Snowmobile trail closure in Michigan by owner of Lutsen Mountains grabs attention on Minnesota’s North Shore
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Snowmobile trail closure in Michigan by owner of Lutsen Mountains grabs attention on Minnesota’s North Shore

Cook County snowmobilers and others who enjoy riding trails along the North Shore are raising eyebrows over a choice to shut down a popular snowmobile route in Michigan earlier this year.

The decision by Charles Skinner, the owner of Lutsen Mountains Resort and its parent company, Midwest Family Ski Resorts, to close a section of the Michigan Snowmobile Trail 2 made headlines from Houghton to Detroit. Skinner and his company bought the Michigan based Snowriver Mountain Resort and its pair of ski hills in August. Soon thereafter, the ownership team at Snowriver Mountain Resort shut down snowmobile trail access on their newly-acquired property.

In late October, officials from Snowriver Mountain Resort said in a statement they needed to close the trail because of safety and liability concerns. It cited an incident from 2019 when a pedestrian was “seriously injured and hospitalized” after being struck by a snowmobiler near the resort. The incident resulted in a lawsuit against the resort.

“One of our primary responsibilities is to keep our guests safe and to maintain adequate insurance for our guests and our business,” the statement reads.

The move to shut down the trail was a potentially crippling blow to local businesses in the small U.P. towns of Ironwood and Bessemer, according to interviews WTIP conducted in November.

“Our initial reaction was kind of disbelief,” Steve Hamilton, Gogebic Range Trail Authority president in Michigan, told WTIP.

In a public statement released in October, Midwest Family Ski Resorts said of the situation, “The risk of injury is not hypothetical. Two seasons ago, a pedestrian was seriously injured and hospitalized after being struck by a snowmobiler, resulting in a lawsuit against the ski area.  As a result, our insurance company will no longer insure our guests or our business for snowmobile trail accidents.  Without adequate insurance from another source, it would be irresponsible to our guests, our business and our employees to continue a trail through the resort.”

Regardless, Hamilton said during a Nov. 17 interview with WTIP that the club was largely able to move on from negotiations with Skinner and the resort to keep the trail open, thanks to area communities rallying to support snowmobiling and the local economy. Township officials in the U.P., along with the support of private landowners, rerouted the snowmobile trail away from the ski resort. The new segment will take snowmobilers onto Old U.S. 2 and then through private property. The new route will actually be safer for snowmobilers, as there are no road crossings to navigate, compared to crossing five lanes twice in the previous iteration through the ski resort, Hamilton said.

The trail was approved by the city of Wakefield and Bessemer Township boards at special meetings on Monday, Nov. 14.

Despite the upbeat ending to the situation, the Gogebic snowmobile club in Michigan was dismayed by the approach Skinner and his team from Midwest Family Ski Resort took to handle the trail closure, Hamilton told WTIP.

The news from Michigan has grabbed the attention of local snowmobile clubs on the North Shore. Of particular interest to clubs in Cook County is the proposed expansion of Lutsen Mountains and how it could impact trails near the ski resort. In a statement sent to WTIP from the Lutsen Trailbreakers Snowmobile Club, they said: “In Minnesota and other states, snowmobile clubs have encountered landowners or situations where trails had to be rerouted. Lutsen Trailbreakers and other Cook County clubs, which are non-profit volunteer organizations, are no exception. With community support, we work together to continue providing safe trails for users. For many communities, this winter sport provides essential tourism dollars.”

In response to questions about how the proposed expansion of Lutsen Mountains could impact local snowmobile trails in Cook County, Skinner sent WTIP the following statement:

“We care deeply about the economic vitality of our community.  We recognize the importance of snowmobiling to our winter economy and have supported snowmobiling in Cook County for decades.  As part of Visit Cook County, for example, we have supported both snowmobile marketing and funds to maintain and expand snowmobile trails.  We will continue to support snowmobiling in Cook County in the decades to come.

Just this summer, we worked with the Lutsen Snowmobile Club and Caribou Highlands to find a new route for the Lutsen Spur Trail.  The new route became necessary because another landowner terminated a route that had crossed that property for decades.  The new route is on the edge of our land along a carefully planned route that minimizes safety issues for our other patrons.

If Lutsen’s expansion onto Forest Service land is approved, a portion of the Spur Trail would be shifted a few hundred yards to be routed around the proposed new ski area base area.  Lutsen Mountains expects to pay for the re-routing costs.”

Regarding what happened with the snowmobile trail in Michigan, Skinner said the situation is “entirely different.”

“The Lutsen trail is a low traffic, spur trail with a few dozen snowmobiles per day that provides access primarily to one resort (Caribou Highlands) along the edge of the ski area’s property,” Skinner said. “The Michigan trail is the Main Trail across Michigan with 3,000 snowmobiles per day crossing paths with thousands of skiers through the heart of the ski area’s two base areas–parking lots, entrance roads, children’s snow-play areas, and two lodging villages.  While no safe solution to continue the trail through the ski area could be found, we are happy that the Michigan snowmobile club has secured a new route for the Michigan trail.  The new route is not only safer for our ski patrons but is also safer for snowmobilers as it eliminates two dangerous crossings of the busy 4-lane highway that had killed a snowmobiler just a few years ago.”

The snowmobile season in Michigan begins Dec. 1.

Lutsen Mountains had its opening weekend Saturday, Nov. 19.

A decision on the proposed expansion of Lutsen Mountains is expected from the U.S. Forest Service sometime in early 2023.

Correction: Charles Skinner wrote WTIP Nov. 28 and said statements made by Hamilton were “misleading and false.” Hamilton said the accident involving the snowmobiler occurred “on a road, not the snowmobile trail.”

In response to this statement, Skinner said: “The truth is that the snowmobile trail and the county road are one and the same through this portion of the ski area.  You can see on the map included with the materials sent to you that the snowmobile trail follows the county road for about 1/3 of a mile through the middle of the ski area’s base area including through the ski area’s main parking lot.  The ski area owns the land on both sides of the road throughout this entire stretch and the road for all intents and purposes is part of the ski area’s base area.  

The snowmobile trail is on the road throughout this entire stretch through our base area complex and, with huge snowbanks on each side of the road and narrow or non-existent shoulders, there is no other location for snowmobiles or pedestrians or cars and trucks to be other than on the road.”

WTIP apologizes for any confusion caused by printing Hamilton’s statement about the location of the accident.

For more information from SnowRiver Resort regarding this situation, click here.