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.
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.