In today's jargon, it's popular to talk about the perfect storm, where a combination of circumstances and forces converge and create a situation of huge and perfect proportion. Such is the case on the left coast of lower Michigan, just south of Traverse City and minutes from the shores of Lake Michigan. Here the topography presents rolling mountains with vertical drops reaching 400 feet and a natural snow generator (Lake Michigan) that between November and April creates 125 inches of the finest snow found anywhere (also known as lake-effect snow).
In this winter wonderland, modern-day entrepreneurs have created the Crystal Mountain ski area, a playground that attracts and caters to tens of thousands of outdoor winter enthusiasts who come from across the heartland of America. We weren't familiar with it, but as soon as we heard about it, we wanted to learn first-hand why folks travel such great distances to vacation there. Arriving in a four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Tahoe LTZ, we had the experience of being totally immersed in challenging winter driving conditions and in the process came to fully appreciate the utility, functionality, and pure luxury this 2009 SUV routinely delivers.
DOWNHILL, SNOWBOARDING, AND CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING
With 45 slopes on 85 manicured acres of skiable area, Crystal Mountain offers a nice mix of terrain to accommodate all levels of downhill-skiing ability. Of those slopes, 27 percent are rated as easy, 47 percent intermediate, and 26 percent difficult, plus Crystal Mountain features 27 slopes that are lit for night skiing until 10 p.m., seven days a week during the season. And when temperatures dip below 28 degrees F and the occasional day comes along when there is no lake-effect snow, the resort's 125-plus snow guns (capable of covering 98 percent of the skiable terrain) deliver 1500 tons of manmade snow per hour. With its nine lifts, Crystal Mountain routinely serves a quarter-million skiers a year.
Crystal Mountain pays special attention to the needs of the snowboard enthusiast and those who want to become snowboard enthusiasts. It has designed and engineered a 600-foot-long groomed half-pipe into the one of the mountain ski runs, designed to test the mettle of those where the thrill of operating on the cusp of being out of control is in their DNA. Snowboarding is allowed on all 45 of Crystal Mountain's slopes, with lessons for beginning snowboarders as well as for beginner, intermediate, and advanced skiing. For snowboarders there is also Tuck's Terrain Park, and for the total novice there is one called Giggles where the necessary skill sets can be learned. On the staff of 70 ski and/or snowboard instructors, 97 percent are Level 1, certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America, the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, or both. Even if you've never been on a pair of cross-country skis, instructors like Scott Wilson can have you mastering the basics in 30 minutes and enjoying the miles of groomed cross-country trails that lace the 1500-acre property. Ingenious use of the huge open areas magically turns this acreage into a premier golf course during the summer months. This is as pristine a place as you could possibly hope for to learn and enjoy cross-country skiing. We saw Scott take a group of beginners and in minutes have all of them negotiating the groomed trails, enjoying their newfound skill set.
Most people want to try this unique mode of foot travel, but don't own a set of snowshoes. That's okay--in the village area at Park Water's Edge they're available for rent (and it's both inexpensive and a lot of fun). We found that figuring out how to put them on your feet is the real challenge, for walking across even very deep snow in snowshoes is a no-brainer. Be sure and ask the rental folks for detailed instructions about which snowshoe goes on which foot and where and how the straps go across and behind each foot.
One really cool snowshoe adventure (even for the beginner) is to take Crystal Mountain's complimentary shuttle from the snowshoe rental area out to the Michigan Legacy Art Park (10 minutes away), where a 1.6-mile trail loops through a three-acre preserve of wooded hills. Several years ago, Crystal Mountain invited well-known Michigan sculptors to create sculptures, which the resort placed along the Michigan Legacy Art Park trail. In this winter setting, the mix of nature and art reveals some interesting visual synergies that verge on the surreal.
OUR VEHICLE: Chevrolet Tahoe LTZ
There's something about the Bow Tie being on the front of an SUV that helps create a comfort zone when driving in beautiful but treacherous winter conditions. With operator choices that include 2WD, Auto 4WD, 4WD Hi, and 4WD Lo, we felt totally confident about setting out in the hands of whatever Michigan's weather could throw at us. For example, wanting to enjoy breakfast with our group each morning down in the village at the Wild Tomato, we would work our way down from our mountain chalet before the snowplow had a chance to clear the roads. It's not at all unusual for a foot of snow to fall overnight, but each day, our Tahoe LTZ delivered us safely and comfortably down the mountain to feast on the sumptuous epicurean delights the Wild Tomato routinely serves for breakfast.
