9 Gorgeous Northern Michigan Winter Vacation Ideas

We’ve paired the splendor of winter with nearby places to stay and local restaurants to create the perfect Northern Michigan winter vacation.


Seven Bridges Natural Area, Rapid River

Photographer: Todd Zawistowski
Dressed in snow, every small river in Northern Michigan transforms to a Japanese garden of contemplation. Local photographer Todd Zawistowski shot this peaceful image of the Rapid River at Seven Bridges natural area, near his home in Kalkaska. Here, the Rapid splits and recombines, a braided tumble through the forest. Bridges over the gurgling threads add to the magic of a Zen-filled snowshoe or XC ski outing.

Stay: Keep the weekend intimate at the immaculately restored Bellaire B&B, 20 minutes north in the village of Bellaire. $100/night and up.

Eat: Right in downtown Bellaire find breakfast and strong Joe at Moka’s; inventive, quality sandwiches, soups and craft beer at Short’s Brewing Co.; and contemporary bistro fare at Siren Hall in nearby Elk Rapids (here’s a look at the incredible food being cooked up at Siren Hall).

Extras: Downhill ski at Shanty Creek Resorts, right outside of town.

pictured rocks, michigan

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising

Photographer: Aaron Peterson
When the north wind blows, Lake Superior pounds the coast at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Munising. Photographer Aaron Peterson captured proof of the liquid violence as a wave crashed and blew high into the forest. Peterson’s winter camping posse had planned to ski the popular shoreside hiking trail that links Chapel Beach with Mosquito beach. “But a big north wind and lake effect snowstorm came up,” he says. “I persuaded them to take the inland route rather than follow the lake. They thanked me once we arrived at Mosquito and looked down the coast to see waves breaking against the 50-foot cliffs and sending spray into the forest, coating everything with ice. We lingered in the howling wind watching the waves crash and feeling rather insignificant.”

Stay: Be like Peterson and pitch a tent in the snowy woods (national park permit required, nps.gov/piro). Not into it? Check out the AmericInn, near the park—pool and sauna, fireplace suites. Start at $109/night. More hotel options at munising.org.

Eat: Falling Rock Cafe for breakfast sandwiches; Muldoons Pasties to fuel a day outdoors; 387 Restaurant & Beer Parlor for dinner.

Extras: Michigan IceFest ice climbing festival with internationally renowned instructors. Also, Munising is ground zero snowmobile nation—hundreds of miles of trails to ride.

ice coated boat in great lakes

Ice-Coated Boat, Traverse City

Photographer: Ken Scott
Fossilized in ice, this boat perched at the Maritime Academy docks in Traverse City bears witness to the power of water, wind and cold, as so well captured by photographer Ken Scott.

Stay: Park Place Hotel, a renovated historic hotel right downtown. Walk to downtown restaurants, State Theatre for movies, the bay.

Eat: Several good options. Bistro Fou Fou for elevated French bistro menu; likewise, Patisserie Amie for outstanding French bistro fare, 7 Monks Taproom for upscale bar food and extensive brew selection.

Extras: Grand Traverse Commons, a former state mental hospital, now a vivacious hub of smart retail, restaurants and condos.

dunes in winter mark lindsay

Sleeping Bear Point, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Photographer: Mark Lindsay
Wind-sculpted snow drifts atop wind-deposited sand dunes are what caught photographer Mark Lindsay’s eye while on a snowshoe exploration of Sleeping Bear Point, just west of Glen Haven in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “Recent winds had added untouched layers and texture. I spent the day wandering through the drifted dunes and the incredible beauty that surrounded,” he says.

Stay: Warm up at The Homestead Resort, just a few miles east across Sleeping Bear Bay. Family-focused ski hill, gorgeous snowy beach, restaurants and more. $89/night and up.

Eat: Authentic Italian fare at Nonna’s, at The Homestead. Casual fare at Art’s Tavern or Boone Docks in nearby Glen Arbor.

Extras: Several trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing lace the national lakeshore. Grand overlooks at Pyramid Point, Empire Bluff and Alligator Hill. Maps at nps.gov/slbe.

Shalda Creek Michigan

Shalda Creek, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Photographer: Ron Strong
Though petite, Shalda Creek runs strong, steady and clear before emptying into the southern arc of Good Harbor Bay, in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (nps.gov/slbe). Ron Strong started there at the mouth one morning when smoldering clouds muted the light, and fresh, wet snow stuck to every twig and pine needle. Donning waders, he  headed upstream. “Hoping to capture the most beautiful imagery nature presents,” he says, “I found myself with a soggy right foot—I patched the wrong hole in my waders!”

Stay: Whaleback Inn, Leland, stays open year-round. A classic kept solid and neat. Rooms and cottages, from $129/night. Fifteen minutes southward to Shalda Creek, a minute north to Leland village.

