The Silver Lake sand dunes stretch out for miles between Silver Lake and Lake Michigan. The state park draws in plenty of visitors in the summer to ride off road vehicles on the dunes, hike hills of the dunes, take a tour ride of the dunes, visit the campground on Silver Lake or just enjoy a day at the beach near Little Sable Point Lighthouse. There is no shortage of activity during the summer months at Silver Lake State Park. During the winter, the area shuts down. The dune tours close up, restaurants and gift shops shut down, and the whole area is like a ghost town. This time of the year is a prime time to see the ghosts of a different kind at the state park.
The dunes are home to a section of ghost forests. These ghost forests are great to visit during the summer, but also provide an interesting view of the dune landscape during the winter. The best way to access the ghost forest is a small parking lot off North Shore Drive. This small park area is the access to the pedestrian dunes. There are a series of boardwalk stairs taking you up to the dunes where you will have to climb up the dunes for about 25 feet. The challenge to this during a snowy winter is that the snow drifts build up on that side of the dunes once the boardwalk stairs end, making access nearly impossible. If you do run into that issue, don’t fret because there is another way to the dunes. Simply walk down to the end of the parking lot near the ORV section of the dunes. There is a small entryway to the dunes as it crosses over to the ORV part of the dunes. In the winter time, you are not going to have to worry about being in the way of any ORV’s.
As you access the dunes, head back toward the way you would have started from the boardwalk. Make your way out into the dunes for about a quarter mile and you start to run into the wooden stumps of the ghost forest. The various shaped wooden stumps are all over the dunes and scattered in about a half mile radius. Walking on the dunes is a little easier in the winter than it can be in the summer. The winter temperatures freeze the surface of the sand and it is like walking on concrete. Pay attention to the various patters of snow and sand mixed together as they can create some interesting photo opportunities. While you are out there, it is easy to lose yourself in the environment. There are no sounds of ORV’s in the distance. There are usually no visible signs of other people. You are in the midst of the sights and sounds of the winter winds.
The ghost forest area is a place that several people don’t really think about when visiting the park in the winter. The lighthouse will always be the more popular attraction. I think that it is only fitting that one should visit the ghost forest during the winter since the whole park seems to be like a giant ghost town. It is a far contrast between winter and summer, but that is what makes it worth coming to in the two seasons. You do get quite a bit of a workout on the dunes and winter hiking can be a challenge, but you will walk away with some pretty unique photographs if you are up to the challenge.
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 Port Oneida Historic District is one of the less traveled areas of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This area continues north on M-22 into the Leelanau Peninsula. This is more of an area of countryside lands with old historic farms and houses. I have included this in one of the must see areas of a winter visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes for a reason. It is an area that you can explore and get lost in the history of the park. In some of the roads travel is difficult, but most of them are plowed out well. There are about 120 farms and homes in this district. Occasionally you will come across some old farming equipment in an empty field which is often an interesting subject to photograph.
Typically the best time to visit this area is during the summer. The houses tend to be open to the public and there is a festival in August where you are able not only to see the barns and houses up close and personal, but you are able to get a deeper grasp of the historic value with several park rangers and volunteers working providing demonstrations of the typical life during the late 18th century and early 19th century. However, I have found that from a photographic standpoint the contrast of some of these historic barns works well with the white snow cover. Being able to see this area during the winter season provides a little bit of a different perspective on the landscape. Here is a list of a few barns and places that I would stop by when visiting this area during the winter.
- Charles Olson Farm (pictured above)
- Dechow Farm
- Eckhert Farm
- Port Oneida School – The school is a historic school building, but is white and may blend in with white snow. It is worth a look though
- Thoreson Farm
- Brunson Barn
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a must see on any trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Along the drive you will see a wooden covered bridge, several sweeping views of the dunes, an overlook to Lake Michigan, and a diverse ecological system. This scenic drive brings a lot of traffic during the regular tourist season. In the winter this drive closes to motor vehicle traffic and is open for cross country skiing and hiking (preferably with snowshoes). The fact that it is closed down during the winter to motor vehicle traffic does not mean it is not worth a stop. In fact, it is just the opposite. This scenic drive should be at the top of your list for a winter visit.
When hiking along this 7 mile loop one of the first places you will encounter is the covered wooden bridge. It is one of the few covered bridges in the state of Michigan. I really enjoyed the snow all over the road with nothing but a trail left by skis. When the road is opened during the tourist season it is often hard to get a photo of the bridge without cars moving through the area. This is the advantage of the winter as vehicles wont be a factor in your photos. The downside is once you get past this bridge you go up a rather steep incline heading up the scenic loop. It levels off a little before another incline to the Glen Lake Overlook. From there you head up another incline in the road. It becomes obvious at this point that you are in for quite the workout.
Once you arrive at the Dune Overlook you are on more level ground of the loop. The view from the Dune Overlook is incredible. You can see views of the D.H. Day Barn in the distance. It is really interesting to see how the snow changes up the look of the landscape from the summer. To the left you can see Lake Michigan in the distance across an oasis of dunes. At this point you are going to likely be diverted off the main road and through a forest area. The road closes due to large snow drifts and according to park rangers it can be dangerous attempting to pass through the area. It is not long until you are back on the main road winding through lower elevations of the scenic road. Rest up and take a break at this area, or take the trail heading back to the parking lot, because from here on out you are going up very steep inclines.
