Getting out on the trails in late winter-early spring is its own kind of beautiful experience. A quiet path blanketed with final snowfall, sunshine piercing through the ice-encrusted branches, shoes crunching along the path the only sound I hear … and, oh, the fresh, cold air. It’s crisper and cleaner during these months. And on the it’s-almost spring-but-still-chilly spring days, the trails remain quieter, showing tiny signs that things are starting to wake up and soon will unfurl into color and full-on spring.
There’s no shortage of scenic spots in Michigan to explore this time of year, but Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore along the coast of Lake Michigan is a go-to when I’m looking for a cooler-weather, get-away-from-it-all adventure. With its spectacular dunes, countless trails and awe-inspiring water views, the park never fails to provide the ideal setting for connecting with nature and bringing myself back to center. All told, 13 mainland trails can be found at the Lakeshore, amounting to more than 100 miles of exploration. Here are a few ideas for your next trek to the Lakeshore:
A quintessential Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore must-visit, this sweeping Lake Michigan vista is especially magical and peaceful in the off-season. I remember a visit a couple of years back with my three kids, during a long weekend. Having had several inches of fresh snow fall the night before, we threw our snowshoes in the car the next morning and headed from our house on the east side of Traverse City to Lake Michigan. Pyramid Point’s trailhead lot is seasonal, so we parked about a half-mile away next to the Leelanau Outdoor Center. From there, we hiked to the trailhead (snowshoes definitely came in handy!) and then continued on to the top of the bluff where we were treated to a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding snow-covered dunes.
Tips: It can be especially windy once you reach the top, so be sure to dress accordingly: hooded coats, hats, mittens, warm boots. Prior to your excursion, pack a winter picnic with a stop at Anderson’s Market in downtown Glen Arbor for gourmet snacks and meals-to-go.
The Dune Climb + Glen Haven
In March, you won’t find anything close to summer’s crowds at the Dune Climb. You’ll instead discover a serene scene as you pull into the parking lot off M-109 between Empire and Glen Arbor. One winter morning I wandered the base of the climb (the snow was just deep enough to prevent a full-on up-and-over trek). I decided to then drive a little further along 109, to the historic village of Glen Arbor. There’s something so peaceful about strolling along a quiet, icy beach—and the rock-hunting here is superb.
Tips: The stark contrast of the cherry red Glen Haven Canning Co. building against the muted landscape will catch your eye and prompt some picture-taking.
The Empire Bluff Trail
This is an absolute must-see—the perfect place to wow your never-been-to-northern-Michigan-before friends. This .75-mile trail ascends 400 feet above Lake Michigan for a spectacular view of the water—there and back takes under an hour, but it’s a steady uphill climb to the top of the bluff. Time it right and catch a stunning sunset from the boardwalk.
Tip: Warm up and satisfy your sweet tooth with a stop at nearby Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate, a small, family-owned business “with a big love for craft chocolate.” Look for their bright green shop just outside the village of Empire.
Two other trail favorites of mine: the Bay View Trail, a total of 8 miles, divided into loops, with a trailhead off Thoreson Road; and Alligator Hill, a 9-mile trail near Glen Arbor. Alligator Hill was hit hard by straight-line winds from a significant summer storm in 2015, so you’ll notice many, many downed trees. Still, the climb winding climb is beautiful, if haunting, and the views at the top of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake are breathtaking.
I may be counting down to spring, but I savor winter and all of its moods. I’m convinced it’s because I get out in it and embrace it. I hope you’re inspired to do the same.