Say what you will about the quality of Traverse City’s cultural and culinary scene (and believe me, I’d be the last person to disparage it) the Number One Winter Attraction up here is still what you can do in the Great Outdoors. Once the snow begins to fall across this glacier-carved landscape, it becomes a sparkling white playground for outdoor winter sports – and that’s where the fun is.
What can you do and where can you do it? Here are a few suggestions:
Racing Down Kingdom Come
If you’re a downhill skier, you already know that Northern Michigan doesn’t have the long powdered runs of Colorado or Utah – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some challenging slopes in this part of the country. For instance, take a drive over to Shanty Creek Resorts, this region’s premiere full-service winter destination.
Shanty is a 4,500-acre recreational complex near Bellaire, in the beautiful Chain of Lakes region – about 30 miles northeast of Traverse City. Ski Magazine rated it the Midwest’s number-one destination in value, dining, lodging, weather and après ski activities.
The resort offers 43 trails spread over two distinct ski areas, and the most challenging runs are located at its southeastern edge on Schuss Mountain. If you think Michigan skiing is ho-hum, try making a run down Kingdom Come, a black diamond trail with a 450-foot vertical drop that starts steep and keeps on getting steeper. (Schuss was rated “Best Downhill Terrain in the Midwest” by readers of OnTheSnow.com.)
And if downhill skiing isn’t your thing, Shanty has a lot of other outlets for your winter urges, including six terrain parks, an alpine tubing area, and 30km of Nordic trails.
Night Skiing at Timber Ridge
But if you want to try a different twist on Nordic skiing, here’s another idea: skiing at night. There’s something about the nighttime that makes cross-country skiing an entirely different experience, simultaneously intimate and more adventurous than it is in the daytime. To glide silently through an open stand of hardwoods in the moonlight, with the new snow glittering like diamond dust as it drifts down from the branches, is to experience a rare and secret beauty.
The best way to experience this magic is to get out on a clear night with a full moon and a sprinkling of brilliant winter stars. But that’s not always possible, and the next best thing is to seek out a groomed, well-lighted trail. One of the best in the area is at the Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort, headquarters for such local winter events as the North American Vasa Festival of Races, the Bigfoot Snowshoe Race and the Iceberg Triathlon.
Timber Ridge has several big advantages for the novice night skier. First, it’s located on Hammond Road – very close to Traverse City itself, less than 15 minutes from most local hotels and restaurants. Second, it offers equipment rentals and advice, so you can enjoy yourself even if you didn’t bring your gear along for the ride. Third, it’s conveniently connected to the immense Vasa Trail system, with its 60 kilometers of deeply wooded, beautiful trails, just in case you’re feeling extra adventurous.
Snowshoeing the Sleeping Bear Dunes
Snowshoeing is easy and fun – and it's one of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of the Traverse City area in winter. It’s hard to match the quiet thrill of coming around a corner on the trail to see a herd of deer raise their heads, steam snorting from their noses as they look at you and silently bound off into the trees.
Snowshoeing is an especially good way to enjoy one of the area’s most beautiful landscapes – the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which has a special, secret loveliness in winter. The park’s 13 trails range from 1.5 miles to 14.7 miles in length, and offer opportunities for snowshoers of all ability levels.
Lots of first-timers head directly to the Empire Bluffs Trail – when you emerge from the woods onto that high bluff, with the broad blue sweep of Lake Michigan below you like a giant polished turquoise, you’ll feel as though you're the first (or last) person on Earth. But there are even better trails farther north, like the Bay View Trail in the hills around Thorson Road.
On Saturdays during January and February, you can even explore the trails with a National Park ranger. Guided hikes begin at 1 p.m. at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire. For information and maps, or to make a reservation for a guided hike, call the Visitor Center at 231-326-5134, ext. 328.
Tubing Mt. Holiday
Snow tubing has all the thrilling speed of a toboggan run or a sledding hill – except that you get to sit in the middle of a big soft inner tube and ride down a groomed hill where there are people keeping an eye on you. And when you get to the bottom, there’s a towline waiting to take you back to the top so you can do it all over again.
Small wonder, then that snow tubing is one of the nation’s fastest-growing winter pastimes. What other “sport” requires little more of you than the ability to sit down, hang on tight and do a little high-pitched screaming as you hurtle downhill on a large inflated rubber doughnut?
Traverse City’s own Mt. Holiday Ski Area, just east of town, has a dedicated tubing park – and it’s a steep one, which appeals to a lot of thrill-seeking tubers. (They bill it as the area’s fastest tubing hill.) It also has an express return lift that helps you make the most of your allotted time.
Fat Biking on the Vasa Pathway
Fat Bikes or snow bikes – specially-adapted mountain bikes with large tires capable of cycling on snow and sand – have turned cycling into a four-season sport in Traverse City. Fat Biking is the answer for a lot of people that don't currently have a winter sport or are looking to try a new one. There's no learning curve; you just get a bike and ride.
But don’t just find a slushy sidewalk; the big thrill in Fat Biking is to get out into the woods and see how those big wheels deal with conditions in the backcountry! After some sticky years as newcomers to the local trail scene, Fat Bikes now have several dedicated trails. A good one for beginning riders is Traverse City’s new Winter Sports Singletrack Trail, a 15-kilometer trail that’s part of the huge Vasa Pathway system.
Reached by its own trailhead off Supply Road, the Winter Sports Singletrack is a groomed path through the Pere Marquette State Forest with plenty of challenges: sand, switchbacks, steep slopes, and close trees to squeeze through. (Careful, though – it’s not a purely dedicated track, so you may encounter other users along the way.)
We haven’t talked about winter kayaking, snowboarding, snowmobiling, iceboating or any of the other awesome sports you can try in a Traverse City winter. But this ought to give you a good start!