Mackinaw City is extremely busy during the tourism season from early spring all the way to the mid part of fall. it is the gateway to Mackinac Island which is a major tourism draw for not only residents of Michigan, but people visiting from other states. The city mirrors St. Ignace on the other side of the bridge, but is by far the most popular tourism draw with many restaurants, shopping opportunities, historic parks, and a lighthouse overlooking the Mackinac Bridge. I entered the city expecting to see a similar scene that I had experienced at other seasonal tourist towns where there was little to no life within the town. What I soon realized is that the city brings in a lot more people than I thought during the winter season.
When I had visited the city during the winter a couple years ago, the Great Lakes were frozen over pretty good. The frozen waters over the Straits of Mackinac provided an opportunity for winter recreation that I had never given a second guess. Snowmobiles were being rented out and several snowmobile tours were being offered. These tours gave a new look to the city from what would be the waterfront. It provided an up close look at the Mackinac Bridge and some of the parks within city limits. A few stores had opened back up for the season selling more winter seasonal items. While most of the restaurants had shut down, there were still several restaurants still opened for business. Hotels were pretty well filled up far beyond what I had expected to see.
I stopped by the Lighthouse Park where Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse was located. Several people were walking back and forth from the parking lot to the frozen lakeshore area. The park seemed to be a mid point stop throughout the Straits of Mackinac snowmobile tours along the Lower Peninsula. A few people gathered in the park to get a closer view of the lighthouse. They left behind their snowmobiles parked out on the ice of the lake. The ice could be seen extending out way beyond the midpoint of the bridge. As I looked out onto the Mackinac Bridge, there was still quite a bit of traffic crossing the bridge between the two peninsulas. It wasn’t long until they got onto their snowmobiles and started heading toward the docks of the ferries that during the tourism season bring passengers out to Mackinac Island. Before leaving I got a pretty good glance at the Mackinac Point Lighthouse. I too had been accustomed to seeing this lighthouse during the summer season.
It certainly is interesting to see this city during the winter season. There is certainly more activity at this city than I had expected, and that is a pretty good thing. Often so many cities see a slowdown in the off season and it also slows down the economy for the city. When various tourist cities can flourish in all the seasons, it allows the city to bring in more businesses and keep up the parks that attract many visitors during the normal tourism season. If time allows, I definitely want to get back to this city during the winter and do a little bit more exploring than what I did on this current visit.
Visitors that pour into Holland State Park are rewarded with views of the Holland Harbor Lighthouse. The lighthouse to many has been refereed to as “Big Red”, and it has become a staple of the city of Holland, Michigan. At the state park you can view it from across the channel. The lighthouse rests on the south part of the channel while the State Park lies on the northern part of the channel. The best way to view the lighthouse is to get up close and personal on the south side of the channel, but there are challenges to getting access to the south end of the channel.
Like several other places within the state, some of the state’s attractions have been limited due to private property and gated communities. This is the issue that one will face when trying to access the south side of the Holland Channel. The area is gated off and you can not gain access inside unless you are renting a cottage or live within this community. I have found that parking near the marina is the best option. During the winter this area is free of cars and you will run into little problems. In the summer due to the fact that it is a marina, parking may be limited or you may be told to not park there. From the marina I have been able to walk into the gated community. It is not blocked off by steel gates (for the time being, as the Van Andel family has had much influence in keeping people out). It is about a mile walk from the marina to the lighthouse itself. Once you get past a large area of open spaces along Lake Macatawa you begin to enter the cottages area spanning along the channel. You will have to go through the cottage area to get to the walkway to the channel and to Big Red.
The lighthouse is impressive up close. You get a real scale sense of the size of the lighthouse compared to seeing it from the state park. The best vantage points of the lighthouse though come a little farther away. One of my favorite viewing spots of this lighthouse especially during the winter is along the bay in the small dunes area. The snow drifts up on the dunes and creates unique patterns with the sand and snow. It serves as a great foreground element in the photograph. I have also found that the pier extending beyond the lighthouse offers a great vantage point of the lighthouse. The lining of the blue railings lead the eye straight to the lighthouse in the distance. These are two views of the lighthouse that you won’t get across the channel at the state park. On the south side you are offered more of a 3D view of the lighthouse, whereas the state park views often are more one or two dimensional.
