Every year my family takes a summer getaway to the Traverse City area in the upper northwestern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The region features wonderful beaches and sand dunes along Lake Michigan’s shores, great wineries and restaurants to enjoy, and many of the amenities of a metropolitan place though you are in a rural environment that is filled with magnificent natural landscapes. Biking, boating, hiking, fishing, swimming are just a few of the numerous activities that make this part of Michigan an ideal place for a summer visit. The fun doesn’t have to end when the weather gets cold though as there are also plenty of entertaining things to do during the winter in Northwestern Michigan.
Snowshoeing the Sleeping Bear Dunes
Sand dunes are most associated with locations like the Sahara desert or the Atlantic Ocean’s barrier reef islands; so you may be surprised that some of the most impressive sand dunes in the world are located within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore located 30 miles west of Traverse City. During the winter these dunes provide an incredible scene to behold decorated with a natural frosting of snow and ice. Snowshoeing is an easy and fun way to explore the park and enjoy this winter wonderland.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore maintains 13 snowshoeing trails that range in distance from 1.5 miles to 22 miles in length. There are also a variety of difficulty levels among the trails so people of all abilities from first timers to experienced snowshoers can select an option that best suits them. First timers are known to enjoy the Empire Bluffs Trail which provides a stunning view of Lake Michigan from upon a high bluff. Snowshoers who are more interested in a physical challenge than taking in the scenery will want to take a trek on the Bay View Trail which has a number of hills to climb up and down. Guided hikes are available through the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in the village of Empire. Call 231-326-5134, ext. 328 for more information or visit www.sleepingbeardunes.com.
Fat Biking on the Vasa Pathway
Fat Bikes are specially-adapted mountain bikes with very large tires that are great for cycling on snow. Cycling has turned into a four-season sport in Northwestern Michigan thanks to these bikes. Not into skating, skiing or snowshoeing? Try fat biking to have some fun getting exercise outdoors during the winter months.
There are several dedicated trails specifically for winter fat biking located around the area. Traverse City’s new Winter Sports Singletrack Trail, a 15-kilometer trail that’s part of the area’s huge Vasa Pathway system, is one of the best for fat bike riding on snow. I’d recommend checking it out! This groomed path through the Pere Marquette State Forest features a variety of challenges including switchbacks and obstacles to go over or around.
Racing Down Kingdom Come
Unfortunately, Michigan doesn’t have the long, powdered runs the mountains in Colorado and Utah provide when it comes to downhill skiing and snowboarding – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some challenging slopes in this part of the country. Schuss Mountain at the 4,500-acre Shanty Creeks Resort, near the village of Bellaire, is the location of some of the best downhill slopes in the United States’ Midwest including a run called Kingdom Come. This black diamond trail has a 450-foot vertical drop that starts off steep and keeps getting steeper down the run.
Skiing in the Moonlight
Downhill skiing or snowboarding not your thing? Have you tried cross country skiing? Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort, a fifteen minute drive from Traverse City, provides an out of the ordinary experience letting you ski under the moon and stars across groomed, well-lighted trails. Watch the snow glitter as you glide through the path of a hardwood forest maze. Enjoy a nice winter evening outside and don’t worry about having to drag equipment with you as Timber Ridge has rentals for everything needed to enjoy their course.
Interested in a winter activity that doesn’t take a lot of skill or effort to have fun doing it? Try snow tubing! Mt. Holiday Ski Area has a dedicated tubing park where you can race down a groomed hill in a large inner tube. Once you’ve had the thrill of sliding down the slope there is a convenient towline to pull you back up the hill to do it all over again. This is a great activity for parents and children to do together for some quality family time. So who in your family do you think will let out the highest pitched squeal as they hurtle downhill on a big rubber doughnut?
Have a good time splashing around in the water even though it may be freezing outside. Traverse City’s Great Wolf Lodge has an indoor water park filled with a variety of water slides, splash pads, and pools that can provide countless hours of family fun with a variety of features that cater to children of various ages. Have a summer style family vacation at this “Up North” themed resort in the middle of winter.
The central feature of the water park is a huge interactive tree house, called Fort Mackenzie, located on a giant splash pad. Since there is no standing water, there are no age or height restrictions so anyone from a toddler to grandpa can play here. Fort Mackenzie is full of suspension bridges, swinging cargo net ladders, spray cannons, and water features. Some of the water features are great for getting yourself wet while others are meant for targeting other people who may be in your proximity. The biggest, and probably the most popular, part of the experience is a huge bucket located at the top of the tree house that pours down a 1,000 gallons of water every 5 minutes. Make sure you have your swim suit tied up tight because one unlucky guy standing next to me during one of the downpours had his pulled down to his knees by the water and that was something no one wanted to see. Ooops…thank goodness that wasn’t me!
Explore Traverse City
The summer crowds may be gone, but many of the gourmet restaurants and fashionable bars that cater to them are still open throughout the remainder of the year. Enjoy a delicious meal or a tasty beverage. Do you like wine, cider or beer? They have a lot of locally produced options to choose from that you may not otherwise find elsewhere.
Goof off with a visit to Lucky Jack’s which bills itself as “Northern Michigan’s Largest Indoor Family Fun Center.” It has 33 lanes of bowling, 8 billiard tables, a 12,000 square foot arcade, laser tag, indoor bumper cars and a laser maze where you have to get out of a room without breaking any of the laser beams. Stop by CENTRE ICE ARENA, home of the Detroit Red Wings training camp, for a twilight open skate on the same rink that numerous professional hockey players have practiced and scrimmaged on over the years. Take in some comic book culture by visiting Top Comics on East Eighth Street and chatting with its staff about your favorite publications, movies and video games. You never know what unique comic book, collectible or toy you may stumble upon when visiting and browsing through their resale selections.
Stop by the Dennos Museum Center which has one of the world’s leading collections of Inuit Art. Inuit are the culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Enjoy an hour wandering through this collection of more than 1,000 prints, sculptures, drawings, tools and textiles honoring people whose lives revolved around surviving frigid weather. An interesting topic to think about on a cold winter day.
So which of these activities do you find most appealing? Road trips don’t need to be just in the summer. Have yourself a grand winter time adventure visiting Northwestern Michigan.