There was a time, Dan Nadeau remembers, that visiting the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which has attracted as many 1.3 million people to Munising in a single year, was a distant second driver of tourism in Alger County.
Instead, the primary attraction was that the region served as the “Snowmobiling Capital of the Midwest,” where more than 200 inches of snow fell every year and groomers committed to creating and maintaining a vast network of wide, safe trails.
Nadeau, who grew up in snowmobile shops and has been a sponsored racer over the years, has good news – the draw of snowmobiling hasn’t changed, and the quality of the experience has only gotten better.
“Pictured Rocks just got ‘discovered’ a few years ago, and it’s gone crazy, but for as long as I remember, this is a snowmobiling town,” Nadeau said. “That’s been the big thing since I was a kid, and it’s still a pretty incredible way to get outside and have fun.
“You can hop on your snowmobile and spend an entire day on an adventure and then wake up the next morning and do it again, but on a different trail.”
Munising now has more than 330 miles of trails that are consistently groomed by members of the Snowmobile & O.R.V. Association of Alger County beginning on Dec. 1 and continuing as long as the snow lasts, which is usually into April.
The system provides access from Au Train to Shingleton and all trails and points between. The terrain matches any snowmobiler’s taste for adventure, or an easy day on the packed surfaces to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Miner’s Castle. There are also opportunities for off-trail excursions for a more rugged ride.
It’s the place to be for sled riders looking for a complete trail system that allows travel between towns, through magical woods and to majestic ice caves and ice structures that daring climbers scale daily. The wide berths and stress-relieving scenic views are the perfect tonic to the frenzy of everyday life.
As Nadeau says, you can’t go wrong with a day in the outdoors and on a snowmobile, and the area is flush with stops to refuel the sled and the riders at restaurants along the way.
“The misperception now is that everything stops after the summer,” he said. “There are plenty of lodging options and plenty of restaurants. You’ll pull up to a place along the trail and there will be a lot of activity there.”
Despite snowmobiling’s popularity, Nadeau says riders will often feel alone with their group on the trails because of both the volume of miles available and the distances between stops.
“You’ll definitely see people, but you’re not going to feel hemmed it,” he said. “There’s still solitude and the being out on your own.”
Here are three trips, with starts in Munising, recommended by Nadeau:
Munising to Grand Marais
This 120-mile round trip comes with a bonus excursion that takes riders to Miner’s Castle on the only legal access trail in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore via trails U.P. 8 and U.P 422. Miner’s Castle is famous year-round for its dramatic views of the cliffs, Lake Superior and Grand Island. Ice formations on the sandstone cliffs are an amazing sight. Get back out on the primary trail and Nadeau says you’re treated to a smooth ride. “Probably one of the most wide open trails you’ll find anywhere,” he said. The trail takes operators in and out of hardwoods and open terrain, where they can get off the trail and play around in fields.
Visit Kitch-iti-kipi and Manistique
Heading out of Munising and hopping on to U.P. 41, riders can enjoy a roughly 100-mile round trip that takes them to the shores of Lake Michigan in Manistique and the famous Kitchi-iti-kipi freshwater spring. Long known for the summer views, the cold spring is equally visually impressive with snow-topped trees and the crystal clear water. The trail system offers riders options to head through the Hiawatha National Forest on U.P. 413 and U.P. 7, or groups can take more of a straight shot on U.P. 2. “It’s a little bit tighter trail, but there’s a lot of room to roam,” Nadeau said.
Check out Gwinn
Two primary options to get to Gwinn will give riders between 95 and 114 miles on their sleds, either following U.P. 417 west along Lake Superior and then going south on U.P. 8, or taking a direct shot on U.P. 8. Riders will experience varying, rolling terrain and wide open spaces, Nadeau said. The Hiawatha National Forest is again a trail highlight as the routes take travelers through old-growth hardwoods. “One of the best trails out there,” Nadeau said. “This one is maybe a little less popular, but every bit as fun.”