Big-M Ski Area – Manistee National Forest

The Cass City Chronicle for Jan. 4, 1968, printed the “1968 AAA Michigan Guide to Winter Sports Fun”. The report listed the Big M, 16 mi. east of Manistee off M-55 as having 14 ski runs, a double chairlift, T-bar, 11 rope tows, and snow making.

Michael Fleckenstein passed along this picture of himself racing slalom at Big-M in 1961.

The Sea-Ski Trophy Race, Big-M, Spring 1961 courtesy of Michael Fleckenstein (pictured)

The area was apparently located west off Udell Hills Rd. at the base of the range of hills that rise to the west. The nearest hill has about 200 ft. of vertical and shows the scars of runs and lifts on its north face on the satellite view. Is this the same area as Udell Hills or the Manistee Ski Area (or both)? From the satellite view, the lodge building could be the same as the ones in the pictures of those other areas. Perhaps it just changed names over the years before it closed.

Big M Patch from Bernie Riehl

The lodge is still in existence and is used as the base lodge for the Big M Cross Country Ski Trails, a volunteer-run and donation-funded complex located in the national forest. They  have about 30k of x-c trails and it is circled by a 39k loop for mountain biking and snowshoeing. Some of the rope tow poles with wheels attached are still standing and their trail map shows one route (not listed as an official trail) called a challenge route which climbs to Capper’s Peak and follows along the ridge to intersect with the Catamount Loop, which is graded “most difficult”. The section from the lodge to Capper’s Peak would be up the face of the former downhill runs.

If you have any information about skiing at Big M when it was a downhill ski area, please post it or pass it along via the directions on the About MILSAP page.

Tom Fullerton (see his comment below) passed on a couple pictures of the area:


21 Responses to Big-M Ski Area – Manistee National Forest

  1. Michael Fleckenstein says:

    Actually the original lodge no longer exists and yes Manistee ski area was renamed Big M in the late 60’s. The area had a double rope tow on the main run (behind me in the photo) facing the lodge (a chair lift was added not long before the area closed). There were 4 additional rope tows as well. The original lodge was a 2 story structure with a cafeteria on the upper level (great burgers) and tickets, offices and rentals on the lower level. The most challenging run was called “Oh Me” which was short but steep and had a man made jump on the skiers left about half way down.

    • Tom Fullerton says:

      Michael, Look’s like you got here sooner than we did but thought you might enjoy my note here and others at the Udell Hills, Caberfae, Crystal Mtn and Grand Haven Ski Bowl pages. Tom

  2. Tom Fullerton says:

    Big M skiing was a blast as a kid in the mid sixties. My family would pack the wagon and drive to Manistee Friday night to check into the old Chippewa Hotel downtown. We would drive down M55 to the Lodge Sat. morning. Tickets were about $5. The front hill was called Vista and serviced by two ropes to near the top. Flinging myself off the first one, I could grab the second without stopping. The ropes were so fast our mittens would disintegrate before our eyes. We could get airborne off the whoop-de-doos on the way up. Off to the left of Vista was Little and Big Chief. Big Chief chair was not installed until around ’67 or so. Off the back of Big Chief was Oh Me; one fast, steep, rope which could lift an 11 year old off the ground at the top. In front of Oh Me was Sun Valley, another double rope to the top. My favorite, it was like a half-pipe. Behind the Lodge was Christie, an old T-bar. To the right of that was Broadway, another fast, double rope to the top. While hiking the area a few years ago I found some scraps of 40 year old, blue nylon rope and if you look closely you can still find a few rusty car wheels used for the pulleys. In ’69 we left for Crystal Mtn.

  3. Bill Jennings says:

    I remember the Walters from Manistee. They owned the Ski shop downtown. They all skied at Big M, Galand Walters is the one I remeber most. Galand raced for the Manistee high school ski team. I skied at Crystal Mountain at the time, and we would take a trip to Big M, Caberfae etc. Brings back many fond memories!!!!

