Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a great place to visit during the winter season. Many people visit this park during the summer during its peak tourist season, but there is something special about Sleeping Bear Dunes during the winter. Gone are the people tubing down the Platte River. Gone are the people driving through the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Gone are the people crowding some of the popular hiking trails. There is a stillness at this park during the winter. When you stand out on the snow filled beaches, sounds of waves crashing against ice piles can be heard. When you walk through the snowy trails of Empire Bluffs there is total silence and the only thing that can be heard are a couple of creatures moving around, and the wind whistling between the trees. The scenery of Sleeping Bear Dunes is spectacular during the winter season. If you are looking to visit when the crowds are few then winter is the time to explore this top tourist attraction in Michigan.
If you are not prepared for the winter elements, you can run into a few problems. I have experienced some of those dangerous situations simply because of my lack of knowledge. As with many places up north, there are areas that do not get plowed. Keep in mind that some of the side roads to a few of the beaches do not get plowed. Stop by the Visitors Center in Empire to get an idea of what areas are plowed and safe to drive through. Two counties run through the park and each has their own plowing schedule. The visitors center park rangers should be able to tell you when the best time to head down certain roads are. As with many of my other adventures soft shoulders on the roadside are quite common. Look for a clear plowed parking lot or drive nearby to park the vehicle.
Snowshoes or skis are a must if you are doing some hiking in the park. This is where I had gone wrong in one of my first visits to this park during the winter season. I struggled in two popular hiking areas during the winter. The Empire Bluffs trail is a popular hiking trail during the tourist season. The trail gives you sweeping views of the dunes and Lake Michigan. You can see the village of Empire from the bluff. It is quite the sight to see during the winter, but you must be prepared. The park will give guided hikes in the winter of this trail. They use snowshoes to make the hike. There are many snow drifts up on the higher elevations. One minute you could be walking through a couple inches of snow on the trail and then the next you are knee deep in snow. Without snowshoes the hike is very difficult. I had to find this out the hard way. On the hike going down an incline I also slipped and fell right on my back. I would not recommend this hike without snowshoes.
The biggest mistake I made was out on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. During the winter this drive is shut down to all vehicles and is used as a cross country trail. It is recommended that you take the trail with skis or snowshoes. When I visited the park, there had just been a foot of fresh snow. There was a thaw a week before that so the road contained ice frozen over from the meltdown. This made it a lot more difficult. The scenery was nice and parts of the drive were pretty easy to walk by foot. Once I hit the higher elevations within the drive, I struggled a lot more. This is where the snow shoes or skis would have come in handy. Also, part of the drive was blocked off due to drifting snow. This is right at the Dune Overlook areas. The trail gets re-routed through the woods reconnecting back to the main drive in a lower elevation. The area I had the most trouble with was a huge hill heading to the Lake Michigan Overlook. Hiking with no snow shoes or skis was a workout and this hill became what I thought was going to be the death of me. I made it halfway up the hill and almost collapsed. I was so tired and so run down from the hike. I laid in the snow for about 10 minutes trying to gain the courage to keep going. I struggled up the rest of the hill and made it to the overlook. The view was stunning and it was a nice photo opportunity. However, I wished I had the right equipment to make the hike.
There are many times where some of the most simple things like snowshoes get overlooked. I have hiked many trails in the winter, and took it for granted that places like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is in a league of its own when it comes to winter hiking. These are common mistakes that I have made and I have heard similar stories from others who have made those same mistakes. When going to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, check in at the Visitors Center first. They will always provide you with the right information and tips to make your experience a great one. I made the mistake of overlooking that valuable information. Overlooking information can be costly, and I found that to be true on the ice near the lighthouses on Lake Michigan. Find out what happened in a couple days.
Winter in Northern Michigan is a sight to behold. The best is traveling right after a snowstorm has cleared out and fresh snow is hanging on every branch of every tree. I had that opportunity a couple years ago when the day after a snowstorm, it was a beautiful day with blue skies and lots of sun. It was still quite cold out, but the driving conditions were pretty good. There were still a few dangerous issues out on the road though that I had not really thought about until it was too late. Earlier in the day I was at Iargo Springs near Oscoda. I made my way up to Alpena toward the middle of the afternoon only to face another setback. I was surprised to find out that lots of people get stuck in the same location I did.
