TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — For many travelers, Traverse City is synonymous with summertime — and to those folks we say, You’re missing out. The Cherry Capitol is a four-season paradise in every sense, and it especially shines in wintertime, when all that snow adds an extra twinkle to the landscape, and cold-weather sports reign supreme.
We wanted to share a few reasons why this region is so special this time of year, so we checked in with Jillian Manning, media manager at Traverse City Tourism, for some tips on what to do in the area. We think there’s something for everyone on this list — whether you’re hankering to hit the slopes, dine in an igloo, shop a quaint port town, or perhaps just lose yourself in the dreamy winter woods.
Read on for a dozen great suggestions of how to make the most of a winter Traverse City trip. For more resources and ideas, check out traversecity.com.
1. Tubing: Like sledding on steroids, snow tubing is a super-fun all-ages winter activity that the whole family can enjoy. “It’s a cheaper option [than skiing] and good even for little kids,” Manning said. Shanty Creek in Bellaire offers a multi-lane alpine tubing hill on weekends and holidays (more info here); locally, there are also tubing runs at Timberlee Hills and Mt. Holiday.
2. Local dining, and wine, beer and spirits tours: This winter is a great time to get a taste of the area’s thriving restaurant and craft-beverage scenes while also appreciating the collective tenacity of local businesses, who’ve shown inventiveness and spirit in this time of indoor dining restrictions.
“They’ve been so creative in the face of all of this,” Manning said. “Obviously we’re hoping that things will be open really soon, but in the meantime they’ve put together some really cool outdoor spaces.”
Some of the options include igloos, yurts, canvas tents, heated patios and fishing shanties — and if those don’t suit your style, carry-out and pickup orders are often available, even at wineries, distilleries and breweries. Find a full local food and drink guide here.
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3. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: The crown jewel of Michigan’s parklands may shine the brightest in summer, but boy does it sparkle when the snow flies. Best of all, Sleeping Bear visitor counts are often at their lowest in wintertime, which means you might get popular spots all to yourself.
Seasonal activities at the park include hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and sledding the Dune Climb. Just be sure to to catch a winter sunset while you’re here; with the snow, ice and sand, they’re particularly spectacular this time of year. Park info here
Related: Sleeping Bear Dunes vacation: 50 unforgettable things to see and do
4. Skiing and snowboarding: Whether you’re a downhill newbie or a longtime ski bum, the Traverse City area has you covered, with two big, beautiful ski resorts — Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville and Shanty Creek in Bellaire — as well as two smaller, local hills: the city-owned Hickory Hills and the non-profit owned Mt. Holiday.
The resorts are great if you’re looking for a ski-centered trip with all the amenities and the option of on-site lodging; the latter might be more your style if you’re new to the sport, want to keep your activities in town, or just want to hit up the slopes for a day. More info here
5. Fat-tire biking: This fast-growing sport is alive and well in the T.C. area. And if you don’t have your own ride, you can find several places to rent so you can see what all the hype is about. Crystal Mountain has 12 miles of trails and its own rental program; Shanty Creek’s trails and the 31-mile looping Glacial Hills Pathway are great spots to explore on bikes rented from Paddles & Peddles in downtown Bellaire. In Traverse City, the Leelanau Trail is a beautiful ride; find outfitters and more trail suggestions here.
6. Cross-country skiing: There’s really nothing like gliding through the wintry woods on a pair of Nordic skis. Fans and first-timers alike will find plenty of great trails throughout the region: Some good bets include the Leelanau Trail, which stretches from Traverse City to Suttons Bay; Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive (the latter for advanced skiers) at Sleeping Bear Dunes; and the storied Vasa Pathway, which has groomed classic tracks and a lane for skate skiing.
More suggestions for regional spots to XC ski and where to rent equipment can be found at traversecity.com and at vasaskiclub.org.
7. Snowshoeing: Snowshoeing is a great way to explore the beautiful outdoors this time of year, with a little extra traction but zero learning curve — simply strap in and start walking. (Just be sure not to tromp through any cross-country ski tracks.) There are tons of great places to stomp around in the Traverse City snow, including the trail system at the Grand Traverse Commons, right in town.
Other good spots include Sand Lakes Quiet Area in Williamsburg, Mission Point Lighthouse Park, and Hickory Meadows. Rentals are available at some businesses in town. More info on trails and equipment rentals here.
8. Winter hiking: No equipment? No worries. As long as a winter trail isn’t too far off the beaten path, most don’t require anything more technical than a good pair of hiking boots (and perhaps some crampons if it’s icy). A few gems to check out: Any of Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy’s or Leelanau Conservancy’s stunning public preserves; the beautiful Grass River Natural Area in Bellaire; and the expansive trail system at Mission Point Lighthouse.
9. Lighthouses: Winter is an unexpectedly lovely season for checking out the area’s historic lighthouses. While touring inside these historic structures is usually limited to summertime, Manning suggests reading up on the lighthouse’s history beforehand, and then walking the grounds for some great photo ops.
In the Traverse City region, you can find four of these beauties: the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Northport, Mission Point Lighthouse at the tip of Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula, and in Frankfort, Point Betsie Lighthouse and the Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse (note that the pier for the latter is considered too dangerous for walking in the wintertime).
10. Ice fishing: With hundreds of inland lakes scattered across the region, plus pristine rivers like the Betsie and the Boardman, this area is a haven for wintertime fishing. Find outfitters, guide services and destination information online here.
11. Snowmobiling: Whether you’re just looking for a day trip or a multi-day adventure, Northwest Lower Michigan is a snowmobile dreamland, with seemingly endless trails to explore. Close to T.C., the Boardman Valley Trail is an 80-mile network of scenic routes through the wooded hills that surround the scenic Boardman River. Find more regional routes as well as rental information online here.
RELATED: Where to rent snowmobiles, find trails in Michigan
12. Shopping: If you’re in the market for perusing one-of-a-kind locally owned businesses, this area has much to offer: Including all the shops lining pretty, walkable downtown Traverse City, the boutiques and indoor market at the historic Village at Grand Traverse Commons’ Mercato on the city’s west side, and a number of sweet port towns and villages in the surrounding area. Find business listings and shopping locations online here.
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