The Tahoe's fuel economy fell right into the EPA fuel-economy estimates provided by Chevy. Featuring a Vortec 6.2L V-8 with a six-speed automatic transmission, the overall fuel-economy figure we calculated (over 300 miles) was 16 mpg. Equipped with all the goodies, the Tahoe featured a touchscreen navigation system, which was great when visibility issues prevailed in pristine settings and we couldn't work from visual cues. It was especially handy when we took side trips to unfamiliar towns. The options included a CD/DVD player, XM navigation traffic, rearview camera system, rear-seat entertainment system, and a power-sliding sunroof. The MSRP for this Chevy Tahoe is $52,350. Our options brought the price to $57,000 and some change.
OTHER REALLY GOOD STUFF
It may never cross your mind to venture away from Crystal Mountain while you're having the time of your life, but if you're in the right vehicle, we highly encourage you to take a look around. Other things in this virgin area of Michigan are worth seeing, and since we were in the ideal sport/utility for this type of exploring, we set out on a side trip. We weren't disappointed.
Getting behind the wheel of the Tahoe, we drove out to see two lighthouses that have been beacons in the night--especially during storms--for mariners aboard the freighters that have plied the Great Lakes for the last 150 years. Loaded with raw materials or finished products, these lake freighters never stop navigating to and from Detroit, out west to Duluth and Minnesota, and east to the St. Lawrence Seaway--until the locks freeze shut, that is. One lighthouse to visit is at Pt. Betsie, minutes north of the Michigan lakeshore town of Frankfort. The other lighthouse is at the end of the jetty that protects the harbor at Frankfort itself. Watching the roiling waves break against the jetty and lighthouse, you can see the huge walls of layered ice that continue to build as the spray freezes upon contact.
One night, after traversing ice-covered roads through howling winds and blowing snow, we arrived in the town of Benzonia (15 minutes from Crystal Mountain) and at the Roadhouse Mexican Bar & Grill that serves some of the best Mexican food anywhere. We were oblivious to the lake-effect storm roaring outside, as we enjoyed bottles of Corona with slices of lime, chips and salsa, and entres from a menu that is legendary.
MUSH, YOU DOGS
There's no need to go all the way to Alaska to see the Iditarod for sled-dog racing, and the lifestyle associated with man's love for his sled dogs is alive and well just south of Crystal Mountain. One such man is Max Wiggins, a ski-lift operator at Crystal Mountain and an aficionado of this sport. He has a dog-sled riding business near the town of Copemish, where wife Wanda and daughter Brittannie have a kennel with 20 Siberian huskies they race in competitions across the northern woods. However, the really good news is that they also offer dog-sled rides (by appointment). Max can harness together as many as a dozen dogs to make up a team, but for the purpose of a dog-sled ride, he usually harnesses between four and six huskies. These animals are huge (we would guess maybe 35-60 pounds each) and unbelievably strong. They love to pull, and when not selected to be members of one of Max's ad hoc dog-sled teams, they cry (howl) their hearts out.
There are stories about dog teams that have helped get vehicles unstuck from the snow, so we asked Max if he thought the four dogs we'd harnessed could pull the Chevy Tahoe. "Without a doubt," he said--and, believe it or not, that's exactly what they did. Unhitching them from the sled, he connected the team's gang-line to the bumper of the Tahoe. With Max hanging out of the driver window hollering, "Mush!" the dogs took off with the Tahoe in tow. Absolutely amazing!
TIME TO GO...
During our stay at Crystal Mountain Ski Resort, we luxuriated in the ambiance of our upscale mountain-top accommodations. We indulged in everything from freshly ground gourmet coffees to fusion-style luncheon fare to elegant evening dining. We enjoyed the local red and white wines and the ales, ambers, and pilsners the local breweries craft. Equally important, we polished up our skills at snowboarding, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
Our adventure also included the element of serendipity, an experience we hadn't anticipated but one we ended up totally enjoying. Within the last few weeks, Crystal Mountain ski resort had opened its new world-class Crystal Spa. Yes, guys, it's okay to enjoy the services of the spa's ultra-professional handpicked staff of masseuses and health consultants, their saunas, and the outdoor in-the-snow hot tub. We found you can literally arrive at the spa wearing your ski gear and boots and in minutes have the aches and pains associated with an invigorating day on the slopes become a rapidly fading memory.
Roadhouse Mexican Bar & Grill
Wiggins Mountainside Huskies Dog Sled Rides