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.
I planned a trip out to Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids on my calendar a couple months in advance. I had thought that the Japanese Gardens would be an interesting place to visit during the winter months. I have been so accustomed to seeing the part of the gardens during the summer months, and thought it would be interesting to see how the landscape changes during the winter time. The day came for my visit to the gardens and it was a very sunny day. It was also 60 degrees outside with snow melting rapidly. That week we experienced a January thaw. This warmer weather brought out a lot of people. What I thought might be a wasted trip turned out to be pretty good after all.
The trail going around a series of several ponds in this garden was extremely wet and at some points muddy from the melting snow. In spite of the warmer temperatures, the ponds still had a thin coat of ice over them. There were a few snow piles left along the trail. One of the highlights along this garden are the three man made waterfalls pouring out into the ponds below. The point of the Japanese Gardens is to promote a relaxing atmosphere. These waterfalls do exactly that. There are even a few benches nearby where one can sit and just take it all in. I myself could have spent more time there had the benches not been wet from the melting snow. As you continue around the ponds you come across a couple island areas where there are gazebos to sit in. Again, the way this garden promotes the idea of relaxation in nature is really great.
There were several areas that were blocked off and not open during the winter months. That is more to ensure the safety of the guests who may get too close to the ponds. On this particular day, it was a good idea. The ponds were obviously melting and there were areas where open water stood surrounded by ice. It was clear that the ice that was there was very thin and fragile. It did make for some interesting photos throughout the garden. As you walked around the ponds there were several Japanese themed sculptures that seemed to stand out a little more in the winter. A good part of this is due to the trees surrounding the area. Often during the summer the trees shade the sculpture or they are a little bit hidden with full leaves on the trees. The highlight of the gardens was the viewing hill which overlooked the whole area. Again, the lack of leaves on trees made for better viewing of the area as a whole. That seemed to be the big takeaway of the value of visiting this garden during the winter season.
The walk around the garden took about an hour in total time. There were several people there getting out on the nice day. It was not the original way I wanted to view the gardens, but often when it comes to photography, you have to adjust for the weather conditions. This case was no exception. I am still curious to see the gardens covered with snow and to see how the landscape changed even from what I saw on this trip. It looks like more snow is going to fall during the month of February. I just might be able to get that chance.
The Grand River has not hardly had the impact as the Colorado River has with the Grand Canyon. However, there is evidence that the River has shaped the lands around it. The Ledges of Grand Ledge is one example. You can access the Ledges at Fitzgerald Park in the city of Grand Ledge. These ledges are sedimentary rock that was cut from the flow of the Grand River over years. The sandstone formations were made by the process of slit and clay carried by the by the water and deposited in layers along the river, this creating the ledges that we see today. This park is a great hiking spot for nature lovers and I have found that it is also one of the lesser known natural areas within the state.
I have been there in each of the seasons. There is not a season where a trip to the ledges is not worth it. There is value in each season. In Spring and Summer you will see several ferns and plant life along the ledges. The leaves on the trees provide a nice shady walk in nature. During the fall season you are treated to the colorful changing of the leaves. My recent trip was during the winter. The snow on the ledges created a new and different scene from what I was used to. As you enter Fitzgerald Park you will be met with several picnic and playground areas. There are also a few baseball diamonds in the park as well. From the parking lot you will find a walkway taking you to the Historic Ledges Theater. Just around the back is a set of stairs heading to the ledges along the Grand River.
Right near the base of the stairway is a bridge over a creek that flows into the Grand River. You can go in two different directions. You can continue along the Grand River or explore the ledges along the creek. If you explore along the creek be aware that the trail is not paved and there are many natural dangers in your way. I found that you have to be very aware of where you are stepping. Rocks and tree roots pop up from the ground and it is easy to trip and fall. The trail also can lead you on the bank of the creek. In the winter this is especially crucial. If you lose your footing, it is easy to slide right down into the creek. The upswing to this area is that you will see some of the ledges hang right above you. This area is a great spot to nab a photograph of the kids or family.
Heading down the trail along the Grand River you are given views of the Grand River as well as the ledges over hanging above on the right side of the trail. This trail is not paved in areas as well but the trail is more distinct. This trail will take you toward Island Park. near the downtown area of Grand Ledge. This trail provides a great way to enjoy nature. As I hiked there in the winter, I saw frozen rolled up ferns hanging off some of the rocks. The views of these rocks are incredible. The trail also extends out on the other side of the stairway to the upper proportion of the park. If you are a hiker or nature enthusiast this is a good park to spend an afternoon at. For those rock climbing enthusiasts, Oak Park, located right across the river of Fitzgerald Park opens up the ledges for rock climbing. However, the bulk of the ledges can be found at Fitzgerald Park.
The city of Portland, Michigan is known as the City of Two Rivers. The Grand River runs through the city while the Looking Glass River intersects it. Portland is located about 15 miles east of Lansing. Within the city there are a few parks that link together through a riverwalk system that extends to both sides of the river, and has four different steel bridges crossing over the Grand River at some point. One of those bridges can be seen from the freeway of Interstate 96 heading toward Grand Rapids. I have seen it many times while driving on the freeway and always wanted to get a closer look. I drove out to Portland on a rather snowy day and was glad I got to experience the charm of this small city of Michigan.
I came in from Grand River Avenue and parked my car near Fabiano’s River House Bar and Grill and walked over a small bridge heading to Two Rivers Park. This small bridge stood over the Looking Glass River near the intersection of the Grand River. The park had a rather nice Veterans Memorial section. From this park you could walk along the Grand River to a bridge that crossed the Grand River to Water Street. Along the way were a couple of people getting in a winter jog. The bridge is one of four historical bridges within the city. This bridge is an old railroad bridge converted to a pedestrian bridge with steel beams rising over the concrete. I had the unique experience of seeing this bridge during the winter. The Grand River was flowing under slabs of ice that had been pushed together. It looked like there was an ice blockage within the river.
I got into my car and then drove toward the freeway. I headed onto Market Street taking it to the freeway overpass. There I saw the historic steel bridge that I had seen so many times on the freeway. I walked across the bridge. The other side of the bridge led to private property along the Grand River. The best photo opportunity came from the side along Market Street. The view from the bridge opposite of the freeway was pretty spectacular. The ice frozen on the Grand River was cut in certain places. The pattern that the ice created was rather interesting. You could see a small island further down the Grand River. During the summer and fall seasons, this would be a great scenic viewpoint.
I continued along Canal Street heading back toward Downtown Portland. The last bridge I stopped at was the historical Bridge Street Bridge (also known as Veteran’s Memorial Bridge). This bridge is a one way bridge leading right into Downtown Portland. Cars driving over this truss bridge drive on the metal grate deck of the bridge crossing over the Grand River. Within 100 feet from the exit of the bridge is Kent Street in the middle of Downtown Portland. I took a couple photos from the banks of the river, but the Grand River had frozen over a little bit onto the sidewalks near the bank areas. I did not want to fall through any ice, so I stayed at a safe distance. I ended up driving over the bridge which was not as scary as I thought it might be for a bridge with a grate deck.
The city of Portland does have one more bridge further down near the high school. I did not get a chance to go out and see it. All the bridges are connected together through the Riverwalk and it would be a great way to see the city. My visit came during the winter and it was beautiful out there. However, I would recommend taking a walk along this trail system during the spring, summer or fall seasons. It was quite cold out when I went and the snow at times made it hard to see the views from the bridges. In spite of the winter weather, I was glad that I spent some time in Portland.
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.