  4. Anton Mal says:

    Wish I could see an old trail map of this place. Climbed up the two peaks a few days ago and just posted a rough video on YouTube. Put some links to information on the place in the description, one says the place was originally called “Ward Hills Ski Area”

    • Tom Fullerton says:

      Mal, Thanks for the optics. As described in my note above, Big M was my favorite place to ski as a boy. We skied here as a family from approx. 1966-69, before heading up to Crystal for good. I think big m got its start in the early to mid sixties. Its been 45 years but Its like I have a photographic memory of the place. Every rope tow. 9 total, including the tandems up Vista, Broadway, and Sun Valley. One T-bar called… Christie. One chair called Big Chief, installed later. I am confident that big m closed in the early 70’s. With respect to the naming, I know that topographically the area has been known as Udall Hills but it very well may have been know as Ward Hills originally. I believe that Crystal Mtn. (formerly Buck Hills) was originally developed by a man named Ward Creech, although I know of no correlation between the two.

      • Suzanne Carpenter says:

        My whole family – 5 siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and 5 cousins (last name Price) skied Big M through the 60’s. My dad and uncle actually owned it for a few years. Many great memories there – learning to ski on the “bunny hill”; riding up the t-bar for the first time with my dad; polka music over the loudspeakers going up Vista tow rope first thing in the morning; yes, the great burgers from the cafeteria and the big fireplace on the second floor in the lodge; sitting on the front porch at the end of the day with the sun in my face, waiting for my oldest brother to finish his last run before heading either to the Chippewa, Best Western, and eventually our cabin on the river.

  5. Anton Mal says:

    Info on the Ward Hills page leads me to believe that it was a separate area, maybe 15 miles South of Big M. What made Crystal so much more attractive? What were the ratings on the Big M slopes? Looks like a few of them had to be black diamonds. Anyone know the vertical here?

    • Ed says:

      Correct. Ward Hills was a seperate ski area and you can still make it out if you head south on Hamilton Rd in Lake County. The Lodge is still there and under private ownership as a cottage.

  6. Tom Fullerton says:

    What made Crystal so much more attractive…..? We started skiing Crystal as a family in 1969 after skiing Caberfae and Big M; ’64-’68. The Buck run was a Poma lift then and as kids we loved to get airborne on take-off. The Cheers lift was a rope tow then. To the right of that across the slope was Ward Creech, double parallel ropes to the half way and a single rope to the top. From there we loved to ski down through the trees to a ridge then grab a tuck across Main Street and fly off and down into what is now the Superpipe. Mainstreet was an old, long, slow, double; wagging close to the towers in the freezing wind. Thor was a “new” double put in about 1972. We loved to tuck it until a patrolman ripped half my ticket off with a warning. At the end of the day after a few pitchers of Bud in the Vista Bar we’d head for the top of Buck. Feeling loose and bulletproof for last runs we would tuck it fast and straight to the parking lot. There used to be an outdoor, heated pool in front of the Lodge. Once, when younger and without thinking, I got out and started to run up the frozen, iron stairway to our room. The skin on my feet started to rip off before I turned around and jumped back in for a snowball fight. But…. George Petriz. owners daughter’s, Dosi and Mimi were probably the most attractive. (as well as the most aggressive women skiers at the joint.) I have no knowledge of another Ski Resort in the State if Michigan that has come as far, reinvested as much, and successfully continued (now with a Master Plan) for over fifty years. Next…. Big M slope ratings. I would say intermediate to advanced by today’s standards. All I know is that as a 9-10 year old kid every thing was a challenge to me. Two lines were definitely black diamond. The fall Ines of both the Big Chief chair summit (of which concrete footings can still be seen) and the OH ME rope. As explained in my big m comments, the bunny hill was behind the old lodge, probably very close to where the warming hut is today. Last time I walked big m, many years ago, I was surprised at the reforestation, regrowth of all the trees that now covered all the slopes we skied as kids. Next….Vertical Drop. I don’t know. Maybe 300 something. Crystals is listed as 375.

