Traverse City, Michigan
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Snow Much to Do
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Traverse City

Snow Much to do

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Skiing, snowboarding, sledding, fat biking and family fun

Trying to get the four of us together for a family photo is like herding cats. Getting two teenagers to smile at the same time in the same spot as Mom and Dad is practically unheard of. Doing all of the above while sliding 20 mph down a snow-covered slope takes Herculean efforts. But somehow, we pulled off the impossible. The proof was staring back at me from my phone in an album titled “Traverse City Ski Trip.”

Winter like you mean it in Traverse City, Michigan

Powder days

Normally our annual family vacation involves summer camping in Northern Michigan. But my daughter, Ava, was starting her first office job the following June; my son, Declan, would be volunteering as a summer camp junior counselor, and my husband, Josh, would be teaching a class. In other words, we had a great excuse to escape school and work in the middle of January.

Knowing we wanted to be in Michigan to fully embrace winter, I went to Google for what I didn’t know: our exact destination. With an average of 101 inches of annual snowfall, postcard-perfect images and loads of family activities, Traverse City screamed winter wonderland. And that was just online. In person, Traverse City more than delivered. Everything glistened with frost, and the trees were delicately covered with a white powder that could have easily passed for sugar.

We checked in to our condo at Shanty Creek Resorts, and were almost immediately out the door again ready to explore the resorts’ two mountains, 50+ runs and six terrain parks.

Ava got into snowboarding at a young age, so she strapped on a board while Declan, Josh and I opted for skis. We started out with a green run called Concourse to get back in the swing of things. On the lift, Ava said, “Mom, look!” pointing at a mogul-speckled run that turned out to be a black diamond. I knew it wouldn’t be long before we tackled that one. Concourse was a great warm up with a wide, flat path at a gentle decline. It whet my appetite for the thrill, but I wasn’t ready for moguls right away. I once thought black diamonds were way out of my league, but I’ve learned if I take them with extra wide slaloms, I can do it.

story art
story art
story art

We got in a couple of intermediate runs, which turned out to be my wheelhouse! On each of the blue trails, I found enough slope to ski like I was flying, while maintaining control. King’s Canyon was the first intermediate trail we took, and the contrast between the kids cracked me up. Declan was the adventurer, usually zigzagging his way down finding ways to catch air. Ava, on the other hand, was laser-focused and zipped way ahead. It occurred to me that we all tend to take our own paths even when we’re together, which might be why that epic family photo is so elusive for us.

As predicted, Ava hadn’t forgotten about the moguls. Declan, Mr. Easygoing, was all on board at the reminder. Josh grinned and asked if I was ready.

“Let’s do it!” I said.

At the top of the hill, Ava gave Josh a mischievous look that apparently meant “catch me if you can,” and they were off. I kept to my wide swoop strategy while Declan alternated between skiing around and jumping off the moguls.

Several runs later, I practically had to beg my normally ravenous crew to break for lunch—a fireplace-side picnic at our ski-in condo.

Family with kids snow tubing at Shanty Creek Resorts in Traverse City, Michigan
Family downhill tubing at Shanty Creek Resorts in Traverse City, Michigan
Group snow tubing with kids in Traverse City, Michigan
Girl at the bottom of hill alpine tubing at Shanty Creek in Traverse City, Michigan

Synchronized sliding

The next day, we traded our skis and snowboard for giant inflatable saucers. A brochure I’d read the previous day pointed us toward Alpine tubing. Always curious and up for new ways to accelerate down a mountain, I investigated. I learned these tubes are so sought after, you have to reserve in advance. Without hesitation, I put our name on the waiting list.

Shanty Creek’s Alpine Tubing Park seemed to be a destination in itself. Energizing music played over the speakers, and 10 minutes before it opened there was a sea of excited bodies waiting to be matched with a sea of bright blue inner tubes. At the top of the hill, one of the staff informed us the more weight you have, the faster you fly. That settled it—we’d go as a group. Fortunately, a friendly fellow tuber offered to go down first and capture our coordinated ride on my phone.

