Get ready to hit the slopes! Michigan ski season prepares to open
Skiing in Michigan looks to be back to normal this winter.
At least outdoors. Skiers and snowboarders will no longer have to wear face coverings as they wait in line for chairlifts or tows. Lift reservations? They’re currently not required. Social distancing in lift lines and those ghost lanes — used to create distance — are no more.
Indoors will be a different story. Many ski areas are encouraging visitors to wear face masks inside as they pursue dining options, equipment rentals and other amenities. At least a few will mandate masks. Some are requiring reservations for dining options.
And at least one ski area, Mt. Brighton in Metro Detroit, is requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for guests using its quick-service dining option.
“Ski areas all across Michigan are gearing up for what looks like a busy season,” said Michele “Mickey” MacWilliams, president and executive director of the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association. “At the present time, outdoor recreation — including skiing and snowboarding — is open without restrictions.
“However, I highly suggest that anyone planning to visit our slopes and trails check the ski area’s website for any indoor restrictions and to pre-purchase lift tickets and rental equipment whenever possible,” she added.
The association is maintaining updates on its website, goskimichigan.com. A link, Know before you go! Safety Precautions during the Pandemic, shares ski resort policies. Policies will differ from resort to resort, and not all ski areas have posted updates.
Like last year, ski areas across the country have broadly adopted the best safety practices in Ski Well, Be Well guidelines developed by the National Ski Areas Association, a trade organization that represents ski area owners and operators.
Waiting for Mother Nature
Michigan is home to about 50 ski areas, in line with New York State for the most in the country. Up to 2.4 million ski visits occur on Michigan slopes each winter. Winter travel accounts for nearly one-third of Michigan’s $20 billion-a-year travel industry.
Ski areas in the Great Lakes State are eagerly awaiting cooperation from Mother Nature — the right mix of consistent temperatures and humidity — to fire up snow-making equipment. Natural snowfall has been nil or scant in most areas, with fluctuating temperatures.
Ski Brule in the western Upper Peninsula was expected to be the first to open in the state — the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 24).
“It’s a little late for us. Mother Nature has not been very kind to us this year. I think she’s had hot flashes or something,” said Jessica Polich, Ski Brule’s operations manager. The resort, located near the Wisconsin border, has about 150 acres of skiable terrain and typically opens about two weeks earlier.
Still, the later-than-usual opening day is welcome, especially since Ski Brule was closed last year because pandemic restrictions prevented the resort from safely accommodating guests outdoors because of frigid temperatures.
Except for encouraging guests and staff to wear masks indoors (as well as additional cleaning measures), the winter will be business as usual at Ski Brule.
“Skiing and snowboarding are among the safest sports you can do during the pandemic,” Polich said. “We’re absolutely stoked to open. It’s like Christmas, your birthday and Valentine’s all tied into one … We’re not limiting the number of guests. Come one, come all.”
Many Michigan ski areas are hoping to open the first or second week of December.
Some safety rules permanent
Some practices adopted last year to ensure social distancing and safety concerns have been made permanent by some resorts. Among them is encouraging guests to purchase lift tickets and rental equipment online.
Treetops Resort near Gaylord, for example, is steering guests online to purchase not only lift tickets and rentals but also other activities, including dog sledding, tubing, culinary adventures and cross-country skiing.
“Interestingly, one thing we found out last year that we like better is how people pay,” said Kevin McKinley, assistant general manager at the resort. “Going online allowed us to limit money and credit cards changing hands … it also gave us a better understanding of how many people were coming on any given day and helped us prepare.”
Room service, offered for the first time last year to accommodate guests because indoor dining was not allowed, also will continue this year, he said.
The association’s MacWilliams said many ski areas will have online reservations in place for lift tickets, rentals and lessons. She encouraged skiers to rent in advance and check local ski shops for rentals; some resorts ran out of rental equipment last year on busy days.
Indoors restrictions will vary from ski area to ski area. While many resorts are encouraging skiers to wear masks indoors, some are mandating the practice.
Among them is Mont Ripley in the Upper Peninsula. Skiers will be required to wear face masks inside its Chalet, which houses the Huski Cafe and other amenities. The ski area is owned by Michigan Tech University and must follow university protocols.
“If you’re in a university building, you have to wear a mask at this point. We’re part of the university,” said Nick Sirdenis, general manager of Mont Ripley, which has 112 acres of skiable terrain in Houghton County. “We’ve had an uptick in COVID cases in Houghton and on campus so it’s a level of safety.”
Sirdenis said Mont Ripley also is encouraging guests to purchase lift tickets and rentals online, and pick up their equipment at a new rental shed.
Lessons will be returning to traditional formats this season as well. Because of pandemic restrictions and a shortage of instructors, many ski areas limited lessons last year. Each ski area handled lessons differently but all adhered to mask rules when social distancing couldn’t be met, the association’s MacWilliams said.
“Because ski and snowboard lessons are outdoors, at the present time at most ski areas, they will be back to more like they were two years ago,” she said.
Mt. Brighton, celebrating 60 seasons, will bring back its Bunny Hill Basics, which introduces new skiers of all ages to the sport, after a hiatus last year. The resort is also continuing half-day lessons, a practice implemented last year, said Michael Giorgio, the resort’s general manager.
Mt. Brighton, part of the Vail Resorts Inc., which owns and operates ski areas and luxury properties around the world, will require face masks in all indoor spaces and on shuttle buses. Guests 12 and older will be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccinations at its Ski Hill Grill; reservations are required for all dining options through the resort’s website (www.mtbrighton.com).
On the slopes, however, the restrictions of last year are lifted (at least for now).
“It’s hard to say what back to normal looks like,” Giorgio said. “I think the experience as a whole will feel normal. We’re outside and luckily, we’re going back to normal there. No masking, no social distancing and no ghost lines or any of the other stuff. From the skier standpoint, they can go right to the hill and don’t have to make a reservation.”
Skiing in Michigan
For latest policy updates and skiing conditions, visit goskimichigan.com.
Ski resorts across the state plan to reopen their indoor dining options. Guests are likely to be required to wear masks until they are seated at their tables.
Lessons will return to traditional format as well. Private and group options available and specialty clinics back among the offerings.