Eat: Breakfast at Leland’s Trish’s Dishes or dinner at the Bluebird—both Leelanau stalwarts. Dick’s Pour House in Lake Leelanau is reliably open for bar food. Fine dining in nearby Suttons Bay at Martha’s Leelanau Table or North Country Grill & Pub.

Extras: Get a map of Leelanau and drive the farm roads of the interior north of M-204. Rolling terrain, orderly orchards, big water vistas, all radiant in winter white.

empire bluffs sleeping bear dunes

Empire Bluff, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Photographer: Angela Brown
Rising 40 stories above Lake Michigan, Empire Bluff rewards hikers with one of the most potent vistas in all the Great Lakes. Stand and look north to the great Sleeping Bear Dune itself, South Bar Lake and North and South Manitou Islands rising to the northwest. Photographer Angela Brown hurried to the face on a mild midwinter day after a fresh snow. “The Empire Bluff hike is a great way to get outside and be active without it being too strenuous,” she says (the parking lot is high atop the ridge that forms Empire Bluff, saving you much of the climb). She saw people like herself, out to enjoy the fresh and sunny winter day in an unforgettable place.

Stay: Maple Lane Resort, near Little Glen Lake. 25 lodging options, from single rooms to one-bedroom apartment, $59/night and up; in the middle of the national lakeshore. Empire Lakeshore Inn, walk down the street to downtown Empire shops and restaurants, $99/night and up.

Eat: In Empire, Joe’s Friendly Tavern is a classic for breakfast, lunch or dinner. In nearby Glen Arbor, Bear Paw Pizza for a tasty pie; Riverfront Pizza & Deli for sandwiches and soups. Western Avenue Grill for nice dinner.

Extras: Bundle up against the wind and walk the Lake Michigan shore in winter—raw and beautiful experience.

mackinac bridge and ice

Mackinac Straits, Mackinaw City

Photographers: Todd & Brad Reed
Throughout 2012, Ludington-based, father-son photographer team Todd and Brad Reed dedicated Tuesdays to shooting images of Michigan, and on one winter Tuesday, they drove north to the Mackinac Straits. “As we drove down a steep hill and got our first look at the Straits, we knew we had hit the jackpot. In front of us were miles and miles of massive piles of neon blue ice,” Brad says.

Stay: Holiday Inn Express within walking distance of downtown, $112/night and up.

Eat: Audie’s is a family classic, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Extensive dinner menu, which offers eight different preparations of whitefish (broiled, planked, stuffed, encrusted, almondine, Charlevoix, Cajun, New Orleans).

Extras: Wilderness State Park, just west of Mackinaw City, delivers 26 miles of shoreline, 22 miles of trails and 10,512 acres to roam.

charlevoix lightCharlevoix Light, Charlevoix

Photographers: Todd & Brad Reed
Todd Reed visualized how Charlevoix’s lighthouse might look three hours and 150 miles before he arrived there. “The fresh coat of ice on the Charlevoix pier from yesterday’s north wind and waves looks even better than I envisioned. I am loving being right here, right now in Northern Michigan,” he wrote at the time.

Stay: Weathervane Terrace Inn, downtown and right by the shore.

Eat: Esperance for excellent happy-hour wine tastings Thursdays thru Saturdays in winter, gourmet to go. Drawbridge Bistro for inventive dishes, quality ingredients, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Scovie’s Gourmet is a local favorite for lunch.

Extra: Hop the plane to Beaver Island and grab a beer at the Shamrock Bar for a glimpse of island life in winter.

North Breakwater Light, Ludington

Photographers: Todd & Brad Reed
“With temperatures in single digits the last few days, it didn’t take long for Ludington North Breakwater Light to become a giant ice sculpture. The mix of light, wind and blowing snow turned the frigid waters of Lake Michigan a gorgeous green color this morning,” Brad Reed wrote back on December 13, 2010, when he focused his lens on this Lake Michigan icon.

Stay: Ludington’s Cartier Mansion B&B, impeccable 1905 mansion with outstanding breakfasts.

Eat: Ludington’s Blu Moon Bistro, elevated bistro, top-flight ingredients, artful ambiance. PM Steamers, fine dining, view of marina and car ferry. Jamesport Brewing Company for craft beers and top notch salads, wraps and burgers.

Extras: Snowshoe or ski the 18 miles of trails in Ludington State Park.

Check out more Northern Michigan winter vacation ideas in the February 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy today!

Northern Michigan Winter Vacation Ideas

Article Comments

  • Tim Hygh

    These photos really capture the underrated beauty of Michigan in the winter. There’s nothing better than a brisk morning outside exploring Michigan’s snow-covered sights, especially that surreal ice at the Mackinac Straights.