If you are willing to do a little walking to get to the the lighthouse, the view on the other side is worth it. In a perfect world, there would be no privatization of land to get to some of the states most beloved attractions. However, this seems to be the norm more and more every year. As of now, a person can still walk into the gated community to have access of the lighthouse. It is not clear if and when that would change. If you are lucky sometimes when they are doing construction on the houses being built the gate remains open and you can drive right in. However, that is not always going to be the case. Take advantage of the access while you can, and enjoy the great views of the lighthouse.
Two years ago Michigan saw a pretty cold winter. The Great Lakes were freezing over quite well and shelf ice expanded out into the lake nearly to the end of many piers. The year before that, the Great Lakes had almost totally frozen over. The seasonal snowfall reached far above average for both of those years. 2014-2015 was the last winter season where we saw this in Michigan. It has been fairly quiet in the last couple winters, especially for Southern Michigan. There is still that chance we will see these massive freezing events in future winter seasons, but we will have to wait for it.
In the early part of 2015 I ventured down to St. Joseph to experience the pier and lighthouse frozen over. I spent most of my time at Tiscornia Park on the north side of the channel. From the parking lot I ventured up in the dunes where you could see a sweeping view of the pier and the lighthouses (inner light and outer light). People were climbing up on the catwalk as some of the ice had made it accessible up there. I really liked the distance view. The brown dune grass extending out from the snow drifts in the dunes, the sand and snow mixing together made it a perfect foreground for the pier and lighthouse.
I made my way out into the shoreline area. The shelf ice was present right at the start of the shoreline. The only issue that presented an immediate danger is that the shelf ice was small and the drop offs were only a few inches as opposed to several feet near the open water further out. The snow covered this up, so it was quite easy to misstep and turn the ankles. I used my tripod as a walking stick and that helped a lot. Being out on the shelf ice was a unique experience because there were several balls of sand and ice all throughout the landscape. It was as if you were on a different planet. I started making my way over to the inner lighthouse. This is where several people started using the catwalk to get past the inner light and out on parts of the pier navigating past narrow passages that could lead one slipping right into the water. I chose not to hit the catwalk. I went out onto the shelf ice again and got some photos of the lighthouse at a safe area. Had I gone further, I would have ventured out into unsafe areas of ice where the water below was shifting that ice around.
My adventure at St. Joseph was a very good one. I stayed in areas that were safe and was able to capture some good photographs of the lighthouse and pier. Having the opportunity out on the ice gave me a new appreciation for winter at our states Lake Michigan Lighthouses. The change in landscape is so dramatic that it is like experiencing another world during the winter than what is the norm during spring, summer and fall. We most likely won’t see that type of ice for the remainder of this year, but there is always the possibility of next year. The weather patterns tend to go in cycles where it is warm a couple years and then cold for a couple years. If that pattern holds, we may be seeing ice out on the lake in the next few years to come.
Ludington State Park has several dunes, a couple miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan, campgrounds, and several hiking trails to provide something for everyone. The park sees several visitors every year and many of them come during the summer months. During the winter there are still a few visitors to the park, but the areas many recreational opportunities are slightly more limited. A big draw for visitors during the winter months remains the Big Sable Lighthouse. It is about a mile hike out to the lighthouse from the parking lot, but several people are up for the breathtaking winter hike.
The first part of the hike out to Big Sable Point Lighthouse is not that bad. The concrete trail is plowed out and is usually pretty accessible. The trail stays plowed for about a quarter mile out. After this point the trail is no longer plowed out and the snow drifts can be deep in certain places. I found that the deepest snow is right at the begining where the trail is no longer plowed and toward the middle point of the trail when the dunes open up a bit. The snow and sand are blown and infused together at times so it is very possible to be hiking on a couple inches of snow and then fall knee deep in snow a few feet ahead. Be prepared to get a workout when the snow and sand mix together. The snow keeps the sand relatively soft so it is harder to navigate through it all. If you were to step up onto some of the sand dunes, the sand gets a little harder due to the cold temperatures and freezing at the surface level of the dunes. I have seen a few people navigate onto the dunes to avoid the deep drifts of sand/snow on the main trail. I don’t believe there is a real easy way to navigate to the lighthouse in winter conditions.