I traveled into Presque Isle just north of Alpena. The old and new lighthouses sit on each end of the isle. In my opinion the old one is the more interesting of the two. It is also a lot smaller, but the history and aesthetic appeal makes the old lighthouse a must see on any visit to the Alpena area. I stopped at the New Presque Isle Lighthouse first. It is at the northernmost end of the isle. The parking lot was cleared out and the lighthouse was opened for visitors. They were not doing tours up to the top of the lighthouse. I was there in the autumn season before and it can get quite windy. My guess is it is just too dangerous to make the climb up to the top due to the winter weather. You can still get an appreciation for the history of the lighthouse with the section that was opened. It is a nice lighthouse and definitely worth a stop to visit. Of the two lighthouses, the new lighthouse is also the most difficult to photograph in terms of lighting. The position of the lighthouse in relation to the sun makes it hard to get some different angles on the lighthouse.
My real adventure came when I visited the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse. As I mentioned before, this is what I feel is the more interesting lighthouse of the two. This lighthouse was closed up and a gate closed off the parking lot near the main road. I parked my car on the side area of the road where it looked like there was a bit of a turn off. That was my mistake. The whole area of the road is a soft shoulder. I ended up getting stuck for the second time that day. Countless efforts to dig myself out failed. Luckily, there was enough traffic that someone was able to pull me out with a chain. The guy that pulled me out lived down the street. He informed me that there is a marina parking lot about a quarter mile away that is plowed and a great place to park to view the lighthouse. I also found out that I was not the only one to park on the shoulders and get stuck. It turned out that this was quite common by many who were never aware of that marina parking lot.
I walked to the lighthouse. The snow was pretty deep in the area and no one had been there in the last 24 hours it looked like. At that time the water levels of Lake Huron were pretty low so there were quite a few rocks on the beach area outside of the lighthouse. The deep snow covered a lot of those rocks. It is very easy to misstep and trip over some of those rocks. A fresh blanket of snow with no previous trails made by anyone else in the last 24 hours left me to navigate my own way. I tripped up on some of those rocks and fell down hard. It is so easy to bang up your knee or twist your ankle in these conditions. It may not seem like a dangerous situation, but if you are not aware of what your surroundings are or the terrain that may be hidden, you could find yourself in a situation that could get you hurt.
The two lighthouses are beautiful during the winter season. The most important lessons learned is to know your surroundings and avoid parking along roadways. Too many people find themselves on a soft shoulder that they cannot get out of. Northern Michigan gets a lot more snow than what we do in Southern Michigan. Often we have a mindset of doing things that we are used to from where we live. I never adjusted my frame of mind when I made the trip from Grand Rapids to Alpena. I made that same mistake when I went to Sleeping Bear Dunes a couple years before that. At one point I thought I was going need an emergency rescue on a hike. I will tell you exactly how I got out of that situation in a couple days.
Northern Michigan is filled with spectacular scenery that spans all seasons. One of my favorite places to visit is Iargo Springs located along the Au Sable River Scenic Roadway. The spring is in the heart of the Huron-Manistee National Forest, but not too far from Oscoda, Michigan. My first experience there was during the fall color season. To gain access to the springs you have to be willing to take a stairway of at least 300 stairs down to the springs. From above you can see a nice overlook of the Au Sable River. The springs below flow out to the Au Sable River. It is worth the hike down and back up the stairway. These natural springs were a source of drinking water for some time. During the logging era, dams were built to route the water to the logging camps. Iargo Springs is a great place to visit for most of the year. The springs during the winter season are spectacular. It is really inspiring to see the winter snow surrounded by these springs and their running waters. The water is warm enough that during the winter the water will not freeze over allowing the springs and their runoff to flow with ease.
While it is quite beautiful to see, there are a few major things to keep in mind when stopping by. The National Forest leaves the main parking lot unplowed. That was my first mistake when visiting a few years ago. I was able to get into the parking lot pushing through with my SUV. I struggled getting into the parking lot, and was in trouble attempting to get out of the parking lot. The snow drifts and piles were so high that not even the best of cars can get out of the lot. I was fortunate on my trip to be able to flag someone with a plow, but even the person with the plow, snow tires and chains got stuck. We spent time shoveling out around his truck to allow for some traction. He was then able to get some clearance to make a path to plow. I was lucky to get my car out of that lot. There are no nearby parking areas that are clear enough to park your vehicle and it is extremely dangerous to park the car along the side of the street. The risk of having the car hit by another car and soft shoulders make the street just as dangerous as the actual parking lot. I have found that the best way to get access to the parking lot without risk of being stuck is to use a snowmobile as the mode of transportation to the springs.
