By MIKE NORTON
It doesn’t take a lot of skill or training to use snowshoes. They’re easy to slip on and off, and they’re less likely to suddenly slide out from under you than skis. That’s why I seem to find myself doing more snowshoeing than cross-country skiing these days. Apparently, I’m not the only one; snowshoeing has become America’s top snowsport choice. Last winter over 5 million Americans strapped on a pair of snowshoes and went for a winter hike, and the sport has grown by around 17 percent each year over the past decade.
Traverse City is full of great places for snowshoeing, and one of the best is just south of town on the Muncie Lakes Pathway. This scenic DNR trail system along the Boardman River, with its rolling forested terrain and small lakes, is a microcosm of the area’s natural beauty and its special winter delights.
The nice thing about the pathway is that it provides a variety of loops and distances so you can easily customize a snowshoe excursion to meet your own endurance and ability levels. Distances range from an easy two-mile hike to treks of up to 8 or 9 miles, and it’s always possible to take off cross-country and boldly go wherever you like. A couple of nice side trips along the pathway include snowshoeing along the frozen Muncie Lakes and out across the ice to visit the small islands that dot the lakes, and accessing overlooks of the Boardman River and valley from high bluffs.
Some of my other favorite trail systems include the trail system at Mission Point at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, the Pelizzari Natural Area off Center Road, the Lost Lake Pathway near Interlochen, the 3,500-acre Sand Lakes Quiet Area near Williamsburg and the Vasa Pathway, one of the finest cross-country ski trails in the Midwest. Inside the city, the 300-acre Grand Traverse Commons features great skiing and snowshoeing in parklike grounds among century-old, European-style buildings and stands of old-growth pines.
But seriously, some of the best snowshoeing in the area is at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which has eight marked trails, some leading up to panoramic overlooks high above the Lake Michigan. I just found out about one that I haven’t tried yet, and as soon as I’ve had a chance to check it out I’ll give you a report.
If you’ve never tried snowshoeing before, the National Lakeshore offers a great way to experience it as a first-timer. Starting this weekend, park rangers will be holding regular guided . snowshoe hikes every Saturday at 1 p.m. through the end of February. Just meet up at the park Visitor Center in Empire, where you’ll get a crash course in snowshoeing before heading out to the trail -- and if you don’t have snowshoes, they’ll loan you a pair at no charge. You’ll have to purchase a park entrance pass if you don’t already have one, and you should make reservations since the hikes are limited to 30 participants. Call 231-326-5134, ext. 328 for details and to make reservations.
There are a lot of places in the area where you can rent snowshoes for a small fee, by the way. Brick Wheels, the Don Orr Ski n’ Beach Haus, GT Cycle and Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort are several outlets that have snowshoe rentals available.