Once you get to the lighthouse, you are treated to a frozen tundra around the lighthouse at Lake Michigan. On some years the lake is really frozen over and self ice extends out into the lake. Other years there is ice, but not as much on the lake itself. I have found that an interesting vantage point of the lighthouse can be seen from atop the dunes just beyond the lighthouse to the north. Once you have made it to the lighthouse, I would recommend spending a little time there and taking it all in. The lighthouse itself is closed for the season, but the views of the lighthouse are excellent. As you make your way back, I would advise taking the same way you came on the main trail. You can opt to hike back along the lakeshore. This is more advisable during summer. During the winter it is too easy to hurt yourself on the ice.
Visiting Michigan’s State Parks during the winter can be a great recreational experience. During the winter there is a chance to see the parks in a different way than what many are accustomed to during the summer. There are also a few additional things to experience during the winter season than you would have during the summer. Often are winters in Michigan provide a lot of snow. Lately we have not had average snowfall in many parts of Michigan. I went to Muskegon a few years ago when we were getting a decent amount of snowfall and found the experience to be an adventure I would not forget.
I drove into the State Park and was greeted by the sight of a ice covered Lake Michigan. Self Ice extended out into the lake pretty far. In the very distance you could see the open water. The park road takes you toward the main beach area. However, due to heavy snow, the plowed area of the road stops short of the beach area. This means that you have to walk it in from a small parking area. The thought of walking through large drifts of snow did not thrill me, the snow was no reason to stop me. In what was an interesting turn of events, further down the road there has hardly any snow at all as it was protected between large sand dunes. I started my way along the beach area and the parking lot. I had to climb up some dunes to head out toward the break walls. The dunes were interesting as a mixture of sand and snow made several unique patterns crafted by the winds off the lake. The break wall is made up of several large boulders. On a summer day, you can walk out along the break wall and see the boats coming in and out of the channel area connecting Lake Michigan with Muskegon Lake. The top of the break wall was pretty icy and it appeared to be too dangerous to walk out. I could see the lighthouse structure on the other end of the channel at the Pier Marquette Beach area from where I was standing.
A small bay rests between the break wall and the channel. It is not that difficult to reach the channel from there. There is a walkway along the channel extending from Lake Michigan to the shore of Muskegon Lake. This also parallels the campground area. During the summer it is a prefect place to do a little fishing or catch the boats passing through. In the winter time, it is a nice little walk and hike. When I was there, the channel was open water and not frozen over in any place. The walkway along the channel also had minimal snow cover as well; making the hike much easier. The winter atmosphere was different than what I have experienced before. I had been so used to several people out on the walkway during the summer, it was strange to have the whole area to myself. It was quiet and peaceful. On the way back I took the roadside heading back to my car. The dunes area along the break wall near the beach was a bit strenuous. I walked through areas of road with little snow to areas covered in a couple feet of snow. Much of it depended on open areas surrounding the road.
Although this park is much easier to navigate during the summer and has several recreational opportunities I would not recommend that anyone stay away from this park during the winter. Chances are you will not only have parts of the park alone to yourself, but the change in landscape scenery gives you a greater appreciation of the park. When I found the road closed up and had the chance to just turn around, I am glad I made the choice to go on foot from that point. I would have missed out on a lot if I had turned back.
The city of Empire sits in the middle of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It is a small village rooted in history. The village is where the Visitors Center for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park is located. It has a few nice shops and a couple restaurants, and a museum. Empire hosts the annual Asparagus Festival that draws in several visitors each year. Empire Village Park is the highlight of this small village. The park is nestled in between Lake Michigan and South Bar Lake. It has playgrounds, a nice sandy beach and many picnic tables and benches to sit and enjoy the scenery. During the winter this park takes on a life all its own and creates several unique photo opportunities.
As you enter the park you come upon a lot of the playground areas. My favorite part of the park is located toward the end of the parking lot at its northern most point. There, you will see the Robert H. Manning Memorial Lighthouse, named after a life long resident of Empire. Its structure is similar to that of Point Betsie not too far away south of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. This lighthouse is always interesting because the change in seasons offers a different landscape. Winter gives you a totally different look than what you would see during the summer. I always love the mix of sand and snow in the foreground. Just beyond the parking lot is South Bar Lake on your right. This is a small lake that has some residential houses around it. When I had gone there the lake was coated with a thin layer of ice. The docks were pulled in so you could not get a real good close up look, but it was an interesting view along the parking lot. To the left of the parking lot is Lake Michigan.
