Depending on your perspective – or favorite season – Crystal Mountain is either a ski resort with 59 well-groomed downhill runs or a golf resort with 36 holes of championship golf. Yet, regardless of the season, it’s one of Northern Michigan’s best resorts.
Crystal Mountain has the most unique history of any resort I have ever written about. It began as a school project when a geography teacher at Benzonia High School tasked his students to find the best place in Benzie County, MI to start a ski area. After much research and debate the class determined the Buck Hills Range offered the best combination of terrain and snowfall.
The Buck Hills Ski Area became a reality in 1956 with a rope tow powered by an old pick-up truck engine and a warming hut built with donated lumber. In 1960, Buck Hills became Crystal Mountain Resort when it was purchased by 96 shareholders, many of whom had homes nearby. The new owners made many substantial upgrades including a new lodge with dining and 21 rooms for overnight guests.
By 1966, ownership had dwindled to a small handful of owners who realized that the best way for the resort to be profitable was to make it a year-round destination. Fast forward to 1981 and sole ownership of Crystal Mountain came down to the flip of a coin between George Petritz and Robert Meyer. Crystal Mountain has been owned by the Petritz family ever since.
Golf entered the equation at Crystal Mountain in 1977 with the opening of the Betsie Valley golf course. Mountain Ridge followed in 1995. Both Betsie Valley and Mountain Ridge have received the prestigious 4-star rating from Golf Digest Magazine and are members of America’s Summer Golf Capital, a collection of resort properties that feature 26 golf courses across northern Michigan. Both courses play out of the same clubhouse, which features a well-stocked pro shop, The Thistle restaurant and bar, and an outdoor patio complete with a bar, grill, and oftentimes live music.
Before your round, be sure to visit Crystal Mountain’s 10-acre learning center and practice facility. You’ll find a targeted grass range, along with a short game area featuring chipping and putting greens complete with sand bunkers for practicing. Everything you need for a quick tune-up before heading to the first tee! The Learning Center is also home to Crystal Mountain Golf School, which has been recognized as one of the best golf schools by Golf Digest. They feature a variety of single or multi-day lesson options including private, group, women-only, and juniors.
Since opening in 1977, the Betsie Valley course has received many upgrades, most recently from the summer of 2021 to the spring of 2022. Renovations included widening the fairways, building new tee boxes, a forestry management project to clear out brush, redesigned cart paths, and more. Even with all of these changes, the course still retains its original character and is now more playable than ever before.
Betsie Valley is spread across the rolling terrain which is blanketed in mature forests of pine and hardwoods. Water comes into play on several holes, and although there are only a few bunkers on the entire course, the majority of golfers tend to find at least one during their rounds. The tight, tree-lined fairways are often accented with wildflowers and lead to small, severely sloped greens making Betsie Valley more of a shot-maker’s course. Golfers are welcome to walk or ride the course.
Both nines start with short but challenging par fives. The first hole plays 462 yards with water on either side of the landing area off the tee, so accuracy is required right off the bat. It’s a double dogleg and requires three good shots in a row to get on the green. Most players will opt to layup rather than try to get on in two as the fairway gets very narrow the closer you get to the green. The green is guarded by water on the right and fescue grass to the left.
Remember those “few bunkers” I mentioned? Two of them are located just right of the 7th green, which is bad news for most golfers. It’s a short, 129-yard par 3 with a narrow approach that feeds errant tee shots right of the green and into those bunkers!
You may think that the 10th hole is a short par 5, at only 444 yards, but as you stand on the tee box studying the dramatic uphill nature of the hole, all of a sudden 444 yards isn’t short anymore! In fact, it may play up to 75 yards longer! It’s a dogleg right that just seems to keep on turning, and with trees lining both sides of the fairway, it emphasizes shot control over distance.
The Mountain Ridge course was carved from the mountainside, offering both a challenge and some terrific views. The golf course covers a range of elevation changes from subtle to spectacular; in all, you’ll ascend over 200’ during your round. Mountain Ridge is situated among huge Northern Michigan pine trees that frame many of the fairways and greens. Water is a predominant factor on the first four holes, guarding the left side of both #1 and #2 greens, and then off the tee on Numbers 3 and 4. You won’t see the wet stuff again until the 9th hole. After that, you only see it on Numbers 10 and 12. Bunkers and sandy waste areas are more prevalent on Mountain Ridge than on Betsie Valley and usually factor into play. This course emphasizes brains over brawn, and having a sound strategy for each hole is important.
Like Betsie Valley, Mountain Ridge is very playable and offers the same four sets of tees and combo yardage with distances ranging from 6,973 to 5,018 yards. I found the White Tees again to be a fitting challenge.
With a course this beautiful there are many memorable holes but what I remember most are the par 3s; they were scenic, challenging, and fun to play. The second hole plays 143 yards, slightly downhill into an hourglass-shaped green with bunkers on either side as well as water on the left. The green is deeper than it is wide, so distance control is important.
The 183-yard, 5th hole plays slightly downhill and sometimes one club less than usual. With one large bunker front left and three more surrounding the back of the green, playing to the front right portion may not be a bad idea, regardless of where the pin is. Be sure to take in the views before you tee off.
Number 12 may be the toughest of these four. It plays 177 yards and the deep-faced grass bunker in front of the green gives it the feeling of a much shorter hole. Don’t be fooled though; as you will want to hit one extra club to carry your ball onto the green avoiding the grass bunker in front. Anything hit short right will likely find the waste area or bunker.
Mountain Ridge hole number 17 is the course’s signature par three, playing 169 yards straight downhill. The green slopes front to back, which makes it harder to stop the ball on the putting surface.
When it comes to accommodations, Crystal Mountain has the widest variety of any golf or ski resort—everything from hotel-style rooms that sleep two or four guests to mountainside homes that sleep up to 14. There are bungalows and cottages to choose from; all are equipped with everything you’ll need during your visit and, if you need something, just ask. They have the politest staff I have ever met. Visit the website for a complete rundown of everything they offer, including a long list of houseguest perks.
Crystal Mountain offers several dining alternatives from pizza and subs at Betsie River Pizza to casual fine dining at The Thistle. As its name implies, this Scottish-themed venue has something for everyone. It’s best described as come-as-you-are fine dining. The menu is eclectic with everything from burgers
and fries to Cornish hen and rack of lamb. Breakfast is served daily at the Wild Tomato with just about any breakfast food you can think of. They also serve lunch and dinner. During the winter, Wild Tomato adds several “igloos” to their property where you can enjoy a cocktail and shareables outside under the twinkling lights of the Michigan sky.
A golf vacation to Northern Michigan just isn’t complete without a visit to Crystal Mountain. Visit their
website at www.crystalmountain.com to see everything they have to offer year-round and plan your