You don’t have to go far to enjoy some of the beautiful elements of nature. Often they can be found at your local parks a few miles away. I have found beautiful creeks, sweeping vistas, discovered wildflowers and some of the best fall foliage. The winter season is no exception. You certainly get a different perspective on the landscape. The one major element that stands out with visiting these parks during the winter is how desolate it can be. Often you are the only one out there and all you hear is the sounds of animals scurrying, birds chirping and the howling of the winds.
I spent some time in the local county parks of Kent County to explore and to see how I could capture the winter landscape with my camera. The snow had just fallen and the trees were decorated with white fluffy snow on the branches. It was quite cold and the snow was fairly deep when hiking in certain areas. When out in the winter elements it is essential to wear the proper attire. I found that out the hard way once and cut short a winter excursion. The first park that I stopped at was Aman Park off of M-45. There was hardly anyone out on the trails. I took the trail downward to a bridge that crossed a small creek. It was amazing being in the middle of a snowy oasis. The snow on the trees beyond the bridge looked like I was about to step into another world. While I was hiking through this park, I was alone in nature. It was desolate out in the middle of the forest, but at the same time extremely peaceful.
I also went to Townsend Park on the other side of Kent County on a cold morning. Snow was foretasted once again, but I caught a gimps of sun as it rose amid some cloud cover. The section of the park I went to was closed off and had to hike it in. It is also one of the more beautiful places within this park so it was well worth the hike. A few bridges span over Bear Creek as it winds through the valley proportion of the park. The sun pushing through the clouds made a nice reflection off the water. Once again, I was the only one in the park at that time. There was plenty of fresh snow and the only tracks around were mine or those of animals that had passed through earlier. I am not the biggest winter person, but this time out in the park was really special. I was experiencing the still of the morning. For that moment of tranquility alone, I would recommend a winter hike to anyone.
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.
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.
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!
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. .
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.
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.