Gaylord's winter wonderland serves up elk watching, fun in the snow

Susan R. Pollack
Special to The Detroit News

Gaylord – Ed Tholl is the rare DPW superintendent whose job description includes the care and feeding of a city-owned elk herd. The elk roam a 105-acre fenced-in tract located, coincidentally, behind the Gaylord Elks Lodge a mile from downtown.

“We’ve got the only Elks Club in the United States that has elk in their backyard,” Tholl says of the herd, which currently numbers 38. The largest bull stands about 6 feet tall and weighs upward of 750 pounds, with a huge antler rack that will drop in March or April.

Watching Gaylord’s elk herd from two Elk View Park sites is just one of many tourist attractions in this Alpine-themed city in the heart of northern Michigan’s Snowbelt. The free, family-friendly activity is best at dawn and dusk, Tholl says, though elk may be glimpsed any time during winter months.

Elk-viewing is a free, family-friendly activity in Gaylord in northern Michigan.

“We feed them once a week, usually around 1 p.m., Friday,” he says, describing their diet of hay, corn and nutrient pellets flavored with molasses.

As winter tightens its grip here on the 45th parallel near the tip of the Mitten, the elk herd is but a sideshow to Gaylord’s main seasonal attraction: snow! The city typically gets a heaping helping of lake-effect snow, averaging 141.4 inches of seasonal snowfall. The record was 207.5 inches in 1996-97.

Gaylord (population 3,700) and local resorts such as Treetops and the once-private Otsego Club, which opened to the public two seasons ago, embrace winter. Capitalizing on the white stuff, they offer cold-weather activities galore, including downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, tubing, fat-tire biking, dog-sledding and winter-rafting excursions on the Sturgeon River north of the city.

Winter rafting on the Sturgeon River near Gaylord is a peaceful pastime.

“Snowmobile trails run right through town,” Tholl says, citing Michigan’s extensive trail system. “And we have Aspen Park, right behind the elk pen, where we groom trails for cross-country skiing. It’s free and lighted until 11 p.m. You might see the elk from back there, too.”

The park’s wooded terrain also attracts snowshoe buffs. Rentals are available from White Birch Outfitters downtown.

Guided winter rafting trips are increasingly popular, according to Paul Beachnau, Gaylord’s tourism director. Sturgeon River Paddlesports in Wolverine and Big Bear Adventures in Indian River each offer 90-minute paddling trips in 6-person rafts.

“The Sturgeon is the fastest flowing river in the lower peninsula but it’s very safe, it’s not whitewater,” he says. “The scenery is really beautiful and tranquil, and you’re likely to see a lot of deer and wild turkeys and maybe otters.”

As Gaylord's premier resort, Treetops, overlooking the Pigeon River valley, boasts 186 renovated rooms, snowboarding in multiple terrain parks and downhill skiing on 23 slopes. New this year are “Thrifty Thursdays” with $10 lift tickets and $10 rentals, as well as $10 lessons at 4:30 p.m.

Treetops also offers fat-tire biking and 20 kilometers of groomed cross-country trails, plus an outdoor ice-skating rink, pools and hot tubs. And there’s even a tow rope for return trips up the steep hill on the “extreme tubing” run.

Snowmobiling on miles of groomed trails is a popular activity in and around Gaylord.

      Beyond the usual winter activities, Treetops features dog-sledding on three February weekends with Upper Peninsula-based Team Evergreen, which is practicing for Alaska’s Iditarod. And there are free “meet-and-greet” sessions with the dogs and musher Liza Dietzen.

     The resort’s “Sunrise Groomer” rides aboard a huge, heated Snowcat cab also are popular. Participants learn how to groom ski slopes on weekend mornings through March 8.

       Treetops’ "culinary adventures" include Skiable Feasts, staged on several Saturdays through early March, with trailside refreshment stations for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Treetops' romantic Wilderness Sleigh Ride Dinners sell out fast, with horse-drawn sleighs toting guests to a cabin in the woods for a gourmet meal.

      Nearby, Alpine-themed Otsego Resort, tucked into the Sturgeon River Valley, opened its 30 ski trails to the public after nearly 80 years as a private club. Other activities include 8.5 miles of groomed snowshoe and cross-country trails, a new three-lane tubing run with night-time disco tubing, sledding, snowboarding, bonfire pits and dining options such as the award-winning Duck Blind Grille.

    Beyond the resorts, Gaylord boasts numerous lodging choices, including hotel chains and motels. Pine Cone Vacations offers rentals from rustic cabins and resort condos to new homes, complete with garages for snowmobiles. Some have easy access to cross country or snowmobile trails. For example, "Michaywe Pines has groomed, lighted trails so you can ski right out your door," says Sandra Mattingly, Pine Cone rentals owner.   

        With $2.4 million in recent downtown improvements, Gaylord is celebrating an energized food scene for the apres ski crowd, from the Iron Pig Smokehouse to a small-batch craft brewery named, appropriately, Snowbelt Brewing Company. Save room for chocolate-covered potato chips and ghost pepper caramel corn at Alpine Chocolat Haus -- and chase the cold with gourmet hot cocoa.

If you go

Information: Gaylord is a four-hour drive north from Detroit and less than an hour south of the Mackinac Bridge.; (800) 345-8621

Lodging:, (866) 348-5249;, (800) 752-5510;, (866) 731-1887.

Etc.: Alpenfrost, Feb. 15, features a Frosty 5K race, torchlight snowshoe hike, horse-drawn sleigh rides, bonfire party and appearances by “Frozen” characters, Anna and Elsa. Michigan Snowmobile Festival, Feb. 21-22.