High Riding To Big Bay

Drive to Michigan’s Western Upper Peninsula, and no matter how much snow you see on the side of the road, Ironwood will have 10 times as much.

It’s a guarantee, and it all happens when you cross a magic line called The Michigan Border. Not one foot sooner.

It’s the glory of lake effect snow, which blesses the Western U.P. with abundance each winter. In the 2002-03 season, local meteorologist John Dee recorded 18.75 feet of snow in his Lake Linden backyard. Over the past four years, he’s noted an average of 19.4 feet annually.

We’ve snowmobiled so much in this area, we can drive there blindfolded (and sometimes it’s seemed like we’re blindfolded when a lake-effect storm brews up en route). These are our favorite rides in the Western U.P.

This ride from L’Anse to Big Bay is a trail of mystery and history.

This trail (No. 14) runs through the heart of the U.P. forest, with no plowed road crossings for almost the entire 50 miles of trail. It tops out at Michigan’s highest point (Mt. Arvon at 1,980 feet above sea level), and drops back down to Big Bay, the town that was home to the crime and the filming of the 1959 thriller, “Anatomy Of A Murder,” as well as Henry Ford’s home away from home.

The trail itself is fairly straightforward. Save for a dead-end spur trail close to L’Anse, route loop options only increase closer to Big Bay. The trail, though, offers a perfect combination of hills, twists, forest and flat areas. It’s so perfect, it doesn’t matter if it’s a “there and back” trail.

This trip is about 120 miles round-trip, more if you add on a loop near Big Bay, but is well worth a day spent on the trail.

Ride To The Tip Of The World

The loop around the Keweenaw Peninsula is one that all snowmobilers — at least in the Midwest — need to do at least once.

From crossing from Houghton to Hancock on the lower level of a two-deck bridge to taking a marked (but not groomed) trail to the tip of the peninsula, it’s a trip worth taking.

It’s a long trip — depending on the loops, it can be more than 200 miles for a full tour — but the trails on the lower west side are straight and fast. The places we like the most are Brockway Mountain and its views of Lake Superior, the tip of the peninsula off of Trail 134 and a stop at the Gay Bar in the tiny town of Gay.

Keep in mind that the western side of the peninsula often gets more snow than the eastern — we’ve had great conditions heading up on the west, only to encounter stumps and dirt as we descended on the east.

All About Lakes

There are two lakes that define the Western U.P.: Lake Superior and Lake Gogebic, and both are within a good snowmobile ride of each other.

We like this route, and it doesn’t matter where one starts, though we’ll start in Bergland, to make things easy.

The first order of business is a trip to Lake Of The Clouds. We prefer to take the scenic way up trail 102 to 11, where the trail skirts the edge of Porcupine Mountain State Park. We like to do this trail early, because when it’s bad, it’s horrible. But when it’s good, it’s fun and fast. The trail up to Lake Of The Clouds passes some nice overlooks of Lake Superior, and with a steep final push, it ends at a parking lot. The walk to the lookout is about 100 yards, and well worth it.


If time is on our side, we’d head to Ontonagan and then to Mass City so we could hit Trail 3 to 13 back to Bergland. The wooded trail is like a rollercoaster that seems to go more down than up. It ends at Bergland, where the Lake Gogebic loop begins. There are two ways to enjoy the lake: around it or on it. The trails are fun and twisty, but with only glimpses of the lake. As for the laketop, this is a place where people take their drag racing seriously, and where there’s an unofficial triangle trail between the Hoop ‘N Holler, The Root Cellar and The Fisherman.

This whole loop is about 200 miles. Skip the Trail 13 detour, and it brings the ride to about 140 miles.

Hot To Fit In With The Locals

Go off trail. Most native riders try to avoid the trails as much as possible by riding numerous forest roads. They’re easy to find: just look for a powerline that crosses a trail, or follow tracks that seem to go nowhere. It’s not a bad idea to bring a compass — and a shovel because the powder will surprise you.

Dance for Heikki Lunta.

Heikki Lunta, which means “Hank Snow” in Finnish, is a snow god of sorts that blesses the Western U.P. with snow when its followers do a special dance.

Become a www.johndee.com devotee.

This Houghton-based meteorologist and snowmobiler keeps an extensive Web site all on snow, trails and the Western U.P. Dee also has an affiliated guide service, though Dee doesn’t always lead the groups.

Know Bill Nicholls (or at least ride his trail). Nicholls was the president of Copper Range Railroad and was instrumental in the acquisition of the railroad grade for use as a trail. The trail crosses the Firesteel River on three steel bridges, which total 1,288 feet in length and clears the river by 85 feet.

Wear a Stormy Kromer hat. An Ironwood, Michigan, company is trying to bring back this versatile woodsman’s hat, invented by George “Stormy” Kromer and his handy wife, Ida.

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