The staff member helped align our tubes and showed us how to hold on to the adjacent tubes so we’d stay together. Moments later, I heard a count of three followed by an enthusiastic “Wahooo!” The rest was a glorious blur of laughter, speed and flying snow. I collected my phone from our new friend, and was thrilled to see the fun was well documented. My screen presented me with our family’s first successful candid group photo. No filter needed!

Snowshoeing in Traverse City, Michigan
Snowshoeing Around Traverse City

Contrary to physical evidence, Sasquatch isn’t traipsing around Traverse City. Those massive footprints in the snow blanketing Grand Traverse County belong to a community of outdoor enthusiasts who have embraced one of the most underrated winter sports ever: snowshoeing. Surrounded by several outstanding parks, preserves and lakeshores, Traverse City has plenty of terrain for everyone—from beginners to experts—looking to strap on a pair of snowshoes and experience how Northern Michigan does nature in winter.

Snowshoeing around Traverse City can look like a quick loop on Shanty Creek Resorts’ Nordic trails. Or, it can look like an all-day half-marathon guided by park rangers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It can even look like dozens of Gore-Tex-clad athletes competing in the annual Bigfoot Snowshoe Race.

Snowshoeing in Traverse City, Michigan

For early risers, it can be a morning trek to catch the sun rising over Grand Traverse Bay. For night owls, it can be a full moon jaunt under the canopy of trees in Grand Traverse Commons’ trails. If the timing and weather is right, it’s also possible to snowshoe under the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis, only visible this far north.

Northern Lights sightings aren’t guaranteed. Sasquatch sightings are even harder to come by. But what is certain is that Traverse City is an idyllic stomping ground for this oft-overlooked mode of exploration. Local outfitters offer rentals in all shapes and sizes. All you have to do is show up and be willing to walk on water—albeit fluffy, frozen water.

Shopping is in the bag

After two more days of skiing and two more nights of tubing—the park stays open until 10 p.m.—we headed into Traverse City. Josh had found an online review that reported “pretty rad” fat biking at Timber Ridge Resort that he and Declan couldn’t resist. Ava and I took a break from athleticism and got in some mother-daughter bonding while exploring Traverse City’s shopping and dining scenes.

I immediately loved downtown. Charming and comfortable, Front Street specifically proved to be excellent browsing ground. In a perfectly walkable way, it’s lined with boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants and functional establishments too (like a bank). We stopped in Glitz & Spurs first, a funky shop with gray-painted, brick interior walls containing accessories like bangles and candles alongside fashion boots and sassy art. I picked up a cute little clutch and a pair of leather gloves for my mom’s upcoming birthday. Ava found a cool vest with a surprisingly sophisticated use of polka dots.

Next, we went into the stylish boutique, Ella’s. With her new job in mind, Ava scored a pair of cute, black Chelsea boots, and I was pleasantly surprised to find some indigo print throw pillows to spruce up our living room.

Pangea’s Pizza seemed to call our names at lunchtime. I ordered the African Blue and Ava got the B.L.T., the pizzas were hot, savory and flavorful, and we had no regrets.

Pillows and candles displayed in Ella's in Traverse City, Michigan
Bangles and bracelets galore at Glitz & Spurs in Traverse City, Michigan
Stylish cowboy boots and booties at Glitz & Spurs in Traverse City, Michigan
Shop the walkable Front Street in Traverse City, Michigan

Perfect timing, perfect place

After more retail therapy, we reconvened with Josh and Declan back at the condo, and filled each other in on our adventures showing off photos and treasures. Ava pulled out our retail finds from their respective bags, and Declan swiped through an album of him and Josh on what looked like a regular bicycle, treading through a fairy-tale like forest full of branches drooping with fresh snow. Declan told us about the 37 miles of groomed trails and the fat tires gliding and crunching over the snow. It sounded like quite the rewarding workout.

I was excited to look back on photos of my own, smiling at images of the past few days and coming to a conclusion that would have been reached much sooner if I wasn’t too busy having fun to notice. Maybe the kids growing up and having busier summer schedules was a good thing. Winter, at least winter in Traverse City, guaranteed ultimate adventure, the snow accentuating it all. Plus, who knew? Maybe this place could help us perfect the art of the flawless family photo. If nothing else, it would add to our growing collection of action shots.

Winterize your family vacation in Traverse City.