Traverse City News and Events

Hickory Hills Becomes First Homologated Course in Lower Peninsula

By Beth Milligan | Nov. 26, 2023

The Nordic course at Traverse City’s Hickory Hills Ski Area has become the first homologated cross-country course in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula – a designation that means the course meets International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) standards and can host sanctioned races. Obtaining course approval – which has only been granted to two other sites in the state, in Ishpeming and Houghton – was the result of a multi-year effort and will allow Traverse City to host the Junior National Qualifiers in January.

There are just 37 homologated courses in the United States. The FIS has design requirements for venues where its events can be held – detailing terrain features like climbs of different grades and lengths, trail width, and turns – to ensure safety and consistency across its races for competitors. City staff, the nonprofit Preserve Hickory, and the VASA Ski Club worked for years toward a homologation certification for Hickory’s new 3.3-kilometer Nordic course. That process started with the development of the Hickory Hills master plan in 2014, followed by over $5 million invested into park improvements over the last decade.

Phase two of the master plan – which included expanding snowmaking and lighting and preparing the Nordic trails for homologation – launched last year thanks to a $125,000 grant from the Great Lakes Sports Commission. Additional funding sources including $260,745 from Preserve Hickory, a $50,000 Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant, $7,500 from in-kind services from contractors, and $5,605 in fund balance. Traverse City Light & Power also provided $28,465 in materials. City Parks and Recreation Superintendent Michelle Hunt says that meeting FIS technical requirements required going through multiple drafts of the Nordic trail design and making modifications up to construction to ensure the course had the right slopes, grades, speed, and width. “It had to be widened everywhere,” she says.

FIS Homologation Inspector Gary Larson cites the local “active ski community” and the collaboration among community partners as key to Hickory Hills’ success. “One thing that sets Hickory Hills apart from other locations is its convenient proximity to the population of Traverse City,” he adds. “The terrain has dictated a challenging course that will test every skier. Good things are ahead.”

The first race on the newly approved course will be the Junior National Qualifiers in late January. Hundreds of racers – who might normally go to the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, or Minnesota to compete – “will get to come to Traverse City with their families and experience Hickory Hills for the first time,” says Hunt. “They’ll be staying at our hotels and eating at our restaurants.” The Nordic course should be a draw beyond the January event: More cross-country races and programming will likely follow, Hunt says, and homologated courses tend to draw skiers throughout the season for training.

Great Lakes Sports Commission Executive Director Eric Marvin believes FIS-sanctioned races “will contribute to the area’s economic development by attracting regional and national athletic event participants. The new course will also help develop youth athletes in the region.” The Junior National Qualifiers will also be a revenue driver for Hickory itself, which has on-site concessions in the lodge throughout the ski season and expands its food service during larger-scale events.

Creating more revenue streams to make the city-owned park sustainable – and expanding recreational and programming opportunities for park users – are key components of the Hickory Hills master plan. Hunt says more improvements are still to come. The city just launched a new website for lodge rentals, with Parks and Recreation hoping to boost off-season rentals for weddings and other private events. The city is also working with Garfield Township through the Joint Recreational Authority on a wayfinding signage project across Hickory Hills, Hickory Meadows, and Hickory Forest Natural Area to provide clear, holistic trail connections across all three properties.

The city is also exploring mountain biking concepts for Hickory Hills, with potential new trails that could connect to Hickory Forest. The timing of improvements will all be contingent on funding, among other factors. Still, almost a decade after its creation, Hunt says the Hickory Hills master plan remains an active “working plan” that continues to guide discussions and options for the popular city park.

Photo credit: Colleen Paveglio/City of Traverse City

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