’Tis the Season for Snowmobiling...If There’s Snow
This year’s outlook for the sport in hotspots like Cheboygan, Gaylord, and Cadillac
By Victor Skinner | Dec. 17, 2022
The calls started rolling in at the Chateau at Black Mountain lodge near Cheboygan as three feet of snowfall blanketed the region over as many days in November.
“The more snow the better,” owner Warren Chamberland says.
After two years with minimal snow, the early start seemed to bode well for the lodge and other northern Michigan business owners who rely on snowmobilers to earn a living, though the relative dry spell since has been a disappointment. Cheboygan, in particular, is home to more snowmobile trails than any other Michigan county, but without snow, it is harder to attract wintertime visitors, leaving the area at the mercy of Mother Nature.
“Without it, we wouldn’t survive,” Chamberland says.
Carole Yeck, executive director of the Cheboygan Area Chamber of Commerce, says that while there are no recent, reliable statistics on the number of riders or the cash they pump into local economies, it’s obvious snowmobiling is “the biggest draw in the winter.”
“It’s huge,” she says. “When we have good snow, it exponentially raises our tourism rate in the winter time. It really means a huge influx for businesses. When we have good snow, we have good commerce.”
With the snow comes countless volunteer hours needed to clear and maintain the state’s 6,500 miles of trails, work conducted in sections by clubs like the Cheboygan Trailblazers in concert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
In Cheboygan, the Trailblazers’ 14 volunteers spend thousands of hours on 54 miles of trails that require daily grooming, though club president Chuck Beckwith contends “that’s the easy part.”
“We have to get all the trees up, brush back the new growth … and we’re responsible for [signage for] the trails,” he says. “It’s just a ton of signing that goes into this to make sure we’re in compliance with the DNR’s handbook.
“It takes us three to four weeks to get the trails ready for snowmobile season,” Beckwith says.
It’s the same situation in Gaylord, where snowmobiling is the “second-most important recreational activity” after golf, according to Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau.
“The section of Michigan between Mackinac and Grayling, we’re right in the eye of the Michigan snow belt,” Beachnau says. “We consistently get some of the top lake effect snow in northern Michigan.”
The city’s central location off I-75 also “allows snowmobilers in this area to go literally in any direction,” with the popular Trail 7 leading “all the way to the Mackinac Bridge,” he says.
“We’re right in the center of a trail network that’s over 300 miles,” Beachnau adds. “The other thing that’s nice here is in our county … snowmobilers are allowed on the right of way of most county roads.”
The ability to travel along county roads allows users to more easily connect with trails, as well as local restaurants and hotels, he says. “That’s really important because when people come up to northern Michigan to ride … they want to unload their snowmobile and not put it back until they leave.”
Farther south in Cadillac, years of poor snow conditions have convinced some local businesses to diversify to cater to other types of winter sports like skiing, winter rafting, and off-road vehicles to survive.
Still, snowmobiling remains “an important part” of the local economy, with new businesses launching in recent years tailored to novice riders, says Kathy Adair Morin, executive director of the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau.
“In the last couple of years, we had some companies making investments in rental equipment,” she says. “We also have one who will actually do guided tours.”
Randy Cornell, owner of K&R Outfitters, says he started offering guided snowmobile tours in 2018 with four sleds and booked about a dozen trips through the Huron Manistee National Forest, where he first offered the service as a teenager in the 1970s. Business doubled the next two seasons, and he’s now up to 10 sleds to keep up with demand for dozens of bookings per year.
“We offer guided snowmobile tours from Cadillac over to Mesick, back around through Harrietta, and back to Cadillac. It’s about a 70-mile ride and it takes us five to six hours to do that route,” Cornell says. “We know what the trail conditions are, where the warm bathroom facilities are, the best food.”
The tours gained popularity during the pandemic, following a trend of increasing participation in most outdoor sports, as other businesses were forced to shut down.
“The number of customers wanting to go doubled during the COVID stuff. We actually increased in business when all the restaurants were closed,” Cornell says. “I packed a grill and we actually cooked out on the trail.”
On the flip side, lower snowfall last season forced Cornell to cancel between 40 and 50 trips, though he’s optimistic the early snow and predictions of better conditions this year will help make up for the disappointment.
“The business itself is growing exponentially—we just have to have winter to be able to get out to do it,” he says. “We’re taking calls every day. I already have bookings between Christmas and New Year’s.”
Pete Fitch, owner of Coyote Crossing Resort about 10 miles west of Cadillac, relies on a variety of outdoor enthusiasts to fill his 10 two-bedroom cottages and a full service bar and restaurant. And while the resort’s location in the Manistee National Forest is ideal for many winter activities, poor snow conditions the last couple of seasons have meant a drastic decline in snowmobile traffic.
“We’re a little more diverse business than some because we have Caberfae [Peaks] resort” nearby, Fitch says. “We still do okay, but during a busy snowmobile weekend, we’ll see 300 to 500 machines come through our property.”
Fitch is also among about five dozen volunteers with Cadillac Winter Promotions involved in clearing and grooming the local trail network, which he describes as “one of the best … prior to getting into the [Upper Peninsula].” Other local clubs help clear the area’s 200-mile trail network, as well.
“Most of our trails, during the winter months, if the snow is coming, get groomed four to five times a week,” he says.
The 2023 Outlook
Bad snow has meant local snowmobile events in Cadillac and elsewhere have dwindled, Fitch says, but he’s hopeful high gas prices and better snow conditions will conspire to turn things around this winter, convincing more folks to stop short of the bridge.
“I do think with high gas prices, that will weigh on people’s minds. It certainly does play into our hands favorably,” he says.
“We’re a fairly accessible and affordable market,” says Morin, with the visitors bureau, noting Cadillac is one of the first stops on US 131 for those heading north from downstate. “Overall, generally our rates for lodging and activities can be less expensive than other markets.”
Beachnau also believes high gas prices could be a blessing in disguise…if the conditions are right.
“When the economy is off a little bit, and gas prices are higher, people tend to come to northern Michigan instead of the U.P. or other destinations,” he says. “If the snow is good, we’ll have a banner year, I’m sure of it.”
A winter outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts wetter-than-average conditions for the Great Lakes region, with below-normal temperatures from December through February 2023. Michigan’s snowmobile season runs Dec. 1 to March 31.
“I hope the cold air keeps coming and Lake Michigan stays warm, so we get the lake effect machine going,” Cornell says.
“I think we’re expecting it to be better this year,” Fitch adds. “Last year was the worst in many, many years. There’s certainly a lot of pent up demand to get out there and do normal activities again.”
That demand could translate into a significant increase in traffic on the trails, which will demand an intentional focus on safety, says Beckwith, who also serves as snow patrol for Tuscarora Township Police. Important safety considerations are speed and alcohol, the two most common factors in trail crashes Beckwith investigates.
“The laws are pretty much the same. Always ride on the right and have a helmet on,” he says. “Stay right, be in your own lane. A lot of these curves, there is little sight distance.”
There’s also trouble when a snowmobiler goes rogue and blazes their own trail. Failure to follow the rules convinced one local landowner to decline to renew a lease for a 1.5-mile stretch of trail east of Cheboygan this year, Beckwith says, forcing the Trailblazers to reroute riders along a roadway.
“It’s nothing for me to come into contact with 500 to 700 sleds,” he says. “What they really need to understand is to stay on the trails, not to leave the trail and explore.”
Photo courtesy of Gaylord Tourism Bureau