The secondary danger is the actual stairway to the springs. Like the parking lot, the snow is not cleared on the stairway. There were many times on my way down that I almost took a dive due to missteps. The stairway near the top contains many drift areas. In some places the snow is fairly shallow and you can feel the stairway under you. The next step could be much deeper. This was really evident on the landing areas between steps. A couple times I rolled my ankle. I was lucky, but the odds of damaging your ankle is much greater with these winter conditions. The last thing anyone wants to do is have a sprained ankle or worse on a snow covered stairway in an area with little traffic. I found the trip downward dangerous, but much easier than the trip back up. This is something that must be considered when taking this trip. Those who have heart conditions and health issues are warned during peak tourism season when the conditions are much better. The hike back up is far more difficult under the winter conditions.
The scenic views are great and the trip is an adventure that you won’t forget. However, you always have to be prepared. I came away with some great shots from this trip to Iargo Springs. I also wish I had known some of the dangers ahead of time so I could have planned accordingly. Always keep this in mind; if the risk is too great, then wait until the right season or the right weather conditions to see the springs. It is just as beautiful in the spring, summer and fall seasons. Believe it or not, on this same day I ran into similar trouble near Alpena. I ended up in a ditch and found out that it was more common than I thought. More details to come in a couple days.
A few years ago, I read about a historical park just outside of Hastings, Michigan. The article described a small park with buildings replicating life in the late 1800’s. I had never heard of this park before, so on an warm August day my wife and I decided to take a look for ourselves. That day, we spent a few hours at this park going in and out of the buildings. It was as if we were witnessing the life and times that my Great Grandmother had always talked about; a life that seemed simple and carefree. After the initial visit I noticed on their website that they were having an event that showcased Christmas back in he late 1800’s called “Of Christmas Past”, and I knew this was something worth going to.
My wife and I took a tour around the historical village for this event. We walked into the Upjohn House/Administrative Office building and encountered Santa Claus sitting on a rocking chair awaiting for kids to come and visit. Nearby a man was cutting apple slices with an old apple slicer from the 1800’s and they were giving away cinnamon apple slices. We continued on making our way around the park. All the buildings were open, and you could wander through the buildings viewing what life was like in the 1800’s. Along the way we came across a few people dressed up in appropriate attire for the 1800’s giving out roasted chestnuts. We continued to the school building where someone was dressed up as an old school teacher and showing the kids various craft activities.
The general store area was open and we noticed a long line out the door. To our surprise they were giving out free bags of popcorn. It was nice to step inside this building because throughout the year this building can be locked up and the only way to view it is from the outside. The general store had replica items and goods that were often used and consumed in the late 1800’s. They also had authentic items that you would normally see in a historical museum, thus the reason why I believe they lock this building up often. We had to stand in line for the popcorn for a while, but it was worth the wait as we got an up close and personal view of some of these historical artifacts. Our last stop was the church. The church is what you would expect from the late 1800’s. This small church had two isles of wooden pews. Inside the church a brass band was performing Christmas songs. We sat inside the church for a while and enjoyed a small Christmas concert. The church was refurbished back in 2010, so it came as no surprise that the acoustics inside were better than I thought. It was really nice to sit back and relax to some Christmas music after walking around the park for a while.
Charlton Park is normally free to visit during most times of the year. However, during special events there is an admission charge. The “Of Christmas Past” event at Charlton Park costs $6.00 dollars for adults, and $3.00 dollars for children. When we went there, we spent a little over three hours there. The first time visiting you might find yourself there a little longer simply because there is a lot to see on top of the Christmas activities. When we went we had a great time. Christmas is always one of those times where you like to be swept back in time a little bit to enjoy the simpleness of life. Charlton Park’s “Of Christmas Past” not only takes you back in time, but provides a nice way to relax and enjoy the holiday season.
