By Jim DuFresne
My skiing partner suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and turned to me with wide eyes.
“What?” I asked.
“From over there!”
And he kept a straight face just long to say ,”must be a ghost,” and then started laughing for having caught me off guard. This little comedy routine shouldn’t have surprised me too much.
We were, after all, skiing through a ghost town.
If you’re tired of striding across golf courses, then you’ll find the Upper Peninsula has some unusual Nordic alternatives. One of the best is the ghost town of Fayette.
Located in Fayette Historic State Park, Fayette was a company iron smelting town that in its heyday in 1880s boosted 500 residents, a hotel, a company store, an opera house and the blast furnaces and kilns needed to turn ore into pig iron.
When the furnaces closed in 1891, the town died quickly, and today, a century later, more than 20 buildings are still standing.
During the summer, this historic village is teeming with tourists and guides in period costumes. But in the winter this spot on the Garden Peninsula is so desolate … it’s ghost-like.
“We do get some skiers, but Fayette is definitely not overrun by any means,” said park manager Randy Brown. “That’s what makes Fayette interesting to ski. The trails are easy, uncrowded and interesting.”
Just the way I like my ghost towns.
When there is sufficient snow, the 711-acre state park features 5 miles of groomed trails that wind through beech and maple hardwood forests and, of course, lead to that ghost town, properly known as Fayette Historic Townsite.
The trails can be combined for an excellent tour that begins by leaving your vehicle at the park headquarters. Practically across the street is the trailhead and post No. 1 for the Overlook Trail, a 1.4-mile semi-loop that skirts the edge of a towering limestone bluff where there are three viewing points of Big Bay De Noc, Snail Shell Harbor and the townsite on the other side.
At post No. 4, the tour continues by crossing the entrance drive and continuing south of the paved road into the heavily wooded corner of the park. At Mile 2.3 you curve to the west, encounter the longest downhill run of the day and within a half mile emerge in the park’s deserted campground. The loop heads north from here for another scenic stretch, beginning with a shoreline ski along Big Bay De Noc and ending in downtown Fayette at Mile 3.2.
This is the best part. You can ski throughout the town, weaving between the hotel and the lime kilns, the machine shop, the opera house and the superintendent’s home.
You end up on a long wharf, a good spot to enjoy a thermos of hot chocolate while watching a handful of anglers jig for perch in the scenic harbor. No point hurrying – your car is only a quarter-mile away.
To turn a ski tour into an unusual two- or three-day get-away, consider renting the park’s Furnace Hill Lodge.
Opened in 2006, the lodge offers three bedrooms, a modern bathroom and a full kitchen, all decorated in the woodsy décor you would expect at a state park. The facility sleeps up to 10 people and is located within a short walk of the Overlook Trailhead.
Furnace Hill Lodge is open year-round, and you can reserve it six months in advance through the Michigan State Parks Reservation Service (800-44-PARKS; www.midnrreservations.com). The daily rate is $116 on weekdays and $142 on the weekends with a two-night minimum stay required for Friday and Saturday nights.
Garden Peninsula doesn’t receive the deep snow of the Munising area or the Western U.P. Best to call the park (907-644-2603) for updated snow conditions before that long drive north. And pack the hiking boots.
In the winter this ghost town is as scary – and interesting – on foot as it is on skis.
Jim DuFresne of MichiganTrailMaps.com is a Michigan State University School of Journalism alum.