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.
Recently Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore reported that the famous Log Slide Overlook trail is closed to the public. Due to heavy snow, strong winds and dune erosion the overlook platform broke off and fell about 100 feet down the large sand dune. The overlook offered a couple different views of the area. First and foremost, you were able to see the Grand Sable Dunes off to the right. Recently shrubs and trees on the dune were creating somewhat of an obstruction to the view. To the left, you could see the cliffs of pictured rocks and Sable Point Lighthouse. It was quite the view from up there.
The area has quite the history. The logging industry has always been a big part of Michigan, particularly Northern Michigan. Years ago loggers used to slide the logs down the dunes to Lake Superior where they would be hauled out and taken to various mills. Legend from old lumberjack stories has stated that the logs going down the chute created enough friction that the chute would catch fire. While that is just a legend, I am sure the stories from that era were fascinating. The log slide is gone, but the beauty of the Grand Sable Dunes remain.
The dunes strike a similar beauty to the Sleeping Bear Dunes with large inclines upward from the lake. Trails nearby the overlook and at Sable Falls will take you out to the sweeping hills of the dunes. Once at the edge of the 300 foot dune going down into Lake Superior; you can take the trip down to the lake, but it is a hard walk back up the dune. It is also about a mile walk along the shoreline to Grand Maris, so plan accordingly. Those who have health issues should not take that hike or attempt to go down the sand dune. Sleeping Bear Dunes have had similar issues with visitors prompting the Coast Guard to make rescues for visitors. This can be a costly visit to your national park if you need to be rescued for this.
As of now the trail to the overlook is closed up. According to the park officials the dune is not damaged and if the erosion is not substantial, they will build again. This incident is a constant reminder of the forces of nature. Man made structures often cannot hold up when natures elements are in full swing. The Upper Peninsula gets quite a bit of snow, so it is easy to understand that the weight of the snow, high winds that shift the sand can cause a collapse in a wood platform built into the dune. The next time they do build the platform, I am sure they will improve the structure. I do hope they get the platform back up. The scenery from the overlook was amazing.
Going to the zoo has always been a fun place to visit. I loved going to the zoo as a kid and seeing many of the different animals from around the world. As an adult, I still love the zoo. Michigan has several zoos throughout the state and has a variety of animals in each of the zoos. Some zoo’s are larger than others, but nonetheless you always walk away with a better appreciation of wildlife. The John Ball zoo in Grand Rapids is a place that should be on any itinerary when coming to visit the city. I have been to this zoo serveal times and each time, I leave satisfied with my visit.
One of my favorite places to visit at the zoo is the Otter Exhibit. There is a glass wall where you can see the otters swim around under water. To the left there is a platform where you can view the Otters on the land. If you just want to sit down and relax there are benches that overlook the exhibit. it is not uncommon to see several Otters out and playing with each other. In all the times I have visited the zoo, I cannot recall one time where they were inside and away from the public. They love interacting with other Otters and will often go where the other Otters are. Occasionally you will see one of them swimming around on his own while the others are out sunbathing, but typically they are like pack animals where they stay together and do things together. When they are at play with each other seems to be when they are the most entertaining to watch.
I do like those moments where one Otter will break from the pack and do its own thing. I have seen Otters enjoying themselves swimming or just finding a quiet place to enjoy the sunshine. When they are still and quiet, they are still entertaining to watch. Otters usually don’t stay in one place for long. I have found this to be different from some of the other animals where you could circle the zoo and come back to an animal and find them laying in the same spot as when you left them. Otters keep moving and will do something different over a period of time. That is where the entertainment value comes in with them. As a photographer, you can get quite a few different types of photographs with the Otters and actually get a sense of their personality.
John Ball Zoo has benches to watch the animals in various places. If you have the time, I would recommend just sitting down and relaxing. There are food outlets throughout the zoo. You could even grab some food, eat lunch and enjoy watching the animals play. The Otters and Monkeys tend to be the most entertaining of all the animals there. You never know what you will see from one minute to the next. When visiting the zoo, be sure to take some time to visit the Otters. You will not be disappointed.
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.
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!
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.
I planned a trip out to Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids on my calendar a couple months in advance. I had thought that the Japanese Gardens would be an interesting place to visit during the winter months. I have been so accustomed to seeing the part of the gardens during the summer months, and thought it would be interesting to see how the landscape changes during the winter time. The day came for my visit to the gardens and it was a very sunny day. It was also 60 degrees outside with snow melting rapidly. That week we experienced a January thaw. This warmer weather brought out a lot of people. What I thought might be a wasted trip turned out to be pretty good after all.
The trail going around a series of several ponds in this garden was extremely wet and at some points muddy from the melting snow. In spite of the warmer temperatures, the ponds still had a thin coat of ice over them. There were a few snow piles left along the trail. One of the highlights along this garden are the three man made waterfalls pouring out into the ponds below. The point of the Japanese Gardens is to promote a relaxing atmosphere. These waterfalls do exactly that. There are even a few benches nearby where one can sit and just take it all in. I myself could have spent more time there had the benches not been wet from the melting snow. As you continue around the ponds you come across a couple island areas where there are gazebos to sit in. Again, the way this garden promotes the idea of relaxation in nature is really great.
There were several areas that were blocked off and not open during the winter months. That is more to ensure the safety of the guests who may get too close to the ponds. On this particular day, it was a good idea. The ponds were obviously melting and there were areas where open water stood surrounded by ice. It was clear that the ice that was there was very thin and fragile. It did make for some interesting photos throughout the garden. As you walked around the ponds there were several Japanese themed sculptures that seemed to stand out a little more in the winter. A good part of this is due to the trees surrounding the area. Often during the summer the trees shade the sculpture or they are a little bit hidden with full leaves on the trees. The highlight of the gardens was the viewing hill which overlooked the whole area. Again, the lack of leaves on trees made for better viewing of the area as a whole. That seemed to be the big takeaway of the value of visiting this garden during the winter season.
The walk around the garden took about an hour in total time. There were several people there getting out on the nice day. It was not the original way I wanted to view the gardens, but often when it comes to photography, you have to adjust for the weather conditions. This case was no exception. I am still curious to see the gardens covered with snow and to see how the landscape changed even from what I saw on this trip. It looks like more snow is going to fall during the month of February. I just might be able to get that chance.