thrill of soaring across the snow, admiring the scenery flying by. But that’s not what happened. I had trouble controlling the machine, felt like I was losing control every time I took my eyes off the trail and couldn’t stop thinking about the two women who had died two days earlier while riding snowmobiles on nearby Mackinac Island.
It got a little better when one of our guides stopped to explain my problem: I kept getting caught in the ruts the others left and I needed to get my right ski into the fresh snow on the right side of the trail. That definitely made a difference, but every time the speedometer passed 50, I continued to panic.
Stunningly, kids as young as 12 can drive their own snowmobile as long as they have completed and passed a four-hour certification course. And Blue Sky Rentals, the company that conducted our guided tour, generally rents the machines and sends renters off with a trail map and a wave good-bye.
I certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that. Several of the trails seemed to split and I figured out which way to go only because I was following my fellow journalists on the trek. Next time, I’ll ask to ride on the back of a snowmobile driven by a guide. Or maybe there won’t be a next time. I’ve crossed it off of the bucket list and I’m not sure I need to do it again.
Visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes
Our snowshoeing adventure took place at the breathtaking Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I’ve seen the dunes in the summer, when the white sand mountain shimmers in the sun. But it’s equally beautiful dressed in snow.
My last snowshoe adventure, across Lake Michigan in Door County, Wisconsin, I used new-fangled aluminum snowshoes). But this time I strapped the old-fashioned kind to my feet—the snowshoes that have always reminded me of tennis rackets. These are available for visitors to the national park who come in groups or who join a group hike led by a park ranger. Call ahead to see whether there will be snowshoes available to borrow. If not, stop in nearby Traverse City where several companies rent snowshoes.
Led by Ranger Peg Bergstrom, we headed to a trail in the southern part of the park. After a 30-minute climb through the freshly fallen snow, with several stops along the way to learn about the natural wonders of the park, its agricultural history and the invasive bugs that are killing the trees, we came to a break in the trees that offered a breathtaking view of the beach and the huge Sleeping Bear Dune.
The dune was named by a Native American legend that says a mother bear and her cubs were swimming across the lake. Mama Bear made to Michigan, but both cubs drown. Their graves are marked by the twin Manitou Islands. The huge dune, which does look a bit like a sleeping bear, is the mama bear who lay down on the shore to always keep a watch over the islands that make the graves of her lost cubs.
Where to Stay in Northern Michigan
Our home away from home was the Summit Hotel, a part of the Shanty Creek Resort complex. It’s a great place for families. The room comes with a full kitchen, the key to saving money when traveling with kids because it lets you eat at least one meal a day in the room. It’s much cheaper to make sandwiches for lunch or cereal for breakfast. The wood-burning fireplace was a cozy touch and the two-person whirlpool tub was a welcome comfort after a day of playing in the snow.
The resort offers a free shuttle that takes guests from one property to the next with stops at the ski school, tubing hill and equipment rental facility.
A second group of journalists stayed at the Grand Traverse Resort, which is closer to the airport and Traverse City. The tower offers a panoramic view of the surrounding hills, but it doesn’t have all of the kid-friendly amenities of Shanty Creek. (It does have a pretty nice spa, though, which is always a nice mom-friendly feature.)
Where to Eat in Northern Michigan
We had most of our meals at the resort where chefs work hard to use locally produced foods and pair them with locally produced wines. But if you’re looking for a place in town, try Swan Homemade Foods in Traverse City. It’s owned by Yola Pepellashi and her two sisters. Their parents are from Albania and the restaurant serves a yummy fusion of made-from-scratch Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and European dishes in a hand-written menu that changes daily. We gorged ourselves on a Middle Eastern appetizer sampler and barely had room for the entrees.
If you do take the family snowmobiling, go early or stay late and grab a bite at Peegeo’s next door. The sandwiches were terrific (try the Sloppy Larry sub or the fried fish sandwich) and the pizza was even better. And they get extra points for the sign that made me laugh out loud: “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy.”