I was riding home from an event the other night, and was amazed at some of the Christmas lights and decorations on the houses and bushiness that I passed. I love this time of year as the Christmas lights and decorations make everything a little bit more brighter and cheerful. If you like Christmas trees and decorations like I do, a stop at Fredrick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids is a must see. Every year Fredrick Meijer Gardens showcases the “Christmas and Holiday Traditions Around the World”. Inside you will walk through the main building of the gardens and can view Christmas trees lit up and decorated representing various countries. It is not only a great way to enjoy the holidays, but you will also walk away learning something new.
My wife and I were greeted by Christmas decorations and lights the minute we walked into the entryway from the outside. The staff if very friendly and helpful when it comes to pointing you in the right direction. From there we were able to see quite a few Christmas trees decorated with ornaments that represented the country of the tree. There is a informational sign in front of each tree giving a description of a particular countries holiday traditions. There was a lot of information that I did not know and it was great to get a better understanding of how different people celebrate Christmas and the holidays. For instance, Australia celebrates Christmas during the summer. Traditionally, they would gather up wildflowers and decorate the tree with the flowers. It was a fact that I never knew before and had never really thought about how Christmas was celebrated in Australia. The countries that really don’t celebrate Christmas are represented with items in a glass casing showcasing the culture of that nation.
The Christmas trees are not the only attraction while visiting the gardens this time. The greenhouse areas are attached to the main building. Inside the greenhouse area you will encounter the Railway Garden. This garden brings together miniature displays of buildings throughout Grand Rapids or near the metro area such as Holland and Lowell. These buildings are made up of natural materials and has many varieties of plants and flowers. My personal favorite aspect about this garden is that a model train runs through the whole garden near the buildings and past small waterfalls and garden areas. It is definitely worth taking a detour from the main part of the building to see this attraction. You can also venture inside the tropical greenhouse and see palm trees lit up with Christmas trees.
Outside the main building are several trees lit up with Christmas lights. Trees are decorated with large ornaments and the area along the Children’s Garden is perfect for a winter stroll to see multi colored Christmas lights. The gardens also offers a holiday carriage ride through the park to create more of a festive environment. Grand Rapids has many things to see and do during the holiday season. Meijer Gardens is one of my favorite places visit during the holiday season. It creates a festive and cheerful environment and embodies everything that you would expect from the holiday season.
Sitting around a table with some acquaintances of mine we were generating conversation about places we wanted to go see in our home state of Michigan. The usual places that most people want to visit such as Mackinac Island and the bridge, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and summer resort cities like Grand Haven, Petoskey and Ludington were high on everyone’s list. In spite of knowing about these places, it amazed me how little people really knew about some of Michigan’s most frequently visited locations. It astounded me that several people did not know that cities like Marshall, Coldwater, Monroe, Bad Axe, Clare, Midland, Ironwood, Hancock and Copper Harbor even existed in the State of Michigan.
To be honest, while I have heard of these cities; there are a few things that I never knew existed within these cities. Earlier this summer I stopped at the Underground Railroad Monument in Battle Creek. Did you know that the monument is operated by the U.S. National Park Service? I would have never thought it was, but it makes sense in hindsight. They have a park ranger right at the monument to answer any all all questions about the fascinating history of the Underground Railroad and how it impacted Michigan. There are so many events and places that I have yet to discover in our great state. Don’t get me wrong, I love the lighthouse tours and the pristine waterfalls in the Upper Peninsula, but there is more to learn and more to discover.
This past year in photography has been a little bit of a transition for me. I have wanted to discover the unknown. I have wanted to get the experience of what is now known as our state’s famous tagline “Pure Michigan”. I have been blessed to see the Mackinac Bridge and many of the state’s famous landmarks. I yearn to see more and gain an understanding of what this state has to offer. To experience Michigan is to also converse with the people behind the scenes of some our cities annual events, or those running the museums, cider mills, and farm markets.
I have learned a great deal throughout this past year and I plan to pass some of this information along. Some of my posts will contain some facts and statistics about certain places as it is important to have some of the detailed information. However, a majority of the posts are going to be experienced based. I will not write as if I am an expert on various places within Michigan. Instead I will provide content about the journey to discovering new and exciting places. Those who are looking to find out what Michigan has to offer come with me on this journey. Let’s discover the mitten state together!