For the past two years in a row, I’ve found myself perched on top of skis along the “coast” of Western Michigan. It’s not that I’m particularly partial to the area, but it does happen to be a great place to cross country ski.
The area around Ludington State Park also tends to have a fair bit of snow throughout the winter and locals post information about ski conditions online so you can plan ahead. Other considerations were northwestern Wisconsin, around Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Sturgeon Bay, and Manistee National Forest in Michigan. However, Ludington had snow and trail conditions yet once again.
The Gear Rental
Ludington isn’t a big town, so you don’t have a ton of gear rental options to choose from. The one that I’ve gone to twice now is Provisions Sport Shop. Their website leaves a lot to be desired and the staff is pretty clueless, but the equipment is quality and the prices are reasonable.
Regardless of what time you rent ski equipment, it’s considered a 24-hour rental and due back by the close of business the following day. The 24-hour rentals include skis, boots, and poles for $25 per person. The shop has lots of gear for sale too, in case you left any essentials behind. Hand warmers are key.
The State Park
Ludington State Park is the biggest state park along Lake Michigan, covering 5,300 acres in Mason County, 5.5 miles of Great Lake shoreline, and a 1,699 acre natural wilderness area. When they’re not covered in snow, you can see wind-blown sand dunes and gently-hilly pine tree forests.
This spot is clearly more popular in the summer than it is in the winter. There’s a large beach area and a couple campgrounds that only operate during the warmer months of the year. The park also has a 4-mile/3-hour canoe trail that with great signage to keep you on course, and there are a couple miles of bike trails that connect the campgrounds.
The Skiing Trails
The north ski trails include a 6-mile loop, and the south ski trails include four cross spurs that are all between 1.5 to 4 miles in length. The trail map is pretty straightforward, so first take a look:
However, there are some serious differences between the trails on here. For beginners, the best place to start is the Logging Trail (green), a 6-mile loop located at the north end of the park. The hills are gentle, the trail is wide, and you don’t have to worry about flying over protruding tree roots the whole time.
I first made the mistake of attempting the Ridge Trail (purple), which sits just east of the Logging Trail. The Ridge Trail is narrow, winding, and has tree roots sticking out pretty much the whole way. I encountered some local hikers at a particularly frustrating moment, who told me about a guy who broke his hip last week trying to ski that very trail. They suggested back-tracking a bit to the logging trail for my own safety and sanity. It was a wonderful suggestion.
If you travel south in the park, you’ll find the designated cross country ski trails of Jackpine Loop, Cedar Loop and Juniper Loop. When I visited the park in mid-December 2013, the road that led to these trails was closed and chained off to vehicular traffic. But on my second consecutive day of skiing, my curiosity got the better of me and I ventured towards these trails on foot with skis under my arm.
Perhaps it was due to the new snow that had fallen the night before and that morning, but none of these trails were groomed and I never passed another single skier. I skied along the edge of the Jackpine Loop, fully around the Cedar Loop, and back out to the main road. These trails provided a completely different experience than the two I had skied the previous day.
Cedar Loop’s hills were more gentle, and this area of the park is much more wooded. It’s a really peaceful place. Tree roots weren’t a problem, and the trails were very well marked so I never took a wrong turn. I had to cut my own trail the whole way, which was a little tiring, but a great workout nonetheless.
The Trail Conditions
Unfortunately, this park doesn’t have it’s own fancy website that updates trail conditions on an obsessive-compulsive basis. However, if you’re not phone-shy, you can call up the Michigan DNR at (231) 843-2423 and ask how the trails are looking today and for the days ahead.
Another area that seems worth checking out is the Big M Cross Country Ski Trails. Big M’s website updates trail conditions every few days, which can give a general idea of how things are down in nearby Ludington. If anyone’s skied on these trails lately, I’d love to hear how they are!
One of the best parts of cross country skiing at Ludington State Park is the warming shelters. There’s on by the the parking lot at the trail head and there’s a several scattered along the trails as well. Most of these have fire pits, although you’d have to figure out a way to tote firewood on you back while skiing to use them.
Camping really isn’t an option in this area, as all the campgrounds shut down for the winter and honestly, it’s just too damn cold anyway. There are few things that feel better after a day in the snow than a warm, bubbly hot tub. Hot tub hotel options are somewhat limited in Ludington, so I’d suggest the Comfort Inn & Suites in nearby Pentwater, Michigan. The rooms are clean, the pool area isn’t very crowded, and you can crash for about $70 per night.
What are your favorite cities, states, and parks to cross country ski?