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.
When you think about the fishing industry, the east coast and upper west coast comes to mind. These places are the first that come to my mind when I think of the fishing industry. There is a little town in Michigan that also embraces that industry. Leland, Michigan brings a little bit of that fishing industry feel in their Historic Fishtown. You can walk along the docks along side several shanties and smokehouses. Inside these shanties are several gift shops, eateries and art galleries. As you walk along the decks you will see fishnets and buoys. You will see decorative items enhancing the cultural feel of the fishing industry. This historic town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. During the summer this area is packed with visitors. During the winter the fish town seems deserted as most of the shops have closed for the season. Winter is still a good time to visit this town.
I stopped by Leland as I was making my way up to Northport on M-22 on a cold February day. I had the parking lot all to myself. I ventured on the dock area toward the end of the Fishtown Docks. This is where the ferry also deports for the Manitou Islands of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. As I walked onto the dock I heard a splashing sound just beyond the end of the docks. To my surprise a couple otters were playing around. They stuck their head out of the water and then quickly disappeared beyond the National Park Service Ferry that was docked in the small channel. It was interesting to look out to the break walls beyond heading out into Lake Michigan. In the distance you could see the dark stormy skies over the big lake. It appeared that a snow storm was on its way towards the lakeshore fairly soon.
I continued walking on the dock up toward the small dam area just below the street within Downtown Leland. All the fishing decor and relics were still there frozen over in snow or were encased in a coating of ice. The shops were closed up and it was a far cry from the activity normally seen during the summer. The only thing that could be heard was the rushing waters crashing down from the dam. It is not too far off the mark of some of the east coast fishing towns that shut down during the winter season. Many of the shops and restaurants in these towns close up during the winter since business tends to be slow. It was a nice walk just to see some of the boats docked in the channel and not a person around. I walked through a small gated area leading up toward the parking lot. From there, I could get onto the overlook of the dam giving a great view of the channel, Fishtown and Lake Michigan in the distance.
My time at Fishtown during the winter was not extensive. I spent about 25 minutes just walking around and taking photographs there. It certainly did not have the activity as there is during the summer, but I was glad I had made this particular stop. Often we need to see things in a different way than what we are used to. The overall scene of the Historic Fishtown did not change much from the summer. However, the dynamic of what I saw did. Instead of a town packed with people, I saw a town that was desolate and tranquil. I walked away embracing the value of this historic part of this town.
Mackinaw City is extremely busy during the tourism season from early spring all the way to the mid part of fall. it is the gateway to Mackinac Island which is a major tourism draw for not only residents of Michigan, but people visiting from other states. The city mirrors St. Ignace on the other side of the bridge, but is by far the most popular tourism draw with many restaurants, shopping opportunities, historic parks, and a lighthouse overlooking the Mackinac Bridge. I entered the city expecting to see a similar scene that I had experienced at other seasonal tourist towns where there was little to no life within the town. What I soon realized is that the city brings in a lot more people than I thought during the winter season.
When I had visited the city during the winter a couple years ago, the Great Lakes were frozen over pretty good. The frozen waters over the Straits of Mackinac provided an opportunity for winter recreation that I had never given a second guess. Snowmobiles were being rented out and several snowmobile tours were being offered. These tours gave a new look to the city from what would be the waterfront. It provided an up close look at the Mackinac Bridge and some of the parks within city limits. A few stores had opened back up for the season selling more winter seasonal items. While most of the restaurants had shut down, there were still several restaurants still opened for business. Hotels were pretty well filled up far beyond what I had expected to see.
I stopped by the Lighthouse Park where Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse was located. Several people were walking back and forth from the parking lot to the frozen lakeshore area. The park seemed to be a mid point stop throughout the Straits of Mackinac snowmobile tours along the Lower Peninsula. A few people gathered in the park to get a closer view of the lighthouse. They left behind their snowmobiles parked out on the ice of the lake. The ice could be seen extending out way beyond the midpoint of the bridge. As I looked out onto the Mackinac Bridge, there was still quite a bit of traffic crossing the bridge between the two peninsulas. It wasn’t long until they got onto their snowmobiles and started heading toward the docks of the ferries that during the tourism season bring passengers out to Mackinac Island. Before leaving I got a pretty good glance at the Mackinac Point Lighthouse. I too had been accustomed to seeing this lighthouse during the summer season.
It certainly is interesting to see this city during the winter season. There is certainly more activity at this city than I had expected, and that is a pretty good thing. Often so many cities see a slowdown in the off season and it also slows down the economy for the city. When various tourist cities can flourish in all the seasons, it allows the city to bring in more businesses and keep up the parks that attract many visitors during the normal tourism season. If time allows, I definitely want to get back to this city during the winter and do a little bit more exploring than what I did on this current visit.
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.