The Lake Michigan shoreline at Empire Beach is an interesting place during the winter months. Walking out on the beach you can see sweeping vistas of steep dunes to your left and right. The beach itself can get a little bit of ice buildup from the waves crashing and forming ice, but every time I have been at this park the ice build up is heavier beyond the beach in both directions. What I found interesting is that along this beach you will find various sand deposits frozen over on the beach. Each of these deposits create their own shape formed by the wind and crashing water. I walked along the beach off to the north and there were times where I was walking on a frozen shelf of sand extending over the shoreline. It was amazing out there and it provided many photographic opportunities. I would urge a bit of caution when walking on the ice. There were times where I felt planted and ended up on by backside. Sometimes those areas of sheer smooth ice can be the worst.
If you are ever at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the winter, I would highly recommend stopping by Empire Village Park. Take some time exploring the beach and look for those frozen sand patterns. The areas of beach along Lake Michigan that have more rising dunes tend to have cool patters of snow and sand. This area is a bit more flat with little dunes on the beach, so it is likely you will see more frozen sand formations. Chances are if you explore the area you will find some pretty unique frozen sand formations that will allow for incredible photographs.
The winter season is always a fun one in Michigan. There are many great places to see and things to do. I have been fortunate enough to live close enough to Lake Michigan to visit many of the lighthouses frozen over during the winter. The freeze begins in December and on those particularly cold winters the ice ramps up along the piers of the lighthouses. There have been a couple years where the Great Lakes froze quite a bit along the shorelines creating a lot of shelf ice. When this happens it is like a totally different world that what you are used to during the spring, summer and fall seasons. It is a frozen oasis with many hills and cliffs to explore. There is a particular danger to this ice though. The water of the lake and its currents are in constant motion under the ice. In some cases the ice can break away and weaken. Shelf ice out on Lake Michigan has become increasingly dangerous and not many people are aware of the potential danger that lies out on the ice.
In 2014 Lake Michigan had froze quite a bit. The shelf ice extended all the way past the lighthouse and pier. It brought many people out to the state park that year. Kids would sled down some of the ice hills near the base of the lakeshore. The ice was pretty solid there and they were pretty safe that close to the shoreline. Many photographers like myself were attracted to the lighthouses as that year was the most frozen I had seen the lake in a long time. Ottawa County Sheriff and and Coast Guard personnel were out there on a regular basis. They had knowledge that the currents below were moving some of the ice. They were advising everyone to stay off the ice beyond the end of the pier at outer lighthouse. They did not have to warn me twice, but I did see others ignore the warning. One person that ignored that warning not only put the himself in danger, but also put me in a dangerous spot as well.
I was taking some photos of the outer lighthouse encased in ice along the edge of the pier. I was just on the very edge of what was described as the “safe zone”. While I was taking shots, another photographer from Wisconsin decided to ignore the warnings and go further out. His buddy stayed back. I watched him navigate out on the ice about 20 feet beyond the pier and lighthouse into Lake Michigan. He yelled to his buddy that the ice was pretty solid. I also heard him state that the police officer had no clue what he was talking about. I continued to take some photographs. Suddenly I heard a yell from out where that gentleman was. He had slipped down into some loose ice. His foot was down in about six inches of water. He stated that there was some ice still under his foot, but he heard cracking sounds. I set my camera down. His buddy and myself started making our way toward him. He was able to grab onto some solid ice and pull himself away. We stood where we were as he slowly made his way back to us. Both of us were ready to go out and try to get him if he ran into more trouble. He finally made his way back to us without any issues. We all slowly made our way back to the pier and onto solid ice.
The ice out on the Great Lakes can be fun to explore, but can be extremely dangerous. I have heard many close calls from photographers taking the appearance of solid ice for granted. When going out on the ice, stay safe out there. If the police and Coast Guard are giving warnings of the dangers out there, heed their advice. Winter photography is challenging and very rewarding. There are many things that you can do ahead of time to make sure you stay safe out there. In some cases it is a matter of listening to those who know the terrain and the area well. There is no shame in seeking the advice of others. In other cases, it comes down to knowing information ahead of time so you can be prepared and make the most of your winter photography experience. There are things that I wished I knew ahead of my trips. Had I known what I was up against, I could have saved myself a lot of time and heartache dealing with dangerous winter situations. Winter in Michigan is beautiful. Stay safe and take a lot of great photos.