    • Tom Fullerton says:

      Maybe less than 300/

      • Anton Mal says:

        I tried counting the rings on a topo, and came short of 300′, but difficult to see or guess starting and ending points.
        Caberfae and Crystal are about the same distance from my place near Dublin. I favor Caberfae because of more vertical at half the price. From a business man’s point of view, would have to say Crystal has been extremely well managed. Haven’t been there in a few years but will go at least once this year, as my midweek season pass from Caberfae can get me half off at Crystal midweek.

  7. Bob Wiest says:

    I enjoy skiing at Big-M a few times during the season. Utilizing the cross country trail allows easy access to the summits of the old ski area. Skiing is quite fun on the newer fat Nordic skis, that are designed for ascending and descending on back country snow.
    I would encourage readers to step back into memory lane either by descending these slopes in telemark fashion, or by simply talking a healthy trail walk on some cross country skis or snowshoes. I am not local, so I do not make the trip to Big M more than once or twice a year. It would be a real treat to bump into a veteran of the old days. I know I have yet to unearth all of the treasures of Big M’s past. It sure would be nice to pointed in a direction where new exploration would be rewarded.

  8. h.d.laursen says:

    I visited the big m when I lived at home in manistee. Many of my classmates skied there in high school . How I met my senior prom date, as she broke her leg skiing there; so I carried her books between classes since we had a similar schedule. We graduated in 1969. Never learned to ski as I moved to Fla. Summer of ’69. Find memories of most everything up there!

  9. Gary Heinzelman says:

    As a family we would ski the Big M often in the early 60’s. We would stay in a cabin in Wellston that belonged to a friend of the family. We also at times stayed in our pickup camper in the parking lot.
    I too vividly recall the hill layout….haven’t heard mention of Aspen which was next to Sun Valley…or Gulch which was next to Oh Me!…..these were each on the other side of the rope line of the other. Lone Pine had no tow on it and would be accessed along the ridge trail between Christie and Aspen/Sun Valley. I also remember a short wooded trail from top of Gulch down to the bottom….I think it was vehicle access when repairs needed at the top. I was once hauled in to the lodge in a toboggan by the ski patrol after catching an exposed tree root on a short cut between Vista and Oh Me!…..still remember their cool jackets.
    Loved the memories of learning to ski at Big M.

    • Tom says:

      Gary, Great memory, thanks. I forgot the names but not the runs you mentioned…Aspen, Gulch, Lone Pine. Gulch was steep as hell and yes LP must have been a service two-track to the top of Big Chief. First tracks could always be made on Aspen. There was another rope to the right of Vista which from the top you could get to ‘Oh Me’ without taking the chair. Back then we could throw real logs on a real fire indoors upstairs. They also had a wax machine in front of the lodge. We also stayed at some cabins on M55 in Wellston.

      • Galen Walter says:

        I remember the Price’s would build wood ramps for the ski jump at lower Vista for the 4:30 shuss at the end of the day. Their was a trail that lead from top of Aspen across Lone Pine and down to the Lodge. And another one went over to Christie. Gulch had two big pine trees side by side, we would always ski between them and I broke a pair of skis on one of them. Mom & Dad had the ski shop and rental down stairs of lodge. (Wayne & Arlene Walter) from 1956-1972. Ski patrol room was at the far end of lodge & I would have to take my naps on the lots. The Big fireplace was awesome, we would lay our socks by it to dry out, everyone had their table with picknick baskets for lunch. Talking about the rope tows, yep the fastest I’ve ever seen, had blue rosin blocks at bottom so you could get a grip with your gloves.
        I have been back a few times, crying my eyes out with memories.
        Any ways I’m still riding rope tows at Hickory Hills now days.
        PS, Bill Jennings, I still have the orange Splalding Siderrals !
        Galen Walter

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