Visiting Michigan’s State Parks during the winter can be a great recreational experience. During the winter there is a chance to see the parks in a different way than what many are accustomed to during the summer. There are also a few additional things to experience during the winter season than you would have during the summer. Often are winters in Michigan provide a lot of snow. Lately we have not had average snowfall in many parts of Michigan. I went to Muskegon a few years ago when we were getting a decent amount of snowfall and found the experience to be an adventure I would not forget.
I drove into the State Park and was greeted by the sight of a ice covered Lake Michigan. Self Ice extended out into the lake pretty far. In the very distance you could see the open water. The park road takes you toward the main beach area. However, due to heavy snow, the plowed area of the road stops short of the beach area. This means that you have to walk it in from a small parking area. The thought of walking through large drifts of snow did not thrill me, the snow was no reason to stop me. In what was an interesting turn of events, further down the road there has hardly any snow at all as it was protected between large sand dunes. I started my way along the beach area and the parking lot. I had to climb up some dunes to head out toward the break walls. The dunes were interesting as a mixture of sand and snow made several unique patterns crafted by the winds off the lake. The break wall is made up of several large boulders. On a summer day, you can walk out along the break wall and see the boats coming in and out of the channel area connecting Lake Michigan with Muskegon Lake. The top of the break wall was pretty icy and it appeared to be too dangerous to walk out. I could see the lighthouse structure on the other end of the channel at the Pier Marquette Beach area from where I was standing.
A small bay rests between the break wall and the channel. It is not that difficult to reach the channel from there. There is a walkway along the channel extending from Lake Michigan to the shore of Muskegon Lake. This also parallels the campground area. During the summer it is a prefect place to do a little fishing or catch the boats passing through. In the winter time, it is a nice little walk and hike. When I was there, the channel was open water and not frozen over in any place. The walkway along the channel also had minimal snow cover as well; making the hike much easier. The winter atmosphere was different than what I have experienced before. I had been so used to several people out on the walkway during the summer, it was strange to have the whole area to myself. It was quiet and peaceful. On the way back I took the roadside heading back to my car. The dunes area along the break wall near the beach was a bit strenuous. I walked through areas of road with little snow to areas covered in a couple feet of snow. Much of it depended on open areas surrounding the road.
Although this park is much easier to navigate during the summer and has several recreational opportunities I would not recommend that anyone stay away from this park during the winter. Chances are you will not only have parts of the park alone to yourself, but the change in landscape scenery gives you a greater appreciation of the park. When I found the road closed up and had the chance to just turn around, I am glad I made the choice to go on foot from that point. I would have missed out on a lot if I had turned back.
The city of Empire sits in the middle of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It is a small village rooted in history. The village is where the Visitors Center for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park is located. It has a few nice shops and a couple restaurants, and a museum. Empire hosts the annual Asparagus Festival that draws in several visitors each year. Empire Village Park is the highlight of this small village. The park is nestled in between Lake Michigan and South Bar Lake. It has playgrounds, a nice sandy beach and many picnic tables and benches to sit and enjoy the scenery. During the winter this park takes on a life all its own and creates several unique photo opportunities.
As you enter the park you come upon a lot of the playground areas. My favorite part of the park is located toward the end of the parking lot at its northern most point. There, you will see the Robert H. Manning Memorial Lighthouse, named after a life long resident of Empire. Its structure is similar to that of Point Betsie not too far away south of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. This lighthouse is always interesting because the change in seasons offers a different landscape. Winter gives you a totally different look than what you would see during the summer. I always love the mix of sand and snow in the foreground. Just beyond the parking lot is South Bar Lake on your right. This is a small lake that has some residential houses around it. When I had gone there the lake was coated with a thin layer of ice. The docks were pulled in so you could not get a real good close up look, but it was an interesting view along the parking lot. To the left of the parking lot is Lake Michigan.
The Lake Michigan shoreline at Empire Beach is an interesting place during the winter months. Walking out on the beach you can see sweeping vistas of steep dunes to your left and right. The beach itself can get a little bit of ice buildup from the waves crashing and forming ice, but every time I have been at this park the ice build up is heavier beyond the beach in both directions. What I found interesting is that along this beach you will find various sand deposits frozen over on the beach. Each of these deposits create their own shape formed by the wind and crashing water. I walked along the beach off to the north and there were times where I was walking on a frozen shelf of sand extending over the shoreline. It was amazing out there and it provided many photographic opportunities. I would urge a bit of caution when walking on the ice. There were times where I felt planted and ended up on by backside. Sometimes those areas of sheer smooth ice can be the worst.
If you are ever at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the winter, I would highly recommend stopping by Empire Village Park. Take some time exploring the beach and look for those frozen sand patterns. The areas of beach along Lake Michigan that have more rising dunes tend to have cool patters of snow and sand. This area is a bit more flat with little dunes on the beach, so it is likely you will see more frozen sand formations. Chances are if you explore the area you will find some pretty unique frozen sand formations that will allow for incredible photographs.
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.
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.