A flight over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the late 1950s was the spark for the area’s booming ski industry. And the first ski resort of the area – Indianhead Mountain Resort – has been a vacation destination for Midwest ski enthusiasts since.
“We’re truly a destination resort,” Barry Bolich, general manager of Indianhead Mountain Resort, said.
Indianhead is unique in the fact that when you reach the resort, you’re already at the top of the ski slopes.
“We’re an upside-down resort, so when you arrive you’re already on top of the mountain,” Dave Nyquist, marketing director of Indianhead, said. “In our sky bar, you basically get a 35-mile panoramic view of the Ottawa Forest, and on a clear day you can see Lake Superior.”
Being in such close proximity to Lake Superior causes dramatic weather changes in short periods of time due to lake-effect snow.
“There’ll be days where it will almost be like stepping into a shower: Three feet in front of you it’s snowing, and where you’re standing it’s not – it’s coming almost like a curtain,” Nyquist said. “When lake effect is coming in, you can see the dark clouds hanging out over the lake, and when the wind switches ... you can see it coming.”
Founding Indianhead Resort
Jack English of Barrington, Ill., was the pilot that made the historic flight over Michigan’s U.P., which led to the founding of Indianhead Mountain Resort.
English, along with six other investors, purchased a plot of farmland from the Nelson family and developed it into Indianhead Mountain Resort.
“It opened on Nov. 20, 1959, and ... when it opened it had two T-bars and a rope tow. The day lodge was constructed later that year, so there wasn’t much of anything. It literally was a working farm,” Nyquist said.
The original sway-back barn on the property has been preserved and is now the resort’s lodge hotel and restaurant area.
Flying was what started English’s involvement with Indianhead; coincidently and unfortunately, it would also end it.
“Jack and his group operated Indianhead until 1963 when Jack was killed in an airplane crash. He was leaving Midway Airport in Chicago in the fog and he flew into Lake Michigan and died,” Bolich said. “The family then sold controlling interest to an attorney named James Modrall.”
Modrall would operate Indianhead until 2000, when it was sold to the Roger and Lilah Stangeland Trust, the current owners.
“With the original developers from Illinois, it was their vision not to have to go all the way to Colorado to have a destination experience,” Bolich said.
Evolving from the first primitive T-bars and rope tow, to adding chair lifts and guest lodging and eventually acquiring the ability to produce man-made snow, the original founders’ vision of a “destination resort” would be fulfilled.
“We showed great growth in the 70s and 80s – adding more lodging, adding more snow making, adding more lifts,” Bolich said.
Today the resort has 46 hotel rooms and 80 condos and chalets available for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts.
Advent of technology
Over Indianhead Mountain Resort’s 54 years of existence, two innovative technology advancements have impacted the resort and breathed life in the ski industry as a whole, sparking vast improvements for resorts across the country – overhead chairlifts and snow-making machines.
“Chairlifts as we know them have changed the game, being able to get more people up the hill a lot quicker,” Nyquist said. “And snow-making has come a long way ... We make snow to get open earlier, but also to get a good, hard consistent base down and then the natural snow on top that is the icing on the cake.”
Snow making has also “leveled the playing field,” improving ski resorts in the southern part of the state, Bolich noted.
“The golden age of skiing in this area was in the mid- to late-80s,” Nyquist said. “Now there’s more ski resorts in the south because of snow making. But in the 70s and 80s that wasn’t the case – you had to go north.”
The combination of more efficient chair lifts and snow-making technology paved the way for new ski runs to be built at Indianhead.
“In the early 90s we added three runs,” Bolich said. “It’s a big investment in the clearing of trees and changing the slopes and grades, and then getting ground cover growing on it. It would be similar to building a new road – flow of how the trails merge and flow to the lifts is very important.”
Internet and social media have also changed how the resort does business.
“If people call today or have any questions, it’s because they’re on our website ... More and more people are buying lift tickets online and booking their lodging online without actually talking to a person,” Nyquist said.
But one aspect has dramatically changed since the resort’s opening – and it’s impacted the entire tourist industry, Nyquist added.
“I would say the biggest thing that has changed over the years is ... time poverty – people have less time,” he said. “In the 70s we used to do a ton of what was called ‘ski weeks.’ People would come up for five, six, seven days and stay and ski, and that doesn’t happen anymore. You get a weekend and that’s pretty much it.”
Indianhead Resort today
Since its founding in 1959, winter sports enthusiasts from across the Midwest have traveled to Indianhead Mountain Resort for the area’s abundant lake-effect snow. However, it’s not just the downhill resorts that’s bringing tourists to the U.P. today.
“Skiing and snowboarding are always the big draw, but [Indianhead] is becoming more of a ‘snow’ resort,” Nyquist said. “Fifteen years ago it was mutually exclusive, where you either snowmobiled or you skied and they didn’t intertwine. Now a lot of families will ski one day and snowmobile another day. We have snowmobile trail access right up to the resort now.”
One facet of the resort that has stayed the same since its inception is the fact that a vast majority of the resort’s guests aren’t from northern Wisconsin or Michigan.
“For every lift ticket we sell we get a zip code,” Bolich said. “Daily, weekly, monthly, annually – we know exactly where our customers are coming from. The Fox Valley is probably our biggest market at about 35 percent. Milwaukee would be our second biggest market. We do very well in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market ... so we truly draw people from all over the Midwest as a destination.”
“Ninety-eight percent of the people that visit Indianhead do not live in the area, so we get a good smattering [guests],” Nyquist said.
Regardless of where winter sports enthusiasts come from, the resort “offers the entire experience,” Nyquist said.
“We deliver a great product with the natural snow and ... we pride ourselves on providing the best quality skiing experience,” Bolich said.
For more information on Indianhead Mountain Resort, visit www.indianheadmtn.com or call 1-800-346-3426.
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.