The road takes you up a major incline on its way up toward the Lake Michigan overlook. It is very easy to get winded, so take your time or rest frequently. After winding upward a little bit more you finally make it to the Lake Michigan overlook. This is really the highlight of the scenic drive. It is just as beautiful during the winter season as it is during the summer. The patters of snow and sand mixing on the dunes makes for some interesting photos. During the summer it is hard to get a photo of the overlook without people on the overlook deck. During the winter, it is more than likely you will have the overlook to yourself and any other area near this overlook. Take your time here as you will come away with some incredible photos. Afterward, you can continue along the road to the North Bar Overlook, or you can head back down the way you came and cross back to the parking lot area. Each way is about the same distance and both routes you are heading downward which makes it a little easier. Before you know it you have completed the scenic drive and have hiked or skied 7 miles. It is quite the workout, but well worth the adventure!
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.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers many activities for those visiting the park. If you are coming in on M 22 from Frankfort, Michigan the Platte River area won’t be too far off into the park. During the summer this area is pretty popular as the river allows for many recreational opportunities. Visitors can be found tubing and canoeing down the river. Outdoor enthusiasts will spend the day fishing as the river turns and bends near a pullout along the road. At the mouth of the river kids and adults swim at the beach at Lake Michigan. There is always something going on at the Platte River area. During the winter, it is a totally different environment in terms of activity, but that does not mean that the Platte River area is not worth a visit.
I took a trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes in the winter a few years back. I turned onto Lake Michigan Road. This road will take you directly to a parking lot where the Platte River empties out into Lake Michigan. Right away there is a small picnic area that is pretty much non operation for the season. Across the river is a canoe outfitter. There is a photo opportunity there as they leave the canoes out along the riverside. The yellow and orange color of the canoes really stand out against the white of the snow. It is also a cool place to see the river if you are willing to walk through the snow. As you continue down the road you will straddle the river. This road can be snowy and not plowed out right away, so keep this in mind as you travel down this road in the winter. About midway down the road there is another pull off. In the summer this is a perfect spot for fishing. There is also a dock set up extending into the river a bit. This area is where the river really winds and curves around. This is an area that is worth a stop as you see the difference in the landscape with the snow and the winding river. A word of caution though you will have to walk through some snow in areas and often there can be drifts that can take you by surprise. Always watch your step when walking in this area.
As you continue down toward the end of the road you end up in a large parking lot. The mouth of the river is not too far away from the lot, but you do have to walk a little ways to get there. The lot runs right up against the river. Several benches lined the grassy areas along the river to sit and relax. I did not stay too much because the cold winds and snow whipped my face. It is still a very scenic spot in the winter, but chances are you won’t spend too much time relaxing at these benches. I took a paved sidewalk heading along the river toward the beach area. Soon I was walking along a frozen sandy oasis. The small rocks were frozen into the sand. There were not too much in the way of snow drifts along this area because the other side of the river has a little protection with some dunes on the other side. It was easier to walk on the sand as it was frozen. It was very much like walking on concrete. Soon I was at the mouth of the river at Lake Michigan. You could see the Empire Bluffs area out in the distance. The waves of Lake Michigan were crashing along the shoreline. A small edge of the shore was frozen over and building up ice as the waves were coming in. The mouth of the river also was a little more frozen over than areas of the river further back along the road. I was the only person out there and it was a bit strange. At the same time, I have never been at more peace than I was at that point. The sounds of the waves crashing, the smell of the air and not a person to be heard. This is a Sleeping Bear Winter.
The only issue with photographing winter scenes during the month of January is that snow squalls can come at any time. Always pay attention to the weather reports to see when the snow is coming. It helps to be out there on clear sunny days, but in many cases that is not going to be the case. Days where you are dealing with scattered snow showers can be temperamental When that snow comes in off the lake, it can be furious. It can be hard to see during those times. When you are out there and the snow is not falling hard, you will be able to see the landscape in a way that you never have seen before. You will come away with some great photos as well. .
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore draws in several thousands of visitors during the summer tourism season. Often the parking lots for viewing areas are filled and you cannot walk a quarter mile on one of the trails within the park without passing someone else. Sleeping Bear Dunes is a great place to visit during the spring, summer and fall seasons. Once those seasons pass the park numbers die down tremendously. It still sees quite a few visitors, but does not draw the crowd that it would during the main tourism season. A partial reason for this is that during the winter the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, one of the most popular attractions, is shut down for the season and only accessible by snowshoes or skis.
The winter season at Sleeping Bear Dunes offers plenty of fun and things to do. In this next series I will take a look at four key areas within the park that are must see stops if you visit the park during the winter. Each of these places provide plenty of photo opportunities as well as unique landscapes that offer a different perspective from the other seasons. The four areas that I am focusing on will be:
- Platte River area — The Platte River empties out into Lake Michigan at the end of the Platte River road. The journey to the mouth of the river gives you some unique views of the river itself.
- Empire Beach area — The South Bar Lake is nearby along with the Lake Michigan shoreline. You see sweeping views of the dunes from each direction. During the summer it is a beach goers paradise. In the winter; a frozen oasis with several unique formations of ice and sand.
- Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive — Closed for vehicle traffic, but accessible by snowshoes and skis. The various viewpoints are spectacular in the winter.
- Port Oneida Historic District — Old barns and homes from the historic district of long time settlers. It is a draw during the summer months, but somehow a blanket of white snow changes the perspective and contrast to what you would normally see.