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 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.
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.