Skiers at the Dunes Overlook

By MIKE NORTON I've lived in the Traverse City area for more than 30 years, but the beauty of this region still has the power to amaze me. Last week, for instance, I spent a day hanging out at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a place I've visited many times in every season of the year. Still, I was stunned by how beautiful it can be in winter. It was one of those perfect blue winter days, of course -- with the sun shining down on the snow, the sand and the water, bringing out all the best of their colors. I could hardly bring myself to leave, even with the sun getting ready to set. I have to say that Sleeping Bear's glacier-scoured landscape of ridges, bluffs, lakes, and islands is even more appealing clothed in snow than it is in other times of the year: a wild and primeval setting for skiers, snowshoers, anglers and campers.

Hikers along the top of the Dune Climb

Although it's barely 20 minutes west of Traverse City, the park operates at an undeniably slower pace in winter. There are few rangers in evidence, and some roads (including the popular Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive) are closed to traffic because they can't be reliably kept clear of blowing snow and sand. Still, but because of its linear layout, most corners of Sleeping Bear are within a few miles of the highway. And many attractions and amenities remain open all year round - including the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, where rangers and interpreters can give you a quick rundown on what's happening. The visitor center also has a small museum, bookstore and auditorium, and is open in the winter from 8:15 to 4 p.m. It's also the place where you can join one of the park's most enjoyable winter group activities: guided snowshoe hikes. On Saturdays and Sundays in January and February, park rangers lead groups in leisurely trips to some of Sleeping Bear's most interesting winter features. (They even provide free snowshoes for those who don't have their own.)

A Lone Lookout in the Frozen Dunes

But the best part about using snowshoes at Sleeping Bear, is that you're free to leave the trail system pretty much whenever you want. Because the park's soils and vegetation are easily harmed, rangers are fairly strict with hikers during most of the year -- but in winter the rules are much more relaxed, and snowshoeing is allowed on all snow-covered dunes, fields, and forests. Cross-country skiing is probably the most popular winter sport in the Lakeshore, and the park has designated several trails for Nordic skiers, from relatively flat routes like Platte Plains, Windy Moraine, Good Harbor Bay and Bay View to challenging routes like the Old Indian and Alligator Hill trails. And although the Stocking Scenic Drive is closed to auto traffic for the winter, it's open to skiers and snowshoers alike during the winter. Unlike some parks, Sleeping Bear does not permit snowmobiles on land or on the surface of its frozen lakes. But ice fishing on those lakes is allowed, and many anglers find winter the most rewarding time of year to visit the Lakeshore.Fish aren't the only wildlife that's stirring in the park in winter, either -- deer, coyote, fox, porcupines and otters are active and can sometimes be spotted more easily than in summer.

Walking the Shipwreck Trail near Glen Haven

That's also true, strangely, of shipwrecks. Between 1835 and 1960 more than 50 ships sank offshore in the narrow strait known as the Manitou Passage; thanks to strong winds, many pieces of those long-ago wrecks wash ashore during the winter. Many beachcombers look for relics along what's called the Shipwreck Trail, between the ghost port of Glen Haven and the shore south of Sleeping Bear Point. An even more thrilling winter experience can be sampled at the famous Dune Climb near Glen Haven, where the Park Service allows sledding on the 260-foot face of the dune. It's the only dune where such activities are allowed. (But bring your second-best sled -- the combination of snow and windblown sand can be pretty gritty!)