Explore Up North: Copper Peak
Splashes of red, orange and yellow burst from trees along a scenic byway.
I’m driving about 20 minutes north of Ironwood, Michigan when I see a sign with a ski jumper pointing the way to my destination.
“Copper Peak Adventure Ride. Go to the top!” it proclaims, with a blue arrow pointing to the right.
I follow it.
Although the road here is small, the crowds are not. Even on a drizzly Monday morning, a constant trickle of visitors ambles through the door of the visitor center, all eagerly taking a turn to ascend Copper Peak.
A brief history of Copper Peak
Copper Peak is the largest artificial ski jump in the world.
Built on top of a hill so steep it could almost be classified as a cliff, a giant steel slide extends the hill’s height by another 26 stories, stretching into the clouds.
The first ski jumpers flew down this run in 1970. They reached speeds of up to 65 miles an hour before soaring through the sky to land at the foot of the hill.
The structure is a culmination of a deep history of ski jumping in the western Upper Peninsula.
“The immigrants from Norway came here and brought basically ski jumping and pasties to the Upper Peninsula,” explains Bob Jacquart, the organizing committee chair of Copper Peak and my tour guide for the day.
“One of the fun stories about Ironwood is, in the early 50s, the U.S. ski jumping team came to Ironwood to jump, and three guys ended their shift in a mine and beat them,” Jacquart says. “All three of them beat the U.S. team.”
The last skier jumped from Copper Peak in 1994, but it’s never really been out of commission.
Like I’m doing today, people have been climbing to the top ever since.
The Copper Peak Adventure Ride
The Copper Peak Adventure Ride is a three-part climb.
It starts at the bottom of the hill with a chairlift.
“Easy peasy lemon squeezy,” the operator says, as he guides us to a chair. “Just go ahead and sit right down.”
Green and yellow and orange leaves appear to shrink beneath our dangling feet as the chairlift climbs higher and higher up the hillside.
“This pole to that pole is the steepest chairlift in the Midwest,” Jacquart tells me. “Coming down is so much fun because it feels like you’re out on the nose of the Titanic and you’re the only person in the world.”
As we near the top, the sky-scraping tip of Copper Peak comes into view.
“Look up now,” Jacquart says. “That’s where we’re going. That’s as big as the Mackinac Bridge almost.”
Next up on our trip to the top – an elevator ride. We ascend 18 stories in 55 seconds.
Then, we climb.
After several stories of wooden steps, we reach a grated platform.
When I look down, I see the tops of yellow trees swaying hundreds of feet beneath my hiking shoes.
“This freaks people out,” Jacquart says. “But they have to do this so snow doesn’t collect here and add weight to it.”
When I look up, I see a forest full of color that spans in every direction for as far as the eye can see.
“You’re on this 3-foot-by-10-foot walkway with a fence underneath your armpits, so you can turn in 365 degrees and see around in a circle,” Jacquart says. “To the straight east, if you look down Copper Peak, it’s the national forest. Off to the left of there is the Porcupine Mountain State Park, which you can see very vividly. And to the right of there are the three ski hills that we have here. If you spin around, you can see some of the antennas in Ironwood, and if you spin around some more you can actually see Madeline Island which is in Wisconsin. And of course, when you look perpendicular to the way the wind was blowing, there’s the beautiful blue of Lake Superior.”
What’s next for Copper Peak?
The view at the top is cool, and I mean that quite literally. It’s just over 40 degrees and the wind nearly swept me away.
But what might be even cooler is that this massive, decades-old ski jump is about to get a $20 million facelift.
A two-year renovation project will rejuvenate the 50-year-old jump with funds from the federal infrastructure bill.
“Copper Peak will have to get regraded because the angle of the hill is off by 3 degrees right now, so the bottom has to come up about 6 feet,” Jacquart explains. “Then, a layer of concrete will be poured on top, and it has to be perfectly flat, like as flat as a pool table. Then, foam rubber goes on top of the concrete, and then this landing surface goes on that basically looks like a very long-bristled broom.”
This surface will enable the jump to be used year-round, with water in the summer and ice in the winter.
Construction is scheduled to start in the spring. It should take two summers to complete.
Then, plans are already underway to bring ski jumping competitions back to Copper Peak.
“If all goes well, we have a tentative agreement with the international ski jumping body to be jumping almost exactly two years from right now,” Jacquart says. “So, the world will come when we’re in fall color. That’s the plan.”
As I finish taking in the spectacular view of all that fall color, I get ready to descend Copper Peak the same way I came up – down the steps, down the elevator, down the chairlift.
But before I do, I close my eyes and try to imagine what it would be like to fly down the hill instead, like those skiers did 30 years ago and like many more will do soon.