Michigan winters separate outdoor enthusiasts from the full-on fans. A true Michigander knows that the million shades of white following a fresh snowfall or the sparkling ice in a tree after a freezing rain can be just as beautiful as the lush greens and iridescent blues of summer, or the reds, yellows and oranges exploding off the branches every fall.
So if the lack of sunlight, the multiple inches of “white stuff” and the howling wind start to get you down, snap out of it by taking part in one of these distinctively Michigan outdoor winter activities. Don’t forget that many of these fun things to do are made possible by Michigan’s forests, which surround and support all the snowshoeing, sledding and snowmobiling you can handle.
Take a walk
You don’t need to travel far to enjoy a pastoral Michigan forest – in fact, you don’t even need to leave the city of Detroit. The Belle Isle Nature Center serves double duty as both a warm-up station after a short winter hike and an educational opportunity, loaded with information about the foxes, beavers, fallow deer and great horned owls that live there. A trail behind the center winds through 200 acres of natural urban wilderness and gives visitors a chance to walk among the rare Shumard oak and pumpkin ash trees, as well as the island’s swamp white oak, silver maple and dogwood trees.
If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, Kensington Metropark in Milford is home to winter hiking trails that range from “easy” to “most difficult.” Winter cyclists also make the most of the trails. And if your wee ones want to take a break from the woods, you can try out the park’s sledding hill, which accommodates sledders and tobogganists of all ages.
For a more extreme version of “walking outside,” you can also try your hand (ahem, foot) at snowshoeing, an often-overlooked winter opportunity for getting your steps in. There are hundreds of miles of trails to choose from among Michigan’s state forests, parks and recreation areas. Snowshoeing gives you a view of Michigan forests that most people don’t get a chance to see, including getting up close and personal with some of the state’s oldest trees. You also can check out snowshoe-building workshops offered at both Tahquamenon Falls State Park in the aptly named city of Paradise, and Sleepy Hollow State Park in Laingsburg.
Empire Bluff Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is ideal for snowshoeing, especially for first-timers. At 1.5 miles, it’s relatively short, but the trail pays off with an astounding view of Lake Michigan from 400 feet above – and a lovely opportunity to commune with an exquisite stretch of hardwood forest. Or if you’ve got a whole day to fill, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula city of Ontonagon challenges snowshoers with 60,000 acres of explorable wilderness. Set alongside the largest old growth, hardwood forest in the Great Lakes region, the informative visitors’ center at the park features exhibits and programs that tell the story of Michigan's rugged Upper Peninsula. A trip to Porcupine Mountains also gives you first-person perspective on the DNR’s forestry work, which actively manages the park to guarantee that these trails will be there for current and future generations.
But there are more to Michigan’s forests than trees. If you think waterfalls are gorgeous in the summertime, just wait until you get a look at these beauties in their striking winter mode. Bond Falls, also in Ontonagon, is considered one of the state’s gem waterfalls. These interlacing cascades wind their way down 50 feet of terraced sandstone ledges, creating a mist that coats nearby trees, bushes and rocks with a shimmering sheen of ice. And with 600 feet of boardwalk at the bottom, you have multiple opportunities for selfies in a natural setting that will leave all your Facebook friends in awe. Bond Falls is also situated near other destination spots, including Agate Falls Park and Lake Gogebic State Park.
If you’re trying to fit multiple miles of Michigan forest into a single weekend, however, you’ll need to be traveling a little faster. The Thumb region has five county and state parks with groomed cross-country ski trails, including the Port Crescent State Park near Port Austin at the tip of the Thumb and Lighthouse County Park on the eastern coast by Port Hope. You’ll get a chance to revel in the beauty of Michigan winter forest land while doing an outstanding cardio workout at the same time.
If speed’s your thing, squeeze the throttle along more than a dozen circuits in the southwest Lower Peninsula’s snowmobile trails, which trace a series of winding routes from Big Rapids in the north to Niles in the south. You’ll get a rapid-eye view of the wilderness in the area, which is home to some of the state’s most diverse landscapes. You won’t get to spend much time among the pines, but you’ll get to see a lot of them.
Dog days of winter
You probably think of the Iditarod in Alaska if someone brings up sled dog racing, but Michigan is home to its own version, the UP200, which is one of the foremost sled dog races in North America. Mushers from across the U.S. and Canada trek to Marquette every February to compete in this race, which is known for its beautiful and challenging terrain. The 2018 race, running from Feb. 15-19, cuts through 230 miles of well-maintained Upper Peninsula backcountry, following a trail from Marquette through the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to Grand Marais and back again. Viewers can see the dogs in action at any of 10 checkpoints along the way, including getting a breathtaking view of Lake Superior from Hiawatha National Forest near Munising.
Take it easy
Not every activity has to get your pulse pounding. Thunder Bay Resort near Alpena in northeast Michigan offers horse‑drawn sleigh rides that wind through the area’s woodlands before arriving back at the resort for a gourmet dinner and wine tasting. And Thunder Bay is a short hop from Pigeon River Country State Forest, which serves as the center point of Michigan’s only wild elk herd. Three rivers flow through the park, including the Pigeon River, a designated natural river that experienced kayakers have been known to navigate all winter-long.
If the only thing that has piqued your interest so far is the phrase “wine tasting,” is there ever a winter-themed event for you. The Winter Warm-Up on Jan. 13, 2018 in Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula is designed for amateur wine connoisseurs who can take a short stroll through the pristine woods of the mini-peninsula after getting a warm glow from sampling some of the region’s best vino.
As you can see, there are just as many fun things to do outdoors in the cold months as in the warm ones, and you don’t even have to worry about mosquitoes. As long as you’re properly bundled up, that is – it’s called the Mitten State for more than one reason.
To learn more about Michigan’s forests and the science, art and practice of the DNR’s forestry work, make sure to visit michigan.gov/forestsforalifetime.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.