Driving out of Detroit on a dark winter morning, it takes blind faith to believe the best snow in the Midwest is less than five hours away. North on I-75, past Flint and Saginaw, where factories turn white snowflakes to gray slush, you need to be unwavering. It's only at the three-hour mark, around Gaylord, that trees start to outnumber smokestacks. Here, you leave the interstate for a less industrial cruise on U.S. 131. As you crest the hill on the south side of quaint Petoskey, Nub's Nob isn't quite in view yet, but it's vivid in your imagination. Finally, past the Bahnhof Sportski shop, left at the La Señorita restaurant and right at the sign with the big red arrow, anticipation flavors the oxygen. Pulling into the area entrance, a thick copse of trees blocks your view of the mountain. Just beyond, Nub's frontside at last fills your windshield.
At 248 acres, Nub's Nob is about a fourth the size of the biggest Midwestern resort, but it's still the locals' favorite. The key ingredient is deceptively simple: great snow. Little Traverse Bay in Lake Michigan pumps 120 inches of lake-effect powder onto the slopes each winter, and more than 200 snowguns ensure there's never a scratchy spot on the area's trails. Overkill? Maybe, but Jim Bartlett, general manager of Nub's Nob for the past 17 years, is on a mission. "I won't be happy until all the lights dim in Petoskey and no toilet will flush when we're making snow," he proclaims.
Skiers like Pat Spaulding of Harbor Springs, Mich., appreciate the effort. Spaulding says she's skied Nub's on almost every possible ski day over the past two decades. "I ski here because they have the best snow and grooming in Michigan, and they go out of their way to make the conditions perfect," she says.
Indeed, Bartlett leaves nothing to chance. His office—situated smack-dab between the mountain's skier-services desk and the men's bathroom—allows him to read the customer-satisfaction barometer in real time. "I hear every comment people make, and I can respond to problems right off the bat without having to filter things through five other people," he says.
While the management style at Nub's Nob is homespun, the skiing is serious. The frontside of the main peak provides what is perhaps the scariest view from any Midwest parking lot: a set of check-your-nerve black-diamond runs that seem to snarl down at their newly arriving victims. The consistent pitches of Scarface and Smokey's are eminently manageable, but Chute's tricky shelves and Twilight Zone's mausoleum-sized moguls require as much skill as courage.
These are just four of Nub's 43 trails, spanning two peaks. The eight lifts that serve the area's four faces all converge at the top of the main peak. From here, trails of all varieties spill over 427 vertical feet, making Nub's great for families.
Head to Nub's north side for mostly wide-open intermediate terrain and what the faithful call the Midwest's best corduroy. Dories Bowl invites GS arcs, Birch Run summons slalom turns, and the superb terrain park and halfpipe keep demanding boarders and freestylers happy for hours on end.
Nub's southwest side has a completely different character. Long and slender blue-green tree-lined trails slither toward Little Traverse Bay. Slice down narrow Bayview or Southern Comfort and you'll feel like you're at Vermont's Mad River Glen. Popping into Southern Comfort Glade after a powder dump is like the perfect morning at Jay Peak.
A two-minute slide from the top of the main peak takes you to the Nob's other summit, Pintail Peak. There, a quad chair serves a dozen mostly blue-green runs carved into a scenic hardwood forest. "Pintail is like your own private area," says 13-year-old Theresa DiLoreto, a young convert.
The day-lodge atmosphere at Nub's Nob is more reminiscent of a ski club than a resort. Settle into one of the overstuffed chairs next to the stone fireplace, and you'll quickly be absorbed in conversation. "Yoou can come into the lodge and just plop your stuff down without worrying about someone taking it, and everyone keeps an eye on the kids," says local Susan Ford. "There aren't many places like this left."
Then there's the food. It's so good that local residents are known to come out to the ski area just for lunch. Seriously. The soups are homemade, the pizza is made from scratch, and the freshly baked pies and cookies are up to bakery standards.
This winter, a new Pintail Peak Warming House gives skiers and diners another option. The 100-seat structure resembles the main lodge, with rough timbers and stonework throughout.Picture windows face southwest, framing views that stretch all the way to the city of Charlevoix, 23 miles across the Bay. When Pintail Peak debuted in 1997, it was heralded as Michigan's best ski-area expansion in 10 years. The warming house is another example of Nub's knack for making something good even better. "It's pretty simple, actually," explains Bartlett. "All we can control is our little sphere here, so I don't have to worry about sharpening the golf course mower blades or whether the greens have winter kill. All we care about every day is what happens to the snow and that our customers have the best day they possibly can."
Catch Nub's Nob on a crystal clear morning with the sun sparkling off the Bay and your skis dancing atop an immaculate groom job, and you'll